Plenty of people who know me, peripherally or professionally, if asked, would predict that I have a vibrant social life. I know about this public misperception because I’ve been told as much, more than a few times.
I can understand why it exists. I run my own business that’s been blessed with press and success. I have a bountiful Facebook roster (as if that means anything real). I’m known to organize group events at my house with greater frequency than average. That’s not intimate connection; that’s just playing the role of activities director. And perhaps most confusingly, I’m a devoted member of a couple tight-knit groups of friends.
Those who know me well are familiar with, and often frustrated by, a contrasting reality: I’m a sneaky and accomplished isolator, worming out of plans consistently, and rarely initiating one-on-one time with friends. Forget about the phone – the only time I answer it is if I think someone’s having an emergency.
So, on the cusp of winter 2011 (winter is peak season for my isolating), my therapist says, “Kyle, I’m prepared to declare this a crisis”, referring to my isolating proclivities. His bold declaration stemmed from knowing that, despite having a crew of friends I could make plans with, I typically just don’t, especially when I’m depressed, sometimes going days without any real connection.
Despite the part of me that likes to spend time with others, for years I’ve been held hostage by the other, more persuasive part that finds socializing exhausting and would much rather hole up for days on end with my space heater and mellow dog. And the fact that I’m single and live alone means there’s no one sharing the space, no one to keep tabs on my daily activity, which my therapist finds particularly problematic.
Still, I thought his “crisis” designation was melodramatic. “That’s absurd to consider this a crisis. I’ve been like this for years, especially in the winter.” To which he replied: “That’s exactly why I’m deeming it a crisis. It’s the chronicity that troubles me. People can’t sustain isolation year after year after year without consequences.” He paused, then “And lest you forget I am a licensed mental health professional”, to which we both giggled. (My therapist and I are well suited in many ways, but especially our shared sarcastic humor.)
I knew he was right. Depression depends on isolation for its survival. I cringed at the next thing that came out of his mouth. “So here’s what I’d like to do. Let’s get your closest friends together in a room, so once and for all we can expose the isolation, and come up with a plan to fight it.” I thought to myself, “Are you out of your fucking mind? My close friends, many of whom are working mothers, have way more important things to do than get together to talk about my isolating.”
I shared the latter of those two thoughts, indulging him with a little more chitchat about the idea. But I had no intention of convening such a ludicrous gathering, and hoped he’d forget the proposal by our session the following week. He didn’t. My therapist is a dogged fella.
And the truth is that he’s right. Year after year of increasing isolation was starting to take a disturbing toll. With the exception of a few nearest and dearest, most close people in my life didn’t know that my depression was getting deeper and darker, because I’m skilled at making it look more palatable than average, more garden-variety than say, desperate-variety. In fact, much of the time I’m pretty savvy at seeming like I’m not depressed at all. Maintaining this discrepancy between my inner and outer worlds is exhausting, and just one more reason why it’s always been easier to spend inordinate amounts of time alone.
So, with extreme embarrassment, anxiety, and dread I emailed my friends to explain my therapist’s crazy idea. As the warm and enthusiastic replies started to roll in, I got my first inkling that maybe my therapist was on to something.
There were many replies similar to this one: “I absolutely LOVE this idea! I love it! I can’t wait! I am so in, down, there, for it! I am honored that you included me.” Many even claimed to be “excited”. I could almost hear a collective sigh of relief followed by “Amen”. As in, “it’s about time this girl deal with this isolating shit because we are sick to death of her never answering the phone, and evading our attempts to hang out.”
Amazingly, we found a Sunday afternoon that enabled nine of my closest friends to participate in the gathering. My therapist kicked things off but soon my friends took over, and together they joined forces to assure my inner isolator that I could just be me, in whatever mood, or health condition, or state I was in.
They insisted that I could be imperfectly me, but with others, instead of alone. The take-home message was this: I would no longer be allowed to indulge my inner isolator. Everyone was in on it and they weren’t standing for it any longer; there was nowhere left to hide. Their stance wasn’t as bad-ass-sheriff as I’m making it sound, but it was clear and firm, wrapped in a whole lot of tearful, poignant, warm fuzz. (Man, I love these women.)
These were my orders for The New Plan:
- I must aim to make a date to see one friend per day, at least six out of seven days per week. (Hard-core, right? At the outset, this sounded inconceivable to me, and more like eternal damnation than social salvation.)
- The Friends will no longer allow me to wiggle out of plans, even if I don’t feel physically well (which is often the case, and a frequent reason I cite for canceling plans). The intent of this come-hell-or-high-water approach to keeping plans begins to convince my health that it can’t hold me captive any more. This strategy also lets me practice being in the company of friends even when I’m not “on” or able to be the consummate friend that I strive to be, which is one of my perfectionistic expectations.
- An online calendar of my “dates” will be available so my friends can spy on me and make sure I’m not squirming out of The New Plan.
It’s been nearly a month since the Great Isolation Intervention of 2011 and the results are pretty shocking. I’ve seen friends at least once per day, sometimes different friends two or three times per day (remember, I’m on sabbatical), twenty-four out of the last thirty days. It’s like social boot camp. And despite my inner isolator’s constant whining and protesting, I’ve embraced The New Plan with unrelenting determination.
No one said I had to like it, I just have to do it. And amazingly, on those twenty four days that I spent time with friends, it felt like my depression was beginning to starve. It craves isolation for sustenance. Instead, it’s being fed love, movies, laughter, food, sunlight, bad tv, and good old fashioned contact.
I’m even starting to answer the fucking telephone.