If you have an extremely active mind and low boredom tolerance, a psychiatric hospital is a terrible place to be. During one dreadful week in October 2013, I kept myself sane in such a place by inventing stacks of paperwork to do. Mostly in crayon, or if I stumbled on a lucky find, a blunt golf pencil.
I took all the Official Worksheets provided by the hospital and dutifully filled them out. When I ran out of those, I made my own. I doodled. I wrote down prayers I’d memorized long ago. I made charts and graphs. And of course I did what I do whenever I get upset and overwhelmed: I made lists. Lists of what was bothering me. Lists of what I needed to do to fix it. Only instead of “clutter in bedroom closet” and “ask doctor about diaper rash” this time the lists held entries like, “paranoia in group social situations” and “leave house at least once per month.”
It’s this paper, though, that gets me the most. This is the one I look at now and then to remind myself how far I’ve come.
Now, less than three* years later, I could rattle off a dozen names for that list, easily. People I know are there for me, a veritable mini-Rolodex I can sort through when I need just a few minutes to vent or a bit of advice.
If suicidal people have one thing in common, it could very well be a sense that there is no one left to turn to. None of us choose to end our lives as a first resort. I would posit that the number one thing we can do to improve our mental health, all of us, is to beef up our support systems.
…She says blithely, as though the Mishell Baker of September 2013 had never had the thought, “Gee, I wish I had more friends.”
Quite the contrary. That Mishell spent a lot of time telling anyone who’d listen (a rapidly diminishing number) how lonely she was, how misunderstood, how adrift on a sea of broken dreams. She was really fun to hang around with; I can’t imagine where all her friends went.
I jest (cruelly), but it’s a vicious cycle. The lonelier you get, the more depressed you get, and the more depressed you get, the more toxic you become to other people’s mental health. Soon you forget how human interactions are supposed to work. You watch people forming and maintaining friendships around you and marvel at it as though it were something alien and incomprehensible. What are they doing? Why does this work for everyone but me?
Sitting there in that hospital with my golf pencil and paper, I realized that I was going to have to relearn from square one. It became clear to me that as an extrovert, my lack of meaningful social connection–my feeling of living in a transparent cube impenetrable by myself or others–was the single most toxic factor in my mental health, and that I had to prioritize fixing it above anything else in my life. Yes, even above being a decent mother to my children (my reasoning: a neglectful mother was probably better than a dead one). I had a terminal illness whose only cure was making some damned friends.
As soon as I got out of that place, I signed up for a regular volunteer gig, just to get me out of the house. Mostly dealing with children, since that I already knew how to do, but there was an adult in charge I got to practice making small talk with twice a week.
I studied social interaction with the sort of detached open-mindedness I would use for any subject of which I was ignorant. I looked for people who were successful at it and tried to pick apart what they did, what made them likable. I pulled out my neglected copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People. Every time someone did something that charmed me, made me want to be around them, I took a mental note. Do more stuff like that.
I re-taught myself how to be funny, by watching things that made me laugh, and analyzing them. I re-taught myself to smile. I asked people questions about themselves, even though I didn’t care about the answers (I was still nursing my own bitterness that no one cared about me). Even as I resented that I was giving more than I was getting back, I kept giving. Mechanically. Relentlessly. Stubbornly.
And somewhere along the way, something shifted. Maybe I got a bit of affection back, and that put me in a better mood, and that made me find that I cared a tiny bit more, the next time, when I asked someone how they were. And they picked up on that, and the warmth coming back became stronger, and started coming from more places.
Here I am, after three years, and I’ve become my mother, in a wonderful way. (My mother is the kind of person who couldn’t wait for a bus without having three new friends before it came.) I heard myself say on my way out of a shop, “You take care of yourself, now,” to the woman who works there. Heard how much I meant it. Heard how much I cared about the baby she was carrying, the one no one could tell existed by looking at her, but the one she’d announced to me the visit before — because I had made it so obvious every time I came in how much she mattered to me as a person, what she was doing that weekend, what her opinions were about things. Maybe I was faking it at first, but I’m not anymore.
There’s a danger in caring about people, of course. If something bad happens to this woman’s baby, that’s a new potential source of pain for me. But the potential risk, especially if you care widely, is nothing compared to the immeasurable richness of an interconnected life. Because when you do feel pain, there are people there for you to lean on, a variety of people, many of whom are feeling strong at the moment and aren’t worn out yet from hearing all the details of your last three problems.
I’m not saying we have to consider all people equal in our lives. It’s fine to have a Best Friend Forever; I have one, too, and she’s often my first call when things go pear-shaped. But if she’s stressed, or if I’ve already bent her ear twice this month, I’ve got other options, now.
Just making more friends didn’t fix everything that led me to that hospital, but it is what gives me the strength I need to make all the other (huge, sweeping, permanent) changes I needed to make in my life. Because when my strength fails, there’s a net underneath me, and when I fall, I no longer have to climb all the weary jagged way back up alone.