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This Common Feeling Is Also My Biggest Trigger for a Depressive Episode

Lately, I’ve been feeling pretty good about myself. Life has been unusually calm and stable. I just graduated from college so I’ve had that as a reason to celebrate. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is lightening a bit (as of the writing of this article), and being fully vaccinated makes me feel safer to be outside. My medications are working and mental illnesses seem to be under control. But despite all of that, I can feel myself beginning to slip into a depressive episode, and I think I know exactly why.

Bipolar disorder is very much an unpredictable mental illness, but after living with it long enough, I’ve figured out how to tell when either a depressive or manic episode is beginning or coming to an end. I don’t always know exactly when, but I can feel the emotions behind those episodes brewing or dissipating. Right now, I’m fairly confident a depressive episode is on the horizon, and I have a bad feeling it’s going to be around a while. I know why it’s coming on, and it’s because of a feeling that I absolutely hate. I don’t think anyone enjoys this feeling, but it’s often unavoidable once it hits: loneliness.

I’m surrounded by coworkers, friends and family who love and support me, and have for a long time. While I am physically separated from many of them, it doesn’t mean our relationships aren’t strong, and I do still have people around me that I am happy to call my friends. But loneliness isn’t the same thing as being alone. Someone can be in a crowded room with friends and family and still feel lonely. Others can be home alone for long periods of time and not feel lonely. It’s a variable thing, unpleasant, and just about everyone has experienced it.

But where does loneliness come from? Why isn’t being with people enough to keep the loneliness away? It logically makes sense, but in real life, it isn’t the case that seeing people cures loneliness. I’ve felt this dark cloud of loneliness for a few days now, and for most of it I was confused where it came from. I couldn’t pinpoint an exact trigger or cause, but I did know that every second of every day was miserable. Waking up in the morning, going to work, coming home, going to bed, and even tiny little tasks like cooking or doing laundry have been darkened by these feelings. The fact that I live alone and have for over a year now doesn’t help, but again, living with someone doesn’t mean loneliness is impossible. For me, I just think it would help right now.

At random times of the day and night, my heart aches and my stomach turns. I want to cry sometimes simply because of this terrible feeling of being all alone in the world. I consciously know I have friends and family, but those relationships feel weaker and less meaningful right now. Life just isn’t the same feeling lonely. And this is why, I think, I am returning to depression. But like most things with depression and bipolar disorder, it is a sick cycle that often feeds into itself.

Depression triggered by loneliness can often just reinforce those same negative thoughts, or causes people to isolate themselves physically from seeing people, and that certainly doesn’t help. The depression triggered by loneliness can sometimes make the loneliness worse, which in turn can make the depression worse, and so on. A vicious cycle of near-indescribable pain and heartache.

When the pain feels particularly strong, I have vivid memories of the friends I’ve lost the past couple of years. I experience the exact same feelings of heartbreak I felt when my past romantic relationships fell apart, and heartbreak a second time is almost as bad as the first. I remember those family members I haven’t seen in a long time, or who I have lost to time and death. Loneliness is one thing. Loneliness with a name and a face is another.

Maybe you know what this feels like, regardless of whether you experience depression or bipolar disorder. Maybe you’ve felt a loneliness that seemed random and unfounded, or perhaps it followed a sad parting of ways with someone you cared about, or after the loss of a dear friend or family member. Whatever the case, loneliness is a painful part of life sometimes. It can drag down your mood, color your world gray for a time, and make each step a little more difficult to take. There’s a chance someone is reading this and feeling lonely right now. For you, know that my heart aches at the thought of the pain you are feeling now.

I wish I had an easy answer for loneliness. I wish I had an easy answer for depression and bipolar disorder. I wish I could snap my fingers and make it all disappear, or ask a magic genie to lift these burdens from my shoulders. But I can’t, and none of us can. So, what are we left to do? We need to tap into two forces within us that will sustain us through this time: hope and grit.

Hope is the trust in ourselves and our circumstances for what we dream and envision for our lives. Hope is the fuel for the fire of our passions, the wind in our sails, the vision of a future that doesn’t look like the past. Now, hope is not just something we keep in the pantry next to the cereal, easily accessible and simple to use. Hope is a muscle that needs training and strength, but each time you find it in yourself, you strengthen it a little more. That’s where grit comes in.

Grit is getting a firm grasp of your foundations, those things that ground you in who you are, so that you can persevere through your circumstances. Grit is telling yourself, “I can, and will, see this through.” Grit is the strength to hold on while you know you head for the sanctuary at the eye of the storm, fully understanding you’ll need to experience the storm itself beforehand.

Loneliness requires these things before we can free ourselves of it. We must hope in ourselves and those around us that, although we feel these things now, there are better days to come. We must have grit to patiently yet strongly await what we hope for. If you are lonely now, I promise that your hope and grit can sustain you. It isn’t as simple as reading those words and poof, your troubles are over. But my hope is that you know you have it in you to see yourself through these times of challenge, just as you have before.

Photo by Nijwam Swargiary on Unsplash