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4 Ways to Rebuild Social Skills Following a Psychotic Break

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I lost my social skills after having a psychotic break in my 20s. What I want to discuss here is the process of opening back up to people. It is a process. Something every person with a mental illness probably understands to one degree or another. It takes time, application and sorta even bravery. This article’s for if you’re down in a hole or would like to read someone else’s journey. My social skills imploded after a psychotic break. This is how I rebuilt them.

You start from nothing, or virtually nothing. The idea of using a phone to call someone is out of the question. Answering a telephone is nearly the same. Avoidance of social gatherings or excessive preoccupation with what’s going on in your head is the norm. Eventually people fade away from these types of behaviors. In fact most of my friends seemed to move on post-break. I was terrified of the person I had become. I felt that person was nothing but a let-down, an embarrassment. So I isolated. So I let friends drift into the past.

When you have a psychotic break it’s important to remember nothing is the same. Not emotionally, cognitively or behaviorally. Yet, in my case, I wasn’t going to just sit down and do nothing about it. I spent years sourcing myself for the answer to my social immobility and only finding dead-end explanations. Sometimes feeling caught in a loop.

I wanted to fix myself.

That is a fundamental experience, I believe, to many of us who live with mental illness. That tendency to search is the normal beginning of recovery, actually.

1.The right job is important for rebuilding social skills.

Before I continue I want to discuss time. Time heals us or at least habitualizes us to things. In the aftermath of a psychotic break, I think time living with symptoms has benefits. Therefore, you might not be ready to work right away post-break. I recall after being fired from my first job my therapist saying plainly, “you’re not ready to work.” In fact you’re probably not in your first few months. A psychotic break is an upheaval.

It’s very important to work and therapists all know it. If you’re ready to work then work. With one important stipulation: you must find the right job. The right job for me was interacting with people all day. For you it could be working from home. It could be getting a job with control of schedule and hence stress management. Think it over and speak with a therapist. Left to my own devices, for a while I would just isolate and drink. Furthermore, work was beneficial because I was forced to interact.

If you’re reading this closely I’m guessing you may be socially inept, just like I was. You might be looking for how to find love, find friends or find peace. I’ll go right into how I learned to socialize again, going from barely speaking to fairly outgoing.

The Start

Where I began to learn social skills for the first time was working at a hotel as a bellman. It was a simple job. Shuttle people and perform ordinary tasks around the hotel. Bring a toothbrush to a guest, stuff like that.

My first technique came naturally. I would stand at my bellman’s desk in down-time and write a positive message to myself. Then I would approach our front desk agents and attempt a short conversation. Inevitably a guest would arrive and break this up. Then I went back to my bellman’s desk and wrote a follow-up positive message. Often time’s they looked like this.

Before approaching #1: “I can do this. I’m a good person and they probably would like to get to know me. I know I’ve failed a lot, but I can do this.”

Back at desk #1:“That wasn’t awful. That’s something I can build on. I was a little ‘crazy’ but I’m just learning. I don’t know. I can do this.

Before approaching #2:“I am learning how to be OK with myself. I’m doing good. It’s a process. If I keep applying myself I’ll be OK again.”

Back at desk #2: I’m learning how to talk with people. I think Elle likes me. I will continue to push myself. I can do this. Slowly but surely. I’m not worthless. I’m not awful. I’m a good guy. I’m in a process. No matter I have to keep going.”

I did this for a whole year.

As lame as it sounds, you might want to think you have an inner child. What I did was simply be nurturing to myself. I used positive messages and steady interaction to improve my social skills. It’s not rocket science. You can isolate around people by not interacting with them. Just in the same way as when you’re alone. Remember that, and also never be ashamed of where you’re starting from. I was, but now I’m not.

Because work forced me to socialize every day; I began to get in the flow of conversation. I began to get in the flow of talking. Of course, I didn’t mention a single word of my mental illness. Back then I couldn’t face up to my own diagnosis, which is schizoaffective disorder. I wouldn’t read about it, let alone share about it. But at least I was talking a lot more. I wasn’t stuck thinking endlessly. I stress again, the right job forced me to interact with people. The combination of regular socializing and structure to my days was a major game-changer.

Eventually, I began to mention things about my mental illness here and there. I met a co-worker who was mentally ill and it helped. I was on my way. Dealing with shame was a squirmy issue for me.

Talking about your mental illness is damn powerful.

2. This can’t be said enough. The truth is you don’t have shit to feel ashamed of.

The route of standard shame is easy to articulate. People with mental illness may believe they do not have a medical condition. They may believe mental illness is a freak syndrome and they’re some insane deviation of nature. In my case I’d decided schizoaffective disorder was unacceptable and not to be talked about. I never thought twice about it. People living with mental illness may let society subvert them into believing this. What I’m saying is, at some point there is this conversion into believing having mental illness is disgraceful.

The thing is it is a medical condition. You never did anything to deserve mental illness. It’s not your fault. You don’t have anything wrong with you. People may say that, but if you haven’t deeply internalized it you still have work to do.

Since it’s not your fault, you really don’t have jack to worry about in opening up. While I say that, it is perhaps far from your reality.

Time and time again

Once again I must digress into the phenomena of time. Certain “non-specific” factors take place all the time in life. Things like: a new friendship, new job, a love interest, getting sober. These non-specific factors can’t be quantified into any meaningful statistic or articulable fact sometimes, but nonetheless things go on in recovery. As time goes by, in my case I learned how to converse again. Over time I returned to being light and jokey.

3. Get with the right people.

Re-learning how to socialize is a process. It’s about learning. It takes time to re-learn social skills. I took another meaningful step in recovery when I befriended people of a certain ilk.

I went from a mute dishwasher at Ruby Tuesday’s and turned into a determined but abysmal socializer. Then finally, a pretty steady socializer. I had some friends but I felt like I wasn’t at ease. I felt like I was on the outside. My biggest challenge yet was going to be finding a new circle of friends from scratch. That’s just not fucking easy, that last one.

When I connected with an old acquaintance I was given a chance to meet people who were alcoholics and mentally ill, like me! Again, I could socialize, but when you sit down at a table with a multitude of different personalities around you there can be difficulties. There were.

One tip: it’s good to be quiet, listen and offer genuine points in the beginning. Don’t be solitary, I’m not saying that. Just be someone who can add something to the situation. Definitely don’t be annoying and don’t subtract. Keep it light, man! Getting a new circle of friends doesn’t happen tonight, next week or this month.

I was still so fucked up that I would be fine at the coffeeshop but fall into cognitive distortions driving home. I ruminated on how inept, awful and lacking I was. How I was unlovable and unlikeable. I’d groan and smack my steering-wheel. Then, by some miracle, I started texting a new friend relaying those insecurities. What I got back was love and understanding. Curious, right? I didn’t know this, but I wasn’t the first or 10,000th to have to meet new people in my city in recovery. Everyone struggles with it.

The more I just added to the circle the easier it became. The thing I want to stress the most is, I began to really loosen up about my mental health problems. Eventually, things I thought I could never tell a soul were good stuff for jokes. Serious secrets were just innocuous secrets. Laughing for one is great for your mental health. It’s also great knowing everyone there has had them and we can support you through them.

A banner promoting The Mighty's new Mental Health UK group on The Mighty mobile app. The banner reads, Sometimes humor can help us navigate the darkness. Join Mental Health Memes to laugh and smile with others who experience the same mental health issues you do. Click to join.

The bond between friends without mental illness and addiction and those with is different for me. Perhaps in just different ways. The biggest take-away for getting a new circle of friends is just add and don’t subtract. Honesty with those people will always serve you. Also, be measured with how far you go into your personal problems. People want to help, but don’t totally overkill and destroy the vibe. Have fun, laugh, because you’re building friendships from the ground up. Expect it won’t be easy.

4. When you move into activism you’re taking a big step.

A lot of my story is about starting things willingly, like my hotel job, and it forcing you to do things like interact with people all day. That’s why you sometimes just gotta crank up the cold water and jump in.

Becoming a public speaker for mental health advocacy organizations was the biggest vehicle through which I became open to the world. I became not only open but finally that damn word, confident. There are plenty of places who need public speakers to tell their story and teach basic mental health. Stuff you can easily learn when you do their training.

The thing is when you tell your story, tons of times a side-effect is you aren’t ashamed anymore. You carry no worries about how others perceive you having a mental illness. You outgrow it.

As a peer advocate and public speaker I was crushing my comfort zone as well. You wouldn’t recognize the person mopping up at Ruby Tuesday’s and the one I am now.

Through activism a beautiful thing happens. It’s the beginning of where you turn the tables. When mental health comes up or you’re personally questioned about it; you’re not afraid to put your mental illness in people’s faces. Of course, only if it’s warranted. It can be really fun and insightful for others to learn something new. People are really under-educated about the realities of severe mental illness. It actually throws them off balance they’d been talking to a ‘Schizo’ for 30 minutes and had absolutely no idea. You don’t have to always be genuine either. I’ve always found it a great chance for sarcasm and joking around a bit while being informative.

This is my story of the process of opening up. It’s about a significant fact of my life that kept me down. I hope it reads as analysis of personal growth for someone with a mental illness.

I want to end with this.

Opening up is often talked about by spiritual gurus or educators. There’s a hell of a lot more I haven’t nearly approached or said, so if you want go search it out.


Getty image by Tetiana Garkusha

Originally published: September 24, 2020
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