In a letter I wrote to a friend back in 2013, I said something to the tune of, “It worries me how much I crave isolation. I seek it every chance I get.” At the time, I was in college and living in a house of 7 people. I shared, not only a room, but a bed. In the mornings, I got dressed in the dark to accommodate someone else’s sleep schedule. This was living in the city, always accompanied by the sounds of the train or friendly people playing instruments in the street. It’s hard to be alone in a city.
I think about that letter a lot, as if I should have been more “careful what I wished for” because I got it. I got to be alone.
I’m going to be perfectly frank here. I could not write this post when I was at my lowest because, no matter what I tried, nothing worked. I did not believe I could feel better. And the more I wallowed in self pity, I more I self-isolated convincing myself that, “You’re not going to get better, and these people don’t want to hear you complain about it anymore. They want to hear you say that you’re feeling better, but you won’t. So stop reaching out.” This is how I spoke to myself.
I followed my own set guides to “being alone” but misery seemed to follow me like a shadow. I couldn’t concentrate or focus on any one cohesive thought. It was all I could do to pull myself out of hourly panic attacks. I was experiencing resurfacing repressed memories of past traumas and I started, not only fearing these memories, but fearing what else might resurface. I was wracked with fear over things that haven’t been prevalent for years. I felt like a traumatized pup that no one wants to adopt because it’s been “ruined.” Because it snips at reaching hands out of fear, remembering hands that once weren’t so kind. I felt ruined.
Then, two things happened. One (and I’m cautious to put this because it’s important to remember that any kind of medication is never a catch-all solution) I started taking medicine again for anxiety after running into (more than) a few medical insurance road blocks. Two, I realized that my panic rarely followed me to my place of work. And I really dwelled on that for a couple of days because according to, well, everything.. stress from work is one of the leading causes of anxiety in adults in the US. But I found myself staying late and coming in early just to sit a little longer in the embrace of safety. So what was that about? I surely worried that I wasn’t performing well enough, I had an extremely heavy workload, dead lines to meet, what have you. But I felt SAFE there. Safe being a key word for me because my anxiety is largely panic based with no obvious causation.
So why was I calmed in an environment made to be stressful, but panicking at home. Work was the only place I could go where I could truly get out of my own head and just be for a while. The thing about my mental illness is that I am obsessed with it. It occupies every pocket of my brain like smoke, always present in everything I do, which made my life feel like a constant to-do list. Maybe if I eat, I’ll feel less anxious. Maybe if I go for a walk, I’ll be okay. I didn’t do anything without the purpose of “feeling better” or “recovering” behind it. Nothing was for pure joy anymore. “If I play this video game, maybe it’s something I can grind until I’m so good and then.. and then.. and then..” I made myself into a project, instead of a person.
But I’m not a project. Self improvement is important, sure, but it’s equally important to do the things that you do because you genuinely enjoy them. Without concern where it’s going to take you in the future. Without obsessing over how it’ll impact my mental illness.
But changing the way your brain functions isn’t easy, which is why I’ve started looking for ways to get out of my own head. Like any other habit, it takes time to ingrain into my daily routine. For anyone who also struggles with feeling trapped inside their own mind, I’d love to hear what you do to shut yourself up. What do you do that is PURELY for the joy of it? What helps? Reach out to me and let me know.
A list of ways I escape my own head:
- First and most importantly, schedule time to let yourself really feel. This was recommended to me by a therapist a while back, but at the time I felt certain that I couldn’t “schedule my feelings.” But, turns out, you totally can. For me, I used to find time to sit by the water and check in with myself. Often, I cried or screamed or stomped. This was my designated time to FEEL. Once I started this process, it felt less like these emotions were just sitting under the surface. It’s okay to feel. It’s good to feel.
- Do things that appeal to your senses. Touch the things around you. Leaves on low hanging branches, hot pavement, chipped paint. Yes, you’re going to look like a weirdo rubbing against a tree trunk by yourself. Who cares. Be a weirdo. They don’t know.
- Go swimming in cold water. It’s really hard to think about how paranoid you are that everyone actually hates you when you’re swimming in cold water.
- Go on scavenger hunts and make art out of what you find. A collection of fabrics or odd knick-knacks. Take pictures of unique shadows on your skin. Hang it above your bed. Fuck Warhol, you’re a real artist.
- Listen to podcasts. And not just pretentious educational podcasts, listening to meaningless comedy hours or spooky stories. Laugh out loud at the funny parts. Create a happy energy within yourself. I hear this all the time: Other people are attracted to happy people. But don’t do it for the sake of others. Be attracted to your own happy self. (I also use podcasts when I’m having trouble sleeping. If you have someone else’s voice right in your ear, it’s hard to pay attention to your own racing thoughts.)
- Clean your sheets, do your dishes, wash your bathroom sink.
- If you have the funds, keep food around. Buy a cook book and work your way through it. Have you ever noticed how good it feels to really take care of yourself? You started to feel like someone worth being taken care of.
- Try not to rely on social media for validation.
- Try not to associate other people’s popularity on social media as them being more worthy than you. Everyone is fake on the internet. Consider someone you know very well. A best friend or a family member. Then consider how you would feel about them if you only saw them through their Instagram, twitter, what-have-you. Entirely different story, right?
- With the last two in mind, share things online! Our usage of the internet isn’t black and white, it doesn’t have to be either poison or antidote. There are plenty of communities to be found online. Find a site with people who also like your strangest niche interests and explore them.
- Take yourself dancing. (I’m still working on this one. I’ll keep you updated on how it goes. In the mean time, maybe just dance alone in your room like a teenager in a movie. It feels stupidly good.)
- Interact with strangers. When I used to work retail, something I would notice is how other employees would complain about elderly customers coming in and wanting to chat for long lengths of time. But I never understood the annoyance. Social skills are like a muscle that needs to be exercised less it become weak and you forget how to use it. More likely than not, you’ll be surprised who will chat with you. (I’m still working on this step, as well.)
- Create art that is just for you. Draw in your sketchbook without the intent of sharing it with anyone. Write a terrible poem. Paint. Do these things because they are fun, not because you want to “be better” at them.
- Listen to music all the time. Stupid, meaningless pop music, EDM, whatever. Stop wearing about if you’re listening to “”GOOD”” music.