Withdrawing from those around me and isolating myself from the world is one of the symptoms of my mental illnesses. When I was suffering from anorexia close to six years ago now, I withdrew into myself to the point where my partner hadn’t noticed how bad things had become and my Mum wasn’t aware until I phoned her to tell her I had been signed off of work. This year, during my lapse with anorexia and onset of depression, I have isolated myself from my colleagues at work and family once more. In this post, I want to address what leads me to isolate myself in the way that I do, how this affects my loved ones and how they can best support me during periods of withdrawal.
Why I Withdraw
Cutting off friends and family is a very natural instinct for me. Having taken the time to reflect on why I choose to withdraw myself I have learnt that there are quite a number of reasons for me behaving in this way:
When I am entering a dark period and can feel my mental health declining, I withdraw from those around me so they are unable to prevent me from doing what I feel I have to do to suppress the negative voices in my head, such as skipping meals and engaging in self-harm. When I am really struggling with anorexic thoughts I have this tunnel vision where I set myself a (highly unrealistic and dangerous) goal or target and I will do whatever it takes to get there. During these times I do not want anyone to stand in my way; I know what I want and this desire drives everything I do.
As my illnesses become progressively dominant I withdraw further as I become irritable and being around others makes me anxious and angry. My body image and feelings of self-worth also hit an all-time low, and I cannot bear for others to see me in such a state. There is also the need for me to hide the evidence of self-harm so as not to cause any (further) upset or worry.
When I reach out for help and enter into recovery there are a host of new reasons for my withdrawal, but the main one is that I do not want to be a burden on anyone. Despite being told that I am no such thing, my brain does not compute this and I continue to feel a burden all the same. There is also the sense of failure I feel if I have a bad patch, or take a couple of steps backwards, and I cannot continuously ask for the reassurance I require due to embarrassment. I also do not want others worrying about me either; knowing that my family are struggling to comprehend how depressed I can feel at times, and why I feel this way, makes me want to shield them from the pain I feel, and it can be exhausting having to fake being okay and plaster on a smile when inside I am falling apart.
Furthermore, as my body starts to change due to restoration of weight I feel the need to isolate myself because I cannot bear to think about the judgments that others will make about my ‘new’ appearance, an appearance which I myself completely detest. Having always been seen as slim and then toned, muscular and athletic, to be seen as anything different and failing to meet society’s expectations of me leaves me feeling disgusting, and this can be too much to tolerate. There is also the fear that I will be misunderstood, and that those around me will not be able to empathise or know how to support me, and I do not want others to feel bad for not understanding me when I quite often do not understand things myself.
Finally, having struggled with low mood and intrusive thoughts for a number of months now, it can be extremely challenging to reach out to others and vocalise how difficult things still are at times, because I feel like I should have made progress by now, and that everyone will expect me to be feeling better.
I know that withdrawing from my nearest and dearest only hurts those who love me the most, but in my mind I am protecting them, sheltering them from all of the unnecessary details. I know I have hurt my mum and my brother by not opening up to them when things started to get difficult. I know that speaking with colleagues at work instead of them has made them wonder what they have done wrong for me not to confide in them. It also leaves them in the dark about what I am experiencing, and I imagine that this makes it very difficult for them to know how to support me, what to say, how to act. Yet, despite knowing the negative impact it has on them, my head still tells me that isolating myself is the best way, as this is how I can protect them and minimise their worry.
Supporting A Loved One Experiencing Withdrawal
Despite instinctively withholding my thoughts and feelings from my family and friends, there are still ways in which they are able to support me during periods of isolation.
My brother and I are very close and were the best of friends when growing up, yet I find it difficult to make plans to be sociable even with him because of my social anxiety and my depression. My low mood and the physical expressions of my anxiety make it difficult to arrange things and to follow through with them, but my brother has never once aired any disappointment or resentment. He has always been so kind and understanding and has made it very clear that he is there for me whenever I feel able to meet. This removes a lot of the pressure I feel about making plans and enables me to be more in control of the logistics of any plans that are made which subsequently eases my anxiety. Knowing that he is there for me whenever I need him and that his sentiments are heartfelt and genuine, makes the world of difference.
It also really helps when people honour my need for some time alone, without worrying about potential negative consequences. Knowing that I am able to say that I just need to be alone, so I can spend some time in my safe space, releasing any pent up emotions by having a good, long cry, helps to put me at ease a little. Again, knowing that people are then there for me when I am ready to venture out of my safe space is very comforting, and it enables me to justify to myself putting my needs first and doing what I have to do.
In the workplace, having one person in charge of ‘looking after me’ who acts as a go-between, between myself and my colleagues has really helped. When I shared my story with my close colleagues, I could tell that they all wanted to support me however they could and ask how I was managing and how they could help, but I found it difficult being fussed over as I felt pitied, incompetent and a let-down. It worked out that instead of confronting me about any behaviours they noticed or concerns they had, they instead liaised with the ‘go-between’ and then we would discuss matters during our regular meetings. This worked so much better for me as I didn’t feel that my colleagues were ‘watching over me’ quite as much, or treading on eggshells as a result of not knowing what to say to me or how to broach particular subjects with me, and I was able to discuss things with someone who I felt more comfortable speaking with. One of the reasons I felt more comfortable opening up to this person is because she would ask me specific, smaller questions that were less open-ended and easier to answer. It wasn’t just a “how are you?” or “how’s therapy going?”; instead, she might ask, “have you managed to get through all of your lessons today?” or “are you all prepared for tonight’s parents’ evening?” or “what are you discussing in therapy at the moment, and are you finding the sessions helpful?”. Because I find it hard to open up and know how to express how I feel this sort of questioning allows me to share things much more easily.
As a sufferer, I have absolutely no comprehension of what it must feel like to support a child or a partner or a close friend who is battling with mental ill-health. I imagine it is heart-breaking to watch them deteriorate, and that you may feel helpless over the situation and unable to help. But for those of you reading this who are in the position of supporting a sufferer, please take away from this that there are ways which you can help. It may not seem like you are not doing much, and you may want to do more, take greater control and be in charge of the recovery process, but the little things I have mentioned here will mean the world to your loved one I am sure. You must also try not to take their isolation and withdrawal personally because I doubt very much that you have done anything to upset your loved one, and I am confident that your loved one is not intentionally trying to hurt or upset you with their actions.
When You Are Withdrawn
For those of you reading this who are suffering, try and let your loved ones know that you know they are there for you. Try and let them know how they can help you, even when you want to be alone, as I know that they will appreciate having some ways and meaning of feeling that they are helping you, in whatever guise this may take. Perhaps you could write a letter if a conversation is too much, or drop them an email or a text message. Knowing that people are there for me, waiting in the background to push me forwards into the real world again means so much, and, despite needing to be alone sometimes, I would hate to feel that I was completely and utterly alone.
Written by Una Clifford
DON’T SUFFER IN SILENCE
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