The ways we can connect with others have changed a great deal since I was a kid in the 80s. Technology is light years ahead of where it used to be, which makes connecting easier in some ways, but mental illness likes to get in the way and put up roadblocks.
How we communicate
Back in the 80s, the only I could communicate with my friends outside of school was if I phoned them. You never knew when a parent might be listening in on the extension, so it wasn’t the greatest way to connect with others. Or, if you were slightly older than me and living in a rural area, you never knew when the neighbour might be listening in on the party line. Eventually, email came into the picture along with dial-up internet, and then SMS text messaging on those oh-so-cool flip phones.
Now everyone seems glued to their smartphone to the point of ignoring the people they’re with (as in the image above), and there are a gazillion different ways to keep in (or perhaps out of) touch. I’m a bit of a dinosaur and am clueless of a lot of the social media apps, but it’s impossible to escape that we’re living in an age of hyper-connectivity. Yet I think a lot of people underestimate how much control we have over our online consumption, and therefore don’t take steps to make sure it’s working for rather than against them.
I spend the majority of each day on my laptop. Most of my communication with other people happens in blog comments. I never used emojis before I started blogging, but now I use them regularly because it’s easier than coming up with words. I like comment conversations because they’re focused – again, easier.
I have an iPhone, but don’t use it much, and I’ve got it set so that it doesn’t notify me of anything other than incoming calls or text messages. At some point, I stopped answering the phone unless it was someone I knew, and that has persisted. With my speech being slow from psychoomotor effects of depression, I really dislike talking on the phone (not that I ever did like it). The only person I talk to sometimes is my one in-person friend; otherwise, we text. It seems like using phones as actual phones seems to be going the way of the dodo bird, which I’m fine with. It annoys me when businesses insist on phone rather than using email.
Does that hyper-connectivity actually make it any easier to genuinely connect with others? Sometimes yes, but I would guess a lot of the time no. I would also hazard a guess that within the online mental health community, by the very nature of what we’re talking about, we’re connecting on a deeper level than some other online communities. I feel very connected to people on WordPress, and I really value that, but at the same time, there’s a difference between an online connection and an in-person connection (or at least there is for me).
I think if I didn’t have the one or two people I connect with in “real life” (i.e. in person), I would feel very alone in spite of having a tight online support network. Perhaps that’s because it’s only since I started blogging last year that I began really connecting with others in meaningful ways online. Before that my contacts with people were primarily in person, with a bit of phone, text, and email tossed in. It felt strange at first learning how to navigate an online community, but I feel nice and settled in now.
Illness and personality factors
Connecting with others can be a challenge with many types of mental illness. Anxiety disorders can leave people housebound. Depression can turn people like me into isolative hermits, and it’s certainly made it hard for me to be around people. Trauma can make people hyper-vigilant and make it harder to trust others. Both the obsessions and compulsions of OCD can make it hard to function socially. People with borderline personality disorder can get trapped in a cycle of splitting between idealization and devaluation that can threaten interpersonal relationships. The list just seems to go on and on.
Then there’s the issue of introversion vs. extroversion. I’m a natural introvert, and that combined with depression-related isolation makes me steer clear of others as much as possible. I would imagine that being extroverted but also having a social anxiety disorder would be very challenging with the two warring against each other.
How do we make it easier to establish genuine connection, or at the very least basic day-to-day connection? One part is establishing the right balance for each of us in terms of online and in-person connections. If social media is causing a lot of distress, it is possible to function in the world without it.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is one way for those of us with mental health problems to build confidence and skills in interacting with others, and techniques like behavioural experiments can be a way to take back some control and test negative predictions. Sometimes our predictions aren’t based in reality, and behavioural experiments can make it easier to see this.
Where things get a bit dicey is when our predictions do come true. My standard depressive prediction going into an interpersonal situation is that my mood will worsen and/or I will feel very overstimulated. Much of the time, whether I’m thinking about it or not, that prediction comes true. While it may be that it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy kind of deal, I don’t really feel like it is. It’s possible that I’m in denial, but I do think it’s a legitimate symptom of my depression that it makes it very hard to be around people, and so it’s a question of the extent to which I push myself to just do it anyway – more of a distress tolerance kind of thing.
I think what is universally true for all of us is that we need some form of connection. I’m a huge fan of pets, since they are perhaps the simplest possible connection to others that we can have. Personally I think my focus when it comes to human connection is working on reconnecting with my family. It’ll be a slow process, but I think it’s important to try.
How has the way you connect with others evolved over time? Has mental illness played a role?
The CBT Fundamentals mini-ebook, available from the MH@H Download Centre, provides an introduction to cognitive behavioural therapy concepts along with workbook exercises.