Lately, I’ve come across a number of questions online by plainly anguished people, asking: Why do I have no friends, no life? The first time I saw one this blunt, I reacted almost defensively, laughing as I recalled an old film in which a man hires a private detective to find out why he has no friends. Isn’t it obvious? But I knew so well how much the question implied. Lonely and depressed, I had often asked that same question, or at least felt the need to ask it.
I wrote an earlier post about the difference I experience between loneliness and depression. Loneliness is a sadness at the loss of close relationships. It drives me to reach out to people. Depression pushes me away from them. When I feel these two at the same time – as I can if the depression is not too severe – the tension of these opposing forces makes it all the harder to find the help I need.
Thinking back over many years of living with depression, I can quickly find many reasons why I had such trouble finding a friend to talk to when I most needed one. (I’ll set aside the much worse problem of not talking to my wife. I’ve said a lot about the reasons behind that, especially in this post.) Here are some of the problems from my experience. I can’t say how true they might be for others.
Sometimes it wasn’t I who had an issue with reaching out but friends who had trouble opening themselves to listen. Many people refuse to talk about depression or other serious illnesses. I first found that out when I had cancer. It was stunning to me that a few people I had known quite well simply disappeared from my life. Though I never heard any explanation from them, my wife and I believed they couldn’t face the risk of emotional involvement and possible loss.
Depression adds another dimension. Many may feel helpless in the face of a friend’s pain and despairing mood. When I reached out for support, some friends were sympathetic but at a loss as to what they could do to help. And, of course, some friends are not in the habit of probing their own emotional lives and run from the idea of listening to someone else trying to go deeply into feelings. That’s a language they haven’t learned and never want to know.
One habit of my own depressed thinking was to assume that everyone I met had the same negative and contemptuous view of me that I did of myself. I projected my own shame into their minds and then retreated before the dislike I was sure they felt. It’s so strange to imagine that this could have been such a common occurrence, but it was. I stopped myself from reaching out because I “knew” these friends wanted to have nothing to do with me.
Then there was the isolating drive of depression, the belief that I was in too much pain to face anyone – too lost in despair to move. I believed I could survive only by cutting myself off from everyone, yet that only intensified the feeling of having nowhere to turn. I ruled out the possibility that anyone could break through the wall I’d put up around me. The result was that I went more deeply into despair. Eventually, the crisis passed, but it wasn’t the isolation that had helped me survive. That only increased the likelihood that I might push myself over the edge.
When feeling more numb than despairing, I could often get out and talk to people, even at social gatherings. But I became very nervous at what I might say. It wasn’t uncommon for me to make an attempt at getting to know someone or to get into a personal issue with a friend. But the words I found myself speaking were not at all what I intended. They had an edge to them, putting a jab into each pleasantry, souring a compliment with a sarcastic tone, or pouring out so much so fast that I sounded impossibly egocentric and uninterested in anyone but myself. I acted like someone I would never want to know. Of course, people could tell at once that I had “issues” and walked the other way.
So often, I had to mix with people when I wanted only to hide. I made it hard for anyone to find me, no matter how many people might be in the room or how prominent my role was supposed to be. Emotionally, I lost connection with what was happening and just watched it go by. I felt so small and tried to be invisible. If anyone asked me a question, I’d become tongue-tied, or, if I tried to say much, the words and thoughts came with painful slowness. It was impossible for anyone to talk to me.
At other times, anxiety and fear could hold me back from talking freely. Taking part in conversation was hard because I had to double-think everything I wanted to say. There was a danger in the simple spontaneity of conversation among friends – a danger for me of any uncontrolled talking. I had to reflect to get the words just so, and then would miss the right moment as talk flowed on to something different. It’s hard to imagine now, but talking freely felt risky, as if an inner violence might escape my control.
Apart from all this, there was the natural reaction anyone might have at suddenly hearing from me when I was in need of someone to talk to. Wrapped up in myself and in depression, as I was, my reaching out was an attempt to meet my own need in a one-sided way. Not only that, but my friends would not find me at all even if they wanted to listen and offer support. I wasn’t the same person because I was driven by the strange, isolating rules of depression. Even if I didn’t want to be hidden, I was nowhere to be found.
All this added up to a comprehensive strategy for remaining friendless. And that’s what it was – a series of my own actions to keep me isolated from the help that friends might offer and pull me out of the life I’d had with them. This hit me one day when I was the one who was asked to listen to a friend in the midst of a terrible depression.
I met him at a restaurant for lunch one day, and I could tell at once that he had changed in a way that made him hard to recognize. Of course, he looked and sounded the same, but there was nothing in his words or reactions that was like my friend. He was lost, partly in rage, partly in despair.
When I tried to tell him the deep sympathy I felt for what he was going through, that only made him angry. More than that, I felt a deep rage boiling inside him as his eyes stared through me with steel intensity.
It was especially hard to see him this way since I knew I was looking at myself.
What has your experience been in trying to reach out to friends when deeply troubled?