You have a mental illness, and you feel incredibly alone. Intellectually, you know that you are one of millions of people who also have a mental illness—people who also have depression or an anxiety disorder or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
You know that you’re not the only person on this planet to be in pain.
But it doesn’t matter. Because it looks like everyone around you is just fine. You’re the only one who has a hard time getting out of bed, who feels overwhelmed by everything, no matter how small. You’re the only one who feels like an impostor and a fraud. You’re the only one who feels irritable and on edge for no reason. You’re the only one who can’t seem to get through the day. You’re the only one who has strange, sad, uncomfortable and cruel thoughts.
But you’re not. You’re really not.
Sheva Rajaee, MFT, is the founder of the Center for Anxiety and OCD in Irvine, Calif. She’s lost count of the number of times a client has started a session by saying: “I know you hear things every day, but this one is really weird.” When the client shares their “gruesome or socially unacceptable thought,” Rajaee’s face barely registers surprise.
“…[B]ecause I’ve had the experience of seeing thousands of clients, which means thousands of thoughts. I’ve come to understand that if the brain can think it, the brain can obsess about it, and that everyone experiences dark thoughts and scary feelings,” Rajaee said.
Kevin Chapman, Ph.D, is a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety disorders in Louisville, Kentucky. His clients regularly tell him that they’re the only ones who feel afraid to go into a carwash, they’re the only ones who freak out at Target, they’re the only ones who feel like they’re dying, and they’re the only ones who are dwelling inside a bubble while everyone else is actually living their lives.
Rosy Saenz-Sierzega, Ph.D, is a counseling psychologist who works with individuals, couples and families in Chandler, Ariz. Her clients have told her: “I know everyone knows what it’s like to be sad, but being depressed is much worse…it’s like the darkest shade of black…it’s like a 100-foot pit that I have fallen into and there is no way out. I’m in there, alone, and I know I can’t get out.” “I can’t even describe what I feel to my friends because they just think I’m exaggerating.” “Being around people is just too difficult, but being alone means it’s only me and my dark thoughts.” “I feel like I have an emptiness I can never fill; I can’t ever deeply connect with anyone because they will never know what it’s like to be me…in my head.”
According to Chris Kingman, LCSW, a therapist who specializes in individual and couples therapy in New York City, “thoughts like ‘I’m the only one….’ or ‘I’m alone in this…’ are cognitive distortions. They are irrational.”
We tend to automatically generate these kinds of thoughts when we’re feeling vulnerable and are in an unsupportive environment,” he said. Sadly, while it’s getting much better, as a whole, our society isn’t very supportive of people with mental illness. That’s “because most people have not had sufficient education about mental health and illness; and [they] feel uncomfortable when faced with others’ mental health struggles.”
Cognitive distortions also are part and parcel of illnesses like depression and anxiety. For instance, Saenz-Sierzega noted that “depression creates a severely negative view of the self, the world and of one’s future—which frequently includes feeling as though no one can possibly understand what you are going through, how you feel, and how to help. [And this makes] it that much harder to seek help.”
While seeking support is certainly challenging, it’s not impossible. And it’s the very thing that will make a huge difference in how you feel and in how you see yourself. So if you’re feeling alone and like a massive outcast, these suggestions can help.
Validate your feelings. Acknowledge, and accept how you’re feeling, without judging yourself. Honor it. “The experience of having a mental health disorder of any kind can be emotionally and physically draining, and even with all the help in the world there will be days when you feel down and alone. This is normal,” Rajaee said.
Revise your self-talk. Kingman stressed the importance of not telling ourselves that we’re alone (or inferior or broken or wrong), because “feelings aren’t facts.” As he said, you might feel alone, and inferior and broken and wrong—and that’s a valid experience, as any emotion is—but these emotions don’t reveal some end-all, be-all truth.
“The issue is that you feel vulnerable and insecure, and you need support but you’re afraid of judgment and rejection.”
Kingman encouraged readers to record your thoughts in a journal. Specifically, observe how you talk to yourself, “catch” yourself when your thoughts are critical or demeaning, and replace these thoughts with constructive, compassionate, supportive self-talk, he said.
Seek therapy. If you’re not seeing a therapist already, it’s vital to find one you trust, Saenz-Sierzega said. A therapist will not only normalize your feelings and help you better understand how your mental illness manifests and functions, but they’ll also help you build a healthier self-image and learn effective coping tools and strategies.
“The gift of mental illness is that if navigated well, you come out a survivor,” Rajaee said. “The same tools and coping strategies you have had to learn through treatment give you a resilience that makes other challenges in life more doable.”
You can start your search for a therapist here.
Reach out. This is a powerful way to “get outside of your own head,” Saenz-Sierzega said. “Surround yourself with person(s) who love you, know your worth, and appreciate you for who you are.” Talk to them about how you’re feeling.
Join an in-person or online support group. For instance, Kingman suggested participating in 12-step recovery groups. They “are free and there are many groups in every city for so many human issues, like alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, relationships, emotions, over-spending, and more. Lots of acceptance, support and solidarity in these groups for human suffering, diagnoses [and] struggles.”
Rajaee suggested finding online forums with people who’ve been through what you’re experiencing. Psych Central features a variety of forums.
Another option is a therapy group, “where the experience of being human and the struggle of having a mental health disorder is normalized and where you are celebrated for your strength and resilience,” Rajaee said.
Finally, Saenz-Sierzega suggested texting “home” to 741741.
Listen to sound mental health information and relatable stories. “[I]f you’re not ready for [therapy, or want to expand your knowledge], start with a podcast on mental illness to get familiar with how to even talk about it and to learn what helps others,” said Saenz-Sierzega.
Read inspiring stories. “To alleviate human suffering, we need solidarity with others who are suffering and working on their own process,” Kingman said. He recommended reading the bookFeel the Fear and Do It Anywayby Susan Jeffers. Psychologist David Susman has a blog series called “Stories of Hope,” where individuals share their mental health challenges and the lessons they’ve learned.
Psych Central also features numerous blogs written by individuals who live with mental illness.
Create a list of comforting things. Your list might include activities, movies, songs or photos that make you laugh or spark a fond memory, Saenz-Sierzega said. Turn to something on your list when you’re having a hard time. Let it “remind you of who you are and who you are fighting for.”
Mental illness is common. If you just look at anxiety disorders, the stats are staggering. They affect about 40 million individuals per year, Chapman said. Forty million. Maybe this is reassuring to you. Maybe it’s not. Because your soul feels alone.
This is when reaching out is critical. This is when talking to someone face to face or in an online forum is critical. Because this is when your soul actually hears the truth: You are not alone. You are absolutely not alone.