I haven’t always had to fight loneliness and isolation. When I was younger I loved going out to listen to live music. Dancing was a fun way for me to interact with others. I enjoyed being social and was always looking for a place to meet friends at a bar or show. All of that has changed since my diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder. Fighting loneliness has become part of my new normal. Isolating myself because of my mental illness can easily lead to loneliness and depression in my life now.
One Saturday evening a few years ago I decided to count how many beers I had consumed in a 24 hour period. I counted 19. I realized at that moment I couldn’t just have one beer, but I had to have a lot of beer, or nothing at all.
Before my diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, my lifestyle involved going out to bars to drink with my friends. At the time that was my social outlet. However, after my diagnosis I quit drinking alcohol. I was used to spending a lot of money on alcohol. That was another reason I stopped drinking… it was too expensive.
Another reason I stopped abusing alcohol was for health reasons. An unhealthy lifestyle led to a size 42 inch waistline, but I also knew that the excessive drinking was doing damage to other parts of my body, as well.
The first couple of weeks of not drinking on a Friday night were especially tough for me. I missed even the minor chit chat that occurred in those settings because alcohol provided liquid confidence for me. While I’m not the best at opening up a conversation, I knew that being around others was important for me. After awhile the desire for alcohol went away, but I still did not have the social interaction that I had gotten from hanging out with my friends at bars.
Now that I am okay with not drinking, I use my money for other things like my kickboxing classes. I’ve always enjoyed physical activity, and working out and exercising have become my new positive addiction.
I used to be a very heavy smoker. At one time I smoked three packs a day. Just about every afternoon, I woke up and realized I was almost out of cigarettes, so I went to the grocery store across the street to buy three packs of the cheaper off brand cigarettes. This happened every day until my health began to be affected. I knew I had to quit.
At the veterans hospital where I receive treatment there are always vets smoking. Even today when I see, and even smell the cigarettes of the veterans smoking in groups, it brings back good memories. Since I do not want to go back to my three pack a day habit, I just ignore it. There was a time when my smoking served as another way for me to be social — social, but very unhealthy. I ended up quitting smoking on Father’s Day. My dad said it was the best gift he had ever received. While I don’t regret giving up cigarettes, I realized that I had also given up another social outlet.
One of the things I realized after losing the social connection that alcohol and cigarettes once gave to me, was that I had to find other ways to connect with people wherever I was.
I’ve learned to use my monthly trips to my veterans hospital where I have regular appointments as a social outlet of sorts. At the veterans hospital I feel unity while talking to vets in the pharmacy and mental health waiting rooms, and sometimes in the eating area.We talk about the different duty stations where they served. Sometimes they complain about appointments or wait times, and I just listen. Often that is all a vet wants — someone to listen to them.
On occasion some people inquire about my semicolon tattoo which is very prominent on my left hand. They may say, “I’ve seen it before on others but I don’t know what it means.” So I tell them what it means to me. I tell them when it comes to a mental health crisis, a semicolon represents a slight pause, and then we keep going. It isn’t a period, question mark, or the end. Just letting them into my life in this way creates an instant bond. We don’t have to tell our stories we just know. They see me as an honest person who is not afraid to talk about his past.
Another thing I enjoy doing to fill up my days, is going to a used record shop not far from my apartment. This store is very well organized with a great presentation of old records. I like several kinds of music, but at this particular store I buy repressings of old jazz and soul records. I am very proud of my jazz collection. Listening to music is one of my favorite things to do. I recently got a new record player and CD player. Good music is fuel in my tank. It keeps me going and runs my soul.
I live in a very convenient location to a movie theater and grocery stores. I try to use any of my outings as opportunities to speak to anyone with whom I make eye contact. Just a smile or nod of my head gives me a chance to be social and fight the loneliness and isolation that comes with my mental health diagnosis.
I have friends on social network whom I’ve known since high school, and I enjoy keeping up with what is going on in their lives. We’ve all changed since our earlier days. Most of them have full time jobs and families. I sometimes invite them to my apartment for listening parties, but they are so busy with their lives they rarely come over. It is quite possible they don’t know what to make of my mental illness. However, we are still friends, and I love them. Recently loneliness and depression reared their ugly heads in my life. For a couple of weeks I was feeling down and alone. I saw pictures of friends’ children on social media and realized that would never be part of my own life. Because of my mental health diagnosis, I made the permanent decision not to father a child. I don’t regret that decision, but I couldn’t help thinking how much I would have loved having children of my own. Those feelings, as well as the fact that it was winter, dreary and cold and I couldn’t be outside like I would like to be, made me feel really down and depressed. During those weeks, my negative thoughts began to control my thinking, and I had mental pictures of a gunshot through my head. This wasn’t a random thought, but something I began to dwell on.
My parents were visiting, and I hesitated to tell them about how I was feeling because I didn’t want to be hospitalized again. However, I eventually told them about the visions and feelings of sadness. After listening to me, they advised me to talk to my doctor at my next appointment which was coming up in a couple of days.
At my appointment the following week I discussed with the doctor my most recent sadness and loneliness. While looking at my medical records, my doctor noticed the last two times I was hospitalized I was having the same feelings of being “down.” She also noticed that I had been put on mood stabilizers at one point in my treatment, but not on an antidepressant. My psychiatrist talked to me further about whether my depression was part of my schizophrenia symptoms, or was it just depression coming from being alone much of the time. Together we decided that my depression was related more to my loneliness and isolation, so she prescribed an antidepressant. I have been on my new antidepressant for almost two weeks, and I am beginning to feel much better.
My mood is better. I feel emotionally lifted up as if I have a weight lifted off my shoulders. The negative thinking has lessened, and I again see happiness as a possibility.
I may be alone, but for the most part I am not lonely. I feel blessed to have as much independence as I do. I feel secure in my apartment and am thankful that music also acts as a kind of therapy for me. I have had this diagnosis of schizophrenia long enough now that I do not know what my life would be like without it. Much of my former life is a distant memory. I’ve had to make adjustments to accommodate my mental illness, but that does not keep me from living a full life.