True Stories: Depression Sucks & It’s Lonely, Too

“True Stories” is a series of guest blogs I am running. Below, Michael Herman, a lawyer and partner at the Toronto offices of the global law firm of Gowling WLG, shares his experiences with the loneliness that comes with his depression.

“There’s a reason we feel lonely even though we’re not alone. It’s because loneliness is not about how many friends we have or how many people there are in the room with us … it’s a disconnection from other human beings.” – Ranata Suzucki

It’s about 9:30 at night, and I am sitting in the living room watching TV and trying to unwind from a long and stressful day at work, filled with meetings, responding to emails, and dealing with various problems. Just another day at the office. Out of nowhere, I start to feel it – an overwhelming sense of loneliness, as if there is no one in my life to whom I can turn for sustenance.

It’s a Saturday night, and I’m at a party surrounded by friends and family. People gather in small groups, talking, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company. I scan the room and think that I don’t belong. The only thing I want to do is leave and escape from the pain of the loneliness I’m experiencing in the midst of this group of happy people.

I am very familiar with these feelings; they’ve been my companions on and off since I was a young child. It’s as if no one can see me or hear me, as if I don’t really exist and, worse, have no reason to exist.

I have lived with mild to moderate depression most of my life, though I did not admit this to myself until I had an acute depressive episode that lasted more than a year. Rather than recognize that I was living with depression (and periods of severe anxiety), I focused on the physical symptoms I was experiencing or concluded I was a bit burnt out from work or other stressors and needed a bit of a break or, far too often, just had to “push through” the difficult periods until I started feeling better. Somehow, during these periods, my work as a lawyer did not suffer (too much) and, eventually, I would start feeling better.

However, in 2016, I crashed. I started losing weight, had terrible digestive problems, and repeatedly got colds and viruses that would not go away. I felt sapped of all energy and lost my ability to focus and concentrate. Vacations and telling myself to snap out of it didn’t help. This time I was unable to “push through.” In early 2017, I concluded that I could not continue to do my work effectively. I decided to take a short leave of absence from work to sort out what I thought were my physical issues. I tried to return to work after three months and realized very quickly that I was in no shape to be back. As a result, I took an indefinite leave of absence. Fortunately, I came to realize that the physical symptoms were not the real problem, and if I was going to get better, I needed to address my mental health issues. That began a long journey of recovery – including therapy, medications, changes to my daily routine to incorporate time for self-care, and incredible support from my law firm, friends, family and, especially, my wife.

By early 2018, I had resumed my normal life though I realize that another acute episode may lurk around the next corner. I also appreciate that recovery is a journey that will last the rest of my life.

While much of what I experienced during my deepest, darkest days of depression is no longer present, loneliness is something that, without warning, regularly shows up. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary includes a number of meanings for “lonely.” The one that best captures what I’m describing is “producing a feeling of bleakness or desolation”.

For much of my life, I have feared ending up alone. I have made choices and avoided opportunities that were motivated primarily by trying to avoid being alone. One of the lessons I’ve learned during my journey of recovery is how much I was driven by my fear and how much I sacrificed to try to prevent ending up alone.

I now realize that I had it all wrong. I actually didn’t fear being alone. I dreaded feeling lonely. Loneliness and being alone are two very different things. I can be alone and feel calm, contented, and at ease; in fact, particularly as an introvert, there are times when being alone and having time to rest, reflect and recharge my batteries is exactly what I need. To me, loneliness is something else entirely – it’s being consumed by feelings of dis-ease and a sense of not belonging internally and externally, creating that sense of bleakness and desolation.

Rumi, the great Sufi poet, and scholar, wrote a poem called The Guest House, which begins as follows:

“This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.”

In other words, as with so many other emotions and feelings that cause us to suffer, loneliness is an internal experience that occurs in our minds. As noted above, I experience profound loneliness even when surrounded by people who love and care for me.

Rumi is inviting us to lay out the welcome mat for whatever arises in our minds, both the pleasant and unpleasant.

“…Treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.”

Rumi is offering us a way to work with difficult thoughts and emotions, including loneliness. Instead of avoiding and suppressing (at which I am an expert), Rumi asks us to openly embrace whatever is present; by doing so, we have an opportunity to examine with curiosity and friendliness even the thoughts and emotions that cause us the most pain. If we welcome whatever is already there, we can start to develop a different relationship with our painful emotions and feelings. Rather than mindlessly trying to run away from them, we can learn to respond to them with greater wisdom and understanding. It sounds simple, but if you are like me, it’s definitely not easy.

I now try to be aware of and accept loneliness when it shows up. What thoughts are associated with loneliness? Where do I feel loneliness in the body? Can I notice that loneliness arises, hangs around for a while, and then passes away, though I know it will return? Can I stay with the feeling at least for a few moments, no matter how painful it is, and see if loneliness has anything to teach me? Can I recognize that feelings of bleakness and desolation are part, not the whole, of the human condition? Can I feel a connection with all other people who experience the pain and suffering of loneliness, recognizing that I am not alone (I googled “loneliness” and there were 361,000,000 results)? Can I begin to understand that my loneliness may be a result of a false sense of who I am – someone who is worthless, fundamentally flawed, has no value and nothing to offer? Can I explore those harsh self-judgments and acknowledge the possibility that they are just thoughts, not facts? Can I start to develop a sense that maybe, just maybe, there is nothing inherently wrong with me?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., a pioneer in bringing mindfulness meditation to the mainstream of Western medicine and secular society, frequently states, “We are okay just as we are” and “As long as we are breathing, there is more right with us than wrong”. I have spent many hours struggling to understand what Jon means when I believe that about others but not about myself.

My relationship to loneliness is part of my journey of recovery. I‘m under no illusion that loneliness will stop visiting my Guest House. When it knocks on the door, hopefully, I can more readily welcome it in. Who knows, perhaps one day, this guest will clear me out for some new delight.

Further Reading:

“How Mental Illness Almost Ended This Bay Street Lawyer’s Career: Michael Herman Opens Up About His Struggle With Depression.”  Precedent magazine, March 6, 2019.

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