image by Emma Frances Logan
Only very recently, we seem to have started acknowledging that many of us are lonely. There has been some media coverage of how loneliness causes physical and mental health conditions. But what about people who already face mental health challenges, before they became lonely or in addition to their loneliness?
I don’t think it matters whether we say it’s social isolation or loneliness – the two usually come together anyway, and for me this issue isn’t a science. Simply put, those of us with mental health problems are often really lonely too.
I am lonely. I am now in recovery from a decade of anorexia and it’s only now that I can fully admit to myself, and even fully feel, how lonely I have become. Anorexia is an isolating illness. It takes over more and more headspace until there’s little mental energy left for connecting with others. It’s also because so much of social life involves communal eating and drinking, and it’s often easier to decline an invitation than to take on the multiple challenges these situations create. On top of this, you reach a stage where you just don’t have the physical energy to go out.
I think for adults struggling with mental health problems, the loneliness can be even worse than for young people as there is much less of an immediate support network to notice, and it can take even longer to get any affordable professional help. While the increased media focus on the crisis in youth mental health support is a great step forward, adult support still seems neglected in comparison.
For me, as an adult, the loneliness has been made worse by practical circumstances. I’ve often been living alone or with relative strangers. Though my family love and care for me, they aren’t with me day to day. I’m used to turning my key in the door at night and having no one to give me a hug, or to notice from my tired face and body just how tough the average day locked into anorexia can be.
'I was locked into my anorexic world. My identity and personality got stuck behind the glass wall'
Another practical reason why adults may become even lonelier is the greater drive to hide our struggle. I needed to hold down a job, and pay rent and bills. What would the practical and financial consequences be if I screamed out to the world that I no longer had the energy to manage anorexia and work and daily life? What would the consequences be of months out of my life for a hospital admission? Did I want to ask for my family’s help as a postgraduate, professional, experienced woman?
About three years into the illness, I realised a glass wall had gone up between me and the rest of the world. Only I could see it, though maybe some people could sense it. I was present and could see everything going on around me. I could even feel some of it. I could press my face close enough to the glass to speak through it and to do at least enough to appear ‘normal’ in social settings. But I often felt empty and hollow inside, desperate to go home, and clock-watching my young life away. It became increasingly rare that I ever truly felt an experience.
While I watched my contemporaries advancing in their careers, falling into and out of love, marrying, starting families, I was locked into my anorexic world. My identity and personality got stuck behind the glass wall. I was so young, frozen in time as the confused 23 year old I was when I first got ill. Yet I was also so old as depression and anorexia are ageing conditions. I was experiencing the things a woman twice my age has to deal with – the loss of periods, the loss of hormones, the loss of sex drive, even the loss of my hair, and the onset of osteoporosis.
So what have I done about this chronic loneliness? And what can adults in similar situations do? I’m still working this out, but I’d like to share a few things that are helping me to cope with loneliness in my anorexia recovery.
'Loneliness isn’t something to be ashamed of. In fact, admitting you are lonely can help to tackle it'
Firstly, I’ve engaged fully with my condition for the first time in a decade. Last January, by getting whatever support was out there, I started my recovery and little chinks appeared in the glass wall even very early on. A little bit of headspace was cleared of the illness and I could use it to really talk to and listen to others for the first time in a decade, chipping away at the glass. Support can be hard to get as an adult, especially without the financial resources to access some of what’s available. But every little bit of support helps – from the NHS, counsellors, sensible support groups and forums, family, books – whatever combination you can get and whatever helps you. Even the act of trying to get help created a small chink in the glass for me.
Secondly, I’ve admitted my loneliness and acknowledged that it’s not my fault. I’m not a social failure; I’m somebody who has been very ill. Loneliness isn’t something to be ashamed of. In fact, admitting you are lonely can help to tackle it. When I reached out and told a few acquaintances that I was lonely, that I’d been through a tough time, they reached back out to me and I found I had some friends. Most people will respond with kindness when someone says they are lonely. It just needs more of us to admit it! If we all admitted it, maybe none of us would be lonely anymore.
Thirdly, I’m pushing on in recovery. For some people with a mental illness, recovery might mean overcoming mental difficulties as much as possible and restoring seriously damaged physical health, as for anorexia sufferers like me. For others, it might mean coping with an unchangeable chemical imbalance through medication and/or therapy. Recovery might more often mean confronting and tackling a problem to the best of our ability, rather than completely eliminating it. Much depends on the specific condition and the individual involved. What I do know is that with every step forwards I take, I have a little more social energy, a little more zest for life, and I’m now removing whole panes of glass, not only little pieces. Soon I’d like to have no wall at all
Hanna Bird is in recovery from a decade of anorexia and has started to speak out and campaign on eating disorders, body image, and mental health issues more generally. To read more on her story and her mission to challenge stereotypes and help improve treatment, visit her blog or follow on Twitter