How to be Alone

For many of us, the difference between isolation and solitude is more than a simple matter of semantics. Solitude is often a choice — the peaceful walk in the woods, or the quiet morning meditation. It’s Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, in which he builds a cabin near a lake and proceeds to live there for two years and two months. Solitude is that treasured time we take alone to reflect and learn about ourselves.

Isolation, meanwhile, is often thrust upon us, and research shows that it can actually be physically painful to experience. (This explains why “not fitting in” in high school was such a wretched experience.) Human beings are social creatures who depend on connection. We need to understand and to feel understood. Due to different circumstances, however, we may not always have the amount of human interaction we need. While living like this is not ideal (in fact, social isolation can lead to mental illness and premature death), there are ways to minimize the suffering we feel, should we find ourselves in an isolating situation.

1. Reach out However you can
It is somewhat fashionable to bemoan the advent of social media and online video games as the End of Real Human Interaction™. Political cartoons and satirical websites are rife with images depicting couples at dinner glued to their phones, or children swiping away their childhoods on the touch-screen du jour. While the debate on whether and when to unplug certainly has merit, we should be cautious not to glorify too much the “good old days” where we had to show up at a friend’s doorstep in order to share the latest gossip. (Some things never change.)

For those of us in difficult geographical circumstances (all of us astronauts, for instance), and those of us with physical or mental disabilities, being able to plug into online communities brings about some relief. For example, because of my ongoing battle with depression, it’s not always possible for me to get dressed and zip over to my much-beloved friends’ houses. When simply getting out of bed presents a challenge, I’m grateful to be able to chat and even laugh with a friend on social media.

In large, anonymous cities in which we hitch a ride on a subway with strangers, sit at a desk for eight hours, and come home to an empty apartment, we may also find some respite in our Twitter feeds.

Ideally, we would all hang out and hug and talk about Star Wars in person, but sometimes we are presented with less-than-ideal circumstances. My point is, don’t let purists talk you out of opportunities to connect. If it’s all you can do right now, pick up that phone and ‘like’ your friend’s picture. You’ll feel better.

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Like this plastic tree limb, branch out. 

2. Keep Busy
When we think of survival movies, we’re often presented with characters who use their time in isolating situations to make and reach goals. A recent example of this can be seen in the book-turned-movie, The Martian, in which an astronaut left behind on Mars gets really busy doing math and planting potatoes.

In real life, CBC News journalist Melissa Fung was abducted in Afghanistan in 2008. She was kept in a hole underground and watched by her captors, whom, obviously, could not have been the best company. To survive this ordeal, Fung made plans about her future. She planned a dinner party, she planned what she would do when she got back to Canada.

Moments of isolation require us to make plans and keep busy as much as we can. With mental illness, this can be a real challenge: how do you make goals when you have no motivation? It’s hard, but everyones’ goals will be different. If all we can do is shower and make breakfast, then we can start there. Circumstances are always changing; what is challenging today might not be as difficult tomorrow.

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The busiest guy in my house.

3. Watch Movies, Read Books, Listen to Music
Speaking of keeping busy, getting a start on that “books-to-read” list is a great way of going about this. While some might argue that books, movies, and music simply present ways of numbing the pain of isolation by offering distractions, there’s likely more to it than that.

When a movie makes us cheer for the protagonists, a book presents us with characters so real they feel like friends, or a song makes us shaky-shoulder sob (I’m looking at you, Adele), we’re experiencing the emotions we feel when we have a human interaction. The magic of art, is that we get to find those kindred spirits and as a result, we feel less alone. As a teenager, during my most painfully lonely time (and, I suspect, I wasn’t the only one who felt this way), I found solace in songs about misfits and books and movies, like Ghost World, about strange girls who skip town. So find the art that speaks to your soul, and hit repeat.

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What better reason to read comics?

4. Make Non-Human Friends
A few weeks ago, I was waiting for the bus in my hometown (trivia: I don’t drive), and a woman in a hot pink toque with a shopping cart full of Walmart bags sat beside me and started up a conversation, as friendly people waiting for buses in smallish towns sometimes do. The conversation was standard post-holiday small talk, until we somehow veered onto the subject of her guinea pigs. She informed me on the multi-generational commune of guinea pigs she took care of. Their cage, apparently, took over half of her living room. She was able to train them — one of them earned a certificate because he could literally jump through hoops. Lady, if you’re out there, I would love to see a video.

Peoples’ eyes light up when they talk about their pets. This isn’t surprising, when we consider that the chemicals we release when we hug a loved one or, in fact, give birth, the same ones we release when cuddling up to our pets. That dose of fuzzy-wuzzy feel-good cocktail can be therapeutic when we feel alone.

And when buying and caring for a traditional pet isn’t an option, we can always get creative. Plants, apart from decorating a room and purifying the air we breathe, can also give us the feeling we crave in a symbiotic relationship. Caring for a plant and watching it grow just feels good.

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Seen here: my humiliated Spaniel and my smirking sister.

5. Enjoy your own Company
Let’s cut to the core of it: this won’t be easy if we’re constantly berating ourselves about not being _____ enough. Who wants to spend time with an asshole who won’t shut up about our weight, our lack of productivity, our undesirability, and our giggle-snorts?

Self-acceptance takes time and practice. We have to gently retrain our minds, like so many cute puppies peeing on the carpet, to speak to ourselves the way we would speak to a loved one. But it’s a practice that’s well worth the effort. When we’re able to hang out in our own heads without criticism and instead with encouraging thoughts and rational suggestions for improvement, we edge closer from the pain of isolation to the peace of solitude. We can’t always control our circumstances, but we can decide to cut ourselves a break and say something nice for a change.

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Fear not the gratuitous selfies. 

If you’re feeling isolated right now, take heed: you’re not alone, and this situation won’t last forever. If you can, reach out to someone— however you can muster it. Make plans for your future. Find friends in books, movies, music, and meet some friendly plants and animals. Above all, treat yourself like the worthy and worthwhile person that you are.

How To Survive Depression

(I would like to start with two quick disclaimers. The first: if you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts and you’re reading this, take a moment and reach out for help. Call 1-800-SUICIDE, visit suicide.org for a list of International hotlines, or call 911. You are worth it, they do have time for you, and I will be waiting here when you get back. Second disclaimer: the advice in this guide is based upon my own knowledge and experiences, and I am not a certified health professional. Okay, here we go.)

What is the image that comes to mind when one thinks of the word ‘Depression’? It is often characterized as a void, as darkness, the downward spiral, a veil, and a black cloud. Winston Churchill described his own depression as a black dog. Personally, when my depression is milder, I picture it as shapeless body sitting heavy on my shoulders. When I’m falling into a deeper depression, the image of tumbling down a rabbit hole à la Alice in Wonderland comes to mind, in which I am clawing at clods of dirt to stop the seemingly inevitable plunge towards an unknown bottom. Finally, in the deepest recesses of my experienced depression, I am in another dimension, separate from those I love. Though we may sit together in the same living room, I am trapped neck-down in a swamp of tar, elsewhere.

All this is to say that ‘depression’ is actually quite a broad term that encompasses a variety of different states. One may experience depression as part of the grieving process following the death of a loved one, or in the aftermath of a life-altering event. Just as often, others experience depression for no apparent “reason”, which is why the question “why are you depressed?” so often cannot yield a satisfactory answer. The following tips are applicable to all levels and types of depression, however, the effectiveness may vary by person, state of mind, and circumstance. Also note that surviving depression is an ongoing effort for many people, myself included, but that’s not to say there won’t be those transcendental moments replete with meaning that gives life its lovely sheen. We’re never permanently condemned to a single state of mind, or, phrased in another way: This too shall pass.

1. Get your Basics Covered 
Unless we’re living in circumstances in which we have little or no control over resources, it’s crucial to eat, drink, and sleep. Sounds obvious, right? But with depression, these basic human needs can me sometimes hard to acknowledge, let alone act upon. Eating often requires cooking meals, which sometimes requires more effort than we can muster. When possible, we can call on friends and family to help in this task. If we’re living alone, it’s okay to resort to simple meals. While the adequate intake of food groups and vitamins can go a long ways towards feeling better, sometimes we go through phases in which pasta and tomato sauce is all we can come up with. That’s okay. This state of mind is not a permanent one; they never are. For fluids, water is of course, important. I often forget to consume an adequate amount, so I’ve taken to bringing a cup or bottle with me wherever I go. Finally, sleep can be tricky in that with depression, it’s easy to get too much or too little, and sometimes, paradoxically, both. Personally, I am prone to ruminating throughout the night, and if I’m not careful, I can sleep away the day. To quell the brain-chatter that keeps me awake, I’ve found it useful to listen to audiobooks as I fall asleep. You can access free audiobooks of classic literature in the public domain. And if you need that midday nap, go ahead and take it. You aren’t hurting anybody.

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Not my finest culinary moment.

2. Never be Afraid to Get Help
This is such a crucial step, and it is also one of the hardest to take. Why? Perhaps we live in a society that still values certain stoicism, especially in the workplace. We still equate the need for help as a weakness, especially those of us wrestling with concepts of strength and masculinity. Furthermore, depression has a sneaky way of sapping our self esteem. Why should a therapist or doctor care about my problems when someone else may have it far worse? We may ask ourselves these types of questions, convincing ourselves that our problems, and our lives are not worth seeking help for. These are false beliefs. I know this for a few reasons: the first is that if someone came to me and confided their feelings of depression, I would absolutely be inclined to help in whatever way I could, regardless if this person was a stranger or a friend. I believe most people want to help others. The other reason, is that I’ve called suicide hotlines several times, and each time I have been greeted with kindness and support. I’ve talked with doctors and therapists who have also been helpful. And it’s not because my problems are more worthy than anyone else’s, that’s just what the professionals are there for.
If a doctor prescribes a medication to alleviate symptoms of depression, listen to their expertise. Medications can be a valuable asset in getting better. The only thing to watch out for is self-medication, or medications recommended by people who are not professionals, or who have no scientific merit. By this I mean not following the dosages correctly, using street drugs and excess alcohol, and also buying into “snake oils” that haven’t been tested or proven.

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Before you make any calls, it might be necessary to google how these suckers work.

3. Acknowledge What is Co-Occuring
When depression throws itself a party, complete with black balloons and a sludgy cake, it makes sure the guest list is a long one. So it’s actually quite common to have depression and something else. For instance, one could have depression with another mental illness, such as anxiety disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Bipolar Disorder, to name a few. Likewise, depression can manifest itself as a buddy to all sorts of physical disabilities as well. Having awareness about some of these issues will help in the process of healing and of establishing ones’ needs. This will also help family and friends, because when we are able to understand what we need, we are in a better position to ask for it. As an example, my depression is best friends with my anxiety, and this sometimes manifests in a panic attack. Because I know about the underlying anxiety, I can ask my family to tell me exactly what I need to hear. Sometimes it’s just getting a different perspective that can alleviate anxiety, which in turn slightly lessens the burden of depression.

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Pictured: me in full panic mode.

4. Exercise if Possible
I say “if possible”, because sometimes due to physical or emotional conditions, it isn’t. There’s no denying the wealth of information supporting exercise as an effective therapy in dealing with depression, even if it’s light stretching and a walk around the block. Whenever possible, physical activity should be considered, but if it can’t be managed for whatever reason, don’t beat yourself up. The last thing a person with depression needs is another reason to feel bad and/or guilty. Again, this state of mind is not forever. If one can’t do yoga today, one can try to do it tomorrow.

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I’m fairly certain that gardening plastic plants isn’t exercise.

5. Be Gentle
While there is usually little harm in pushing oneself to make that soup or take that walk, it’s important to acknowledge that our condition does affect us in certain ways. For instance, we may not be able to complete activities or assignments at the same pace as classmates or coworkers. We may not go to as many social gatherings, or we may not stay out as long. This is okay, there is no rule that says one must function at 110% capacity in spite of depression. Taking longer than others to complete a task does not make us less talented or less capable. (Also, I suspect that everyone kind of goes at their own pace, whether they’re willing to admit it or not.) Use kind words and encourage yourself, rather than resorting to verbal beatings. Your health and wellbeing is what matters most.

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Treat yourself as you would treat this little guy.

6. Find Meaning in Whatever Ways you can
Viennese psychiatrist Viktor Frankl pioneered a movement in psychology which underlines the importance of finding purpose in our lives. This incredible man survived German concentration camps during WWII by plotting and planning his future, and thinking about his love for his wife. We humans can survive the most arduous times, and Frankl suggests that we do this by finding the concrete meaning of our lives.
This is no easy task when one is depressed however. We tend to lose all sense of perspective. We ruminate on the past, we dread the future (what if it’s more of the same?), we ache in the present. And yet, it’s possible, even in our darkest moments of suffering, to cling to our purpose. It doesn’t have to be grandiose; we may not have the energy to imagine a glittering future full of accomplishments and accolades. But maybe there’s the person we love deeply and want to spare of the suffering they would undergo if we left them. Maybe we have an animal friend in our care who relies on us. Maybe there’s that story we need to tell, or a person we need to help. Maybe it’s a pervasive curiosity to find out what happens next. All reasons to survive are good reasons. We can adapt and change them as we go, because our conditions and circumstances will change as well. For more tips and ideas, visit the post on How to Create Meaning. 

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Your purpose could be to solve this damn thing for me. 

These tips are the things that have helped me survive my depression. It’s not been easy, and I have wanted more than once to give everything up, but I’ve also had many spectacular moments in the midst of everything. My hope is that, if you feel depressed and are struggling with suicidal thoughts, you will find that acorn of courage and strength we all possess inside and reach out. You are and always will be worthy of survival.