For an image of isolation, it is hard to find a more complete picture than that of the person stranded on a deserted island. I was first introduced to Robinson Crusoe through the black and white, dubbed series which was shown every summer on Saturday mornings throughout my childhood. I was familiar with the story of loneliness told - of the desire to find the owner of one solitary footprint Crusoe found on 'his' beach. Later on, I was able to read the original novel and found that the story does not end on the island. Crusoe is eventually rescued and returns to England. What I find interesting is that he does not embrace his return to society with unfettered joy. There is a challenge to breaking the isolation.
For many of us the isolation caused by emotional and mental storms is like being stranded on our own islands. Recovery is our story of rescue and return to our communities or our families. If you are like me, being solitary feels safer than being a part of wider groups. It is a constant challenge to myself to break away from my island where I feel safe, with my pets. It is comfortable most of the time as most of my struggles are evident in relationship with other human beings. However, the reality is that we are made to relate to others, to something bigger than ourselves. For me I have a personal faith in someone who is so much bigger than me and the island I inhabit. Others may find their something bigger in other things. What I need to acknowledge is that often the pain of relationship is temporary and persevering with those relationships is important to my long term recovery.
I love the imagery of John Donne, a poet who mixed images of every day experience with the deeper spiritual experiences of humanity. He sums up best the reality of needing to reject isolation in favour of being a part of community: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main". If one part of our coastline erodes, there is loss for the whole island. Sometimes we focus so much on joining with others, that we neglect our own value in contributing to the whole.
This is a critical result of low self esteem. We are unable to value ourselves as a necessary part of the whole yet, moving forward in recovery means that we continue to learn about our value in relation to others.
So where do I begin if I have been isolated and become comfortable with my 'own company'? I have found that the best way to get to know others is to do something together. It is so much easier if there is a task or activity to complete with others, than having to 'socialise' which can be so problematic. Here are the steps I have taken to avoid growing into my isolation:
1. This week I have received my 10 badge from Blood Transfusion. It is one of the easiest ways to feel a part of wider society and to know that I have something valuable to contribute. The benefit is that staff and others donating are good at offering a welcome - it is time limited, and you get a brew and a choice of choccy biscuit or crisps.
2. I have been blogging and sharing my story online within different forums. I would say be protective of yourself if you go on social media. Keep yourself safe by not giving too much away. Even though I have blogged for a number of years on here, I have never told every detail of my experience. Partly because over exposure of my personal struggles is probably unhelpful to others and also because I do not want to make myself more vulnerable - once it has been published it is out there and I have lost control over who sees it and how far it is shared. The benefits are that you are not alone in your experiences and you hopefully will find support.
3. Volunteer. There are different ways to get involved in different ways. If people are a real struggle for you, think about local pet charities. Locally, there is a hedgehog hospital near me, a Cats Protection League and ways to get involved. I am a member of a local church. I have been able to go along when I feel able to the larger meetings, but through the week I can offer to help out with refreshments for the Parent & Toddler groups - no need to go in among the seething mass of toddlers! It is good to be part of a group which has a wide range of ages and therefore different needs.
4. Sport and Exercise. I have managed to get back to swimming after nearly 8 years of trying. I have found times when the pool is less busy and a bonus has been that people are creatures of habit so I am getting to know staff and other swimmers. The benefit of a sport like swimming is that if I don't feel like 'doing social' I can just do my swim and get out and go home. My GP has also signed me up for a 3 month health and fitness group. This gives me the push I need to extend my social circles because I am given free access to the leisure facilities if I attend a weekly class. It is a good way to find out about other groups that I can continue with after the 3 months is up. The big help is that I am using my DBT PLEASE skills which are a big part of keeping myself well and stable.
5. Keeping in touch. I actively try to keep in touch with friends by setting up time for coffee and/or walks. My dog is a big help to get me out of the house. When I am unable to attend the big church services, I try to keep in touch with at least one friend through the week.
These are things which have helped me. One thing I have had to learn is that because of my emotional ups and downs, I will have times when I feel so alone, even though my head tells me I have a strong network of caring friends. For me, I need to accept that is the way I feel, sometimes but it is not my whole life. Even in the most stable of relationships people without emotional fluctuations can feel alone. I need to remember 'this too shall pass' and do my best to think of my efforts to connect with others as one of the essential skills to maintaining my recovery.