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I am an introvert. That's a trait that's come out even more strongly as I've moved through my adult life, and I've gone from being reasonably comfortable with it to fully embracing it.
When my depression strikes, though, it pushes me way past introversion and more into the realm of hiding. It's less about embracing "me time" and more about actively, vigorously pushing anyone and everyone away.
Depression can very easily turn me into a hermit, as isolated as I can possibly be from the outside world. And for me, at least, that's not what introversion looks like. When I'm well, introversion means I don't like group social situations, and I would rather spend time with one or two people I'm very close to, followed by some alone time to recharge.
When depression is in the picture, I hate being around people. It is exhausting, leaving me feeling overstimulated, irritated, or anxious, and it often lowers my mood even further. This is just as true for people close to me as it is for people I'm only casually acquainted with.
In the past, I have tried to "fake it 'til you make it," socializing, even when I didn't want to, because I know that's what you "should" do when you're depressed. As my illness has progressed, though, that "should" seems more like a myth, and I've given up on putting myself through the ordeal of unwanted social contact. As illness has become a more dominant part of my identity, it's very hard to feel like I have anything in common with people who aren't living with mental illness. I don't do normal things anymore because depression means I don't enjoy anything, so I have no interest in resuming the sorts of activities that I used to do with friends.
All of this has meant pushing all of my former friends out of my life, and to a large extent pushing my family away as well. I don't know how to even begin to explain this, so my hiding has often taken the form of ghosting, where I've just stopped responding to calls, texts, and emails. I know in theory that's not a very nice way to go about it, but at the same time I just don't feel like I have the internal resources to try and give anyone an explanation.
I think about it less as the depression has taken more control over my life, prolonging my hermit phase, but when I try to think about it rationally, I don't like this change that depression has wrought. My family and former friends didn't deserve this kind of treatment. I try to justify it to myself by thinking that it was more about self-preservation than an attempt to hurt anyone, but it seems like a rather flimsy excuse. And I do feel guilt, even if I don't allow that feeling to bubble up to the surface very often.
It seems hard to imagine having a social life again at some nebulous point in the future. Perhaps in part because of my natural introversion, that's something that seems acceptable. It also seems unfair to let people into my life knowing that it's highly likely that depression will push me, again, into my hideout cave.
Yet it's impossible to avoid people entirely. I do have to go out into the world, and when I do, I try to put on a mask of normalcy, which is tiring. It's not unusual for me to experience some level of derealization to mentally shield myself from the social world around me. Even routine superficial interactions require effort, and that, in itself, makes me feel more detached from the world.
Strangely enough, my social functioning is at its best when I am dealing with patients (I'm a healthcare professional, although I'm not able to work much). Because I have years of professional experience, it's something that comes without thinking about it. I don't need to be as spontaneous as one must be in regular social interactions, which makes it far less mentally draining.
These days I spend the majority of my life in my self-constructed cave. As an introvert, spending time alone never made me feel lonely. With depression, spending time alone feels necessary but at the same time profoundly isolated. Yet, I wouldn't even know how to begin letting people into my life and having it be a good thing rather than a bad thing.
Mental illness can be vicious. It can take a huge toll on multiple areas of life. But all we can do is pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and just keep going.