9 Reasons Your Mentally Ill Loved One May Be Isolating Themselves

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You feel hurt they don’t want to come to your party. Disappointed they’ve canceled another one of your planned get togethers at the last minute. It’s frustrating how hard it is to catch them on the phone these days, or even get a text reply. And it stings that not only do they seem to be lacking excitement about your special life event, but would likely jump at the first real excuse they had to miss the special day.

It’s not you, it’s them. Sure, that line is often a lame justification for a one-sided break up, but in the case of your mentally ill loved one, it’s most often true. There may be a number of reasons they ultimately decide not to be there, and ALL OF THEM point back to one thing — the often invisible, misunderstood, and grossly underestimated, but very real effect of mental illness.

They’re Tired Of Putting On A Face

You might not realize how much energy it takes for them to put on a happy, or at least somewhat normal, face. They’ve probably mastered this ability to the point where it seems almost effortless, or even genuine. But it’s not. Any time you’re pretending to be something you’re not, living a lie and hiding how you really feel, it’s draining. My guess is, even in their more honest, vulnerable moments, they’re still holding back. Maybe they don’t want to scare or overwhelm you, feel like a burden or an attention seeker, or have you jump to drastic measures. Whatever the reason, very few people, if any, probably ever see the full extent of their struggle, and therefore can’t understand just how much effort it really takes to mask it.

Man holds up different pictures in front of his face to hide his true emotions.
Courtesy of Bulat Silvia (via Canva)

They Don’t Want People To See Them Like This

Maybe they’re afraid a certain friend or family member will see through it and realize things are worse than they had assumed. That person might start asking too many questions, offering unwanted suggestions, or demanding certain action be taken. (I guess the problem could be you if you’re this person. There’s a fine line, which, admittedly, can be hard to figure out, between giving someone the help they need and just being overbearing.) Maybe they know they just won’t be able to mask it. They’re completely drained and won’t have the energy to fake it. To hide the dark circles under their eyes, the unkempt hair, the panged look in their face. They don’t want you to see them like this, to shock you. And they don’t want to feel the embarrassment brought on by the attention their disheveled appearance draws. It could be they’re also afraid to disappoint people (especially younger siblings, nieces, or nephews who might not understand as well) if they can’t “be themselves” and engage in a way they’re used to.

They Don’t Think They’ll Be Missed

Oftentimes, people dealing with mental illness are very low on themselves. They might doubt whether others truly care about them or enjoy having them around. When they have a hard time accepting and loving themselves, they can’t understand why others would. It’s especially hard when they don’t feel like themselves, or feel like they’ve changed. They might think, “Well, they enjoyed my company then, but they wouldn’t now.” Or in their numbed state, they might feel like they have no emotion, enthusiasm, or contribution to offer.

It Might Be A Cry For Attention

Their lack of attendance could be a desperate cry for attention. They could be hoping you’re thinking something along the lines of, “Wow, if Drew wasn’t able to make it to this wedding, he must really be having a hard time.” Or, “Normally Kate wouldn’t miss this for the world. Something must be really wrong.” It could also be an attempt to receive reassuring messages about how much they truly were missed and confirmation that their absence didn’t go unnoticed.

They Don’t Want To Explain Or Talk About It

It can be really difficult to explain what you’re dealing with to others who don’t understand mental illness… and even to those who do! The thought of having to field questions from multiple friends and family members they haven’t seen in a while can be overwhelming. They might not know how much to divulge to different people, wanting to share less with those they are less comfortable with, but in certain social settings, they may not have a choice. There might be questions they just don’t know how to answer or avoid, and questions they know will lead to too many follow-up questions. But then there are the family members who do have an idea of what’s going on, and they almost always have opinions and suggestions (as previously alluded to). They’re concerned and want to take every opportunity to address it, but grandma’s funeral or cousin’s graduation just isn’t the time. Maybe they’ve heard it all already, and just don’t ever want to hear it again, but don’t want to upset people and ruin the occasion by saying so.

Depressed black woman rests head on arms while leaning on railing.
Courtesy of Rawpixel Ltd. (via Canva)

They Don’t Want To Hurt Others

You know that expression, “If you don’t heal what hurt you, you’ll bleed on people who didn’t cut you.” I think that’s often how a lot of people with mental illness feel. They haven’t quite figured out to heal themselves yet, or sometimes it’s a wound that just keeps reopening, like the vicious cycle that mental illness can be. So they feel it’s best to stay away, to not have you having to worry about them and how they’re doing, if they’re uncomfortable, if you said the wrong thing, etc. They don’t want to draw attention away from the true focus of the event or celebration, and taint the memories of the day with their personal pain.

They Don’t Want More Reasons To Feel Hurt

It could be there are certain triggers or painful reminders they’re trying to avoid so as not to add more hurt and confusion to the current mix of things to process and work through. Maybe they’re afraid of what hurtful, misinformed things people might say, however well meaning. And it’s quite possible that trying to participate will just be a discouraging reminder of how difficult things have become for them, how different things are from what they used to be.

It Just Sounds Too Exhausting

Mental illness can take quite a physical toll, leaving your loved one feeling constantly fatigued. It might sound like way too much effort for them to hop on a plane or make the drive to see you… even if it’s only a few blocks away. Packing and planning may sound like a lot, or even just showering, picking out an outfit, and looking presentable. And on top of the effort it takes to get there, is the previously mentioned exhaustion caused by trying to put on a face.

Depressed teenage girl lies on couch with dog stuffed animal pulled tightly to her chest.
Courtesy of Jupiter Images (via Canva)

They’re Anxious About What Happens If They “Go Downhill”

Maybe your loved one is doing ok, but they’re anxious about what happens if they have a break down or an anxiety attack away from home, away from their comfort zone and their coping mechanisms. They might not feel like they can take a break from the situation or find a place for privacy if needed. Sometimes the fear of “going downhill” and feeling trapped increases the likelihood of that very thing happening.

Whatever the reason may be, try not to take personal offense to your loved one’s hesitancy about attending, or their complete avoidance. You might wonder how they could miss such an event, but in their mind, when all they can feel is heaviness, pain, and/or anxiety, they’re wondering how they could possibly come. At the moment, when mental illness clouds their mind, it’s hard for anything else to really matter. Do your best to be patient, compassionate, and understanding. Let them know how much you love them, keep inviting them, and try to make things as comfortable as you can.

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Connected In The Deep. You can read more from them on their blogSubmit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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