A while ago, an article in the New York Times made the rounds. In equal parts interesting and provoking, it was titled, “Am I Introverted, or Just Rude?” This past week, I saw it pop up on my newsfeed again. As a personal narrative, it is a valid self-appraisal, but it brings to mind one of the most pervasive problems facing people with depression: isolation.
Introversion and depression are not the same thing.
Introversion is a personality trait wherein energy is gathered more from within rather than from others. An introvert may prefer to spend a good chunk of time alone or one-on-one in deep conversation while an extrovert may need more socializing with larger groups of people to feel content. Young people, particularly as children, can be diagnosed as depressed when they're really just quiet little introverts in an extroverted world.
Depression is a mental disorder that an estimated 350 million people worldwide suffer from. Major depressive disorder is a serious illness that can affect every aspect of a person's life. From afar, there are some overlapping characteristics between depression and introversion, but in depression a lack of socializing is not a personal preference, it is a symptom and a side effect of being depressed. Depression can interfere with our ability to complete daily tasks. It dampens our energy (aka depresses).
I have major depressive disorder, and have experienced cyclical episodes of it for two-thirds of my life, beginning when I was about 11 years old. I'm not alone in this pattern. Then there is treatment-resistant depression, a third of people with depression don’t respond to multiple attempts at treatment. That isn't to imply there is no solution, but that the treatments they have tried have been inadequate or they have co-occuring disorders that are interfering with treatment for depression.
Depression is isolating.
Social contact helps treat depression, but depression causes social isolation. It is a terrible side effect of a debilitating condition. Not everyone has strong friendships and it doesn't make them rude or reflect their true character. When you also experience an anxiety disorder like PTSD alongside depression, it can compound the problem and make a person struggle to engage socially even when not in an emotional down swing. Depression and anxiety can be baffling to friends who we cancel plans with. Isolation can make the depressed person seem unreliable and flaky, when I make a promise I am genuine in my determination to follow through, but I am not always capable of delivering on that promise.
This can have a lasting impact on a person's relationships. A short episode of depression may be easier to socially bounce back from if a person responds well to treatment. Then there are so many of us who will experience multiple episodes of depression or have it for decades.
Being depressed and introverted can make it hard to tease apart what solo-social urges are attributed to. Is it depression or just introversion?
I am the worst at small talk. I always forget to ask the basic questions that small talk involves. If someone gets on about an idea or like a big experience, I am on board and into it. The small talk, I can't follow it and I don't get why we are talking about how you decided to go get a new pair of sunglasses. We aren't in the store or outside and you didn't even bring the damn things with you. It isn't on purpose, my brain just does not work like that. If I'm at a gathering, and everyone is just small talking it up, I struggle to connect.
I like people and all, they're great, but I can easily get too much of people. Just a friendly interaction in the grocery store or a Skype convo with old friends is enough to fill up my social cup when I'm on the go. I used to believe there was something wrong with me for being that way.
Most of my closest friends are extroverts. My husband is an extrovert and I like that. It is their extroverted and outgoing effort that has pushed me to make friends and socialize. I am perfectly content spending a Saturday pampering myself and getting dolled up as if I'm going out, but then just sitting my ass down and watching reruns of my favorite TV shows.
I have always struggled with friendships.
I cancel plans more than I should. I am guilty of doing it so often that I avoid making plans set in stone. I'm always saying, "I'll pencil you in" or "Let's try and see beforehand." Because when the time comes to go do whatever the plan was, I might either be too overwhelmed by recent social interactions or I won't have the energy or desire to do anything.
When I discovered alcohol, that changed. I thought I had the most friends when I was drinking. I didn't know how to connect with people, so I was encouraging everyone to take "friendship shots" to solidify a false sense of commitment. That's how I lived, drinking to feel confident enough to believe in friendship, even if that confidence was merely for a fleeting moment and faded as soon as the alcohol slipped down my throat. The promise of friendship lasted only as long as the burn of the shot.
In my twenties, when I would travel I was not interested in making friends with all the people in a hostel. So alcohol played a major role in bypassing my struggle with connecting. The thought of socializing with strangers at a party would either get me feeling shy or anxious. I had to get lit on vodka or red wine to trick myself into having the desire to go up to strangers at an event and try to make friends.
I was so desperate to be anywhere but my own body that I surrounded myself with people who were belittling bullies. As long as they were going to hang out with me and I could drink, I didn't care. People whose personal ego was so inflated they didn't think they did anything wrong ever. I lived in denial, which let me see past their obviously harmful behavior. I was blinded to it.
I'm not necessarily better at friendships now that I'm sober, but it doesn't bother me in the same way it used to. I don't need to change who I am, I just have to accept who I am. I don't have to force an outgoing personality to get people to like me. I don't have to be best friends with everyone. Their acceptance of me is not my business, being accepting of myself is a job only I can fulfill, no one else can do that for me.
Do you think you might have depression?
Seek professional support for a diagnosis and treatment options.
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Originally published 1 January 2018
Last updated January 28, 2018
By Kristance Harlow
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