Some Thoughts on Depression and Solitude

So I’m having this conundrum.

woman alone in window seat
On the one hand: I love solitude. And I mean LOVE it. Long stretches of time to myself have always been a luxurious pleasure for me. Before I was with Ingrid, there were years where I spent Christmas Day alone every year — and it was one of the most delightful parts of the holiday season, an oasis of quiet solitude and self-indulgence in the middle of a social whirl. When Ingrid and I first got together and were contemplating whether to move in together, one of the issues we looked at was how I would get my much-needed time and space alone. (In fact, we didn’t move in together for seven years — not entirely for this reason, but partly.) And one of the biggest benefits of quitting my day job and becoming a full-time freelance writer was that it gave me long stretches of solitude.

In fact, I don’t just love time alone. I need it. I’m an introvert, and a big part of what that means is that I’m replenished and rejuvenated by time alone, and exhausted by time with others. It’s not that I don’t enjoy time with others — I do, very much. It’s just that I hit a wall with it. I enjoy it for a couple/few hours (more or fewer hours depending on the people and the situation), and then I get tired and need to go away and be alone for a while. (I believe the term for this is “social introvert.”) Solitude isn’t just a pleasure: it’s a necessity.

On the other hand:

Ever since this current stretch of depression, I’ve been paying attention to when I’m depressed and when I’m not. I’m paying attention to what gives me depressive symptoms, and what alleviates them, and what actually bolsters my mental health and makes me feel positively robust.

And I’m finding that when I have many days in a row where I spend many hours alone in the house without interacting with anyone but Ingrid and the cats, I tend to get depressed. When I get out of the house every day, and interact every day at least briefly with human beings who aren’t Ingrid, my mental health improves. This isn’t the entire picture, of course — my mental health also improves when I take my meds, go to therapy, get exercise, meditate — but it’s a big part of it.

I’m thinking about this because I’ve recently started a new mental health self-care routine. Instead of just generically promising myself that I’ll leave the house once a day to do some unspecified thing, I now have a specific routine. Every weekday, unless I have some particular other thing scheduled, I get to a cafe by 1:00 pm, and work on my laptop there. And I’ve found, just in the week that I’ve been doing this, with no other substantial change in my life, that my mental health has significantly improved. I’ve been having a rough patch with depression in the last few months — not terrible, but not great, and very stubborn — and just in this past week, I’ve become more alert, more energetic, more hopeful and optimistic, more engaged with the world. Heck, I’ve been positively bouncy at times — and I haven’t been bouncy in months.

Dammit to fucking hell.

Yes, I know. It’s ridiculous to be saying, “Gee, I’ve found this fairly easy trick that significantly bolsters my mental health, I was feeling shitty and now I feel great — dammit to fucking hell.” I’m aware of how lucky I am to have depression that isn’t completely intractable, that does respond to treatment and self-care. And if this is what it takes, then this is what it takes, and I will be fine with that. But I’m betting that at least some other introverts are reading this and going, “I know exactly what you mean.”

I do not want to give up my solitude. I love my solitude. I need my solitude. And it’s not just that I love solitude. I love being a person who is comfortable with solitude. I love the sense of self-reliance; I love enjoying the undistracted company of my own mind; I love the quiet. I am highly resistant to giving that up.

But it’s become increasingly clear to me that — for me anyway, for right now anyway — solitude and depression don’t mix. (My understanding is that this is common, but I don’t want to speak for anyone else’s depression, or give anyone my unsolicited amateur medical advice about their own mental illness.) I said earlier that long stretches of time to myself are a luxurious pleasure. But it would be more accurate to say that this used to be true, that it is sometimes still true but not always or even mostly true. Solitude has become more like sweets, or television: a pleasure, but one I need to be careful about indulging in, one that can make me feel good and happy when I have just a little and am in a good mood, but can send me spiraling into crappitude when I have too much and am already feeling bleccch.

internet cafe
It has been helpful to remember that this isn’t an either/or thing. It’s not like my choice is between (a) long stretches of time all alone almost every day, or (b) spending every single day in a noisy office and every single night at a cocktail party. You may have noticed that my new daily routine involves sitting quietly at a cafe table and working on my laptop. But the simple presence of other people around me, themselves working or talking quietly; the few brief interactions I have with the baristas and the other cafe customers; the constant background awareness that I am not alone in the world — this does seem to wake me up, energize me, make me feel connected, give me some resilience and bounce, give me some hope. I’m also finding value in quiet time with people I’m close to, time spent not talking but simply being in the same room together, reading or Facebooking or whatever. And of course, this may not last forever: my mental health may get back to being more robust, and I may someday be able to return to longer stretches of sweet, luxurious, self-indulgent solitude.

But not now.

I’m trying really hard to not end this by saying “Yes, I realize I’m lucky, dammit to fucking hell” twenty more times. So I’ll end with a question. If there are other introverts with depression — what’s your experience with this?

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Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

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Some Thoughts on Depression and Solitude
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17 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Depression and Solitude

  1. 1

    I find I have a similar problem, but for me, the solution isn’t just getting out of the house, it’s shaking up routine. I will set up a routine that helps my depression and makes me feel refreshed and energetic for a while, months maybe, but eventually, like a drug, almost (or exactly, I guess, I am no neurologist) I experience diminishing returns. Soon I have to go to a place I have never been before or try something novel to get renewed and that gets put into the routine.

  2. 3

    I find that what affects my depression most detrimentally is when I have no choice but to interact with people day after day after day. That’s called work. It’s all about whether I can say “No, today I must stay home alone.”

  3. 4

    And with that one post I decide I WILL go to that out door concert this evening…no matter what I need to do to pry my ass out of the LazyBoy of Doom.

    (Seriously though – thank you for talking about this publicly…I am going through a bout right now – feel like I’m swimming through molasses and feeling OH NO NOT AGAIN!!!!)

    Your perspective and openness is something I am grateful for today.

  4. 5

    I have noticed this very same thing in myself, as well. Primates are social animals, and we have evolved a deep need to be around others. There is something comforting, or at least de-stressing, about being part of a crowd even when there is no other social contact. I like being by myself, but going out at least once a day and sitting in a coffee shop using their wifi, or relaxing in the park with a book while occasionally watching people playing frisbee or soccer is not optional for my mental health.

  5. 6

    Warning, amateur psychology bullshit ahead:

    I think people enjoy finding labels that resonate with them and are descriptive of who they are a majority of the time. It’s just that they can become a problem when people start making the label part of their identity, and treating it proscriptively. Once that happens, the times where they don’t actually feel like they match the label can start to feel like a betrayal of self.

    Even if they always had times where they didn’t feel like the label, their experience of those times can change as how they identify with the label does. However, if those times are new, or even just more frequent, simply because they’ve grown or otherwise changed over the years, it’s gonna be even weirder.

  6. 7

    I think my own depression (or whatever it is) adapts to any consistent pattern. I know I’m quite capable of disappearing into a ‘solitude’ the SEEMS to feel good while I’m in it. But which leaves me with a growing sense of loss and inadequacy.

    My current circumstances give me access to an extraordinary association of friends and colleagues on a daily basis. But that, too, can easily settle into a routine in which I’m lacking fresh stimuli from outside that ‘special’ circle.

    I think there needs to be enough variety and uncertainty to make the familiar and ‘safe’ come up to their real value.

  7. 8

    I find that going to a cafe has always been the ideal solution to the solitude->depression problem. My interaction with humans is minimal when I’m out for coffee, being entirely limited to being nice while paying for it. But humans are around, and that alone seems to suffice (but then I’m not simply introverted; I’m entirely lonerish, to the point where non-autopilot daily human interaction worsens my depression).

  8. 9

    tl;dr: my health seems to do best when I’m alone, surrounded by relatively quiet people who don’t talk to me. Coffeeshops and libraries are antidepressants :-p

  9. 10

    I’m an introvert with a history of mild depression, now controlled by mediation. I telecommute, which suits me perfectly. I don’t have to worry about coworkers barging into my office and bombarding me with small-talk. I can just focus on writing code. Even so, I have to leave the house at lunch so I can get away from the four walls.

    I also play board games once a week, so my hobby gives me some social interaction.

    Question for you, Greta, if it’s not too personal or too off-topic. Is Ingrid an introvert too? If not, was she initially receptive to your need for solitude?

    I ask because my wife is even more introverted than I am. We both understood that there would be times we both need to get the hell away from each other. But many of my extroverted friends back in college would get absolutely offended if I didn’t want to socialize with them at a moment’s notice.

  10. 11

    Yes! I experience this too. While I NEED time alone, too much time alone can exacerbate my depression. I have to find the right balance at different times of my life. Too much socialization drives me batty, but then so does too much time completely alone. I try to figure out when having more human contact will help rather than annoy me. Sometimes when depressed I need to mope around alone for a bit, but too much never helps. As you say, others may have a different experience, but mine is similar to yours.

  11. 12

    (a little late to the commenting party). During my last significant bout of depression, it was a very important step for me to stop beating myself up about wanting very large stretches of time to myself – that it didn’t make me pathetic, or not a worthwhile person, etc. Knowing that really let me focus on what I actually enjoyed doing (instead of what I wan’t doing – i.e. socialising!) .
    But for where I am now, acknowledging that the there are/can be negative consequences to too much time alone in one stretch (which is completely true) feels doubly hard – because at least on the surface it feels like saying ‘actually you were right the first time, you should want to be around people more’.
    My share of good luck is that my workplace contains friends (and friend-like people), and I think that provides me with a lot of good low level social buffering.

  12. 13

    Heh. I’m laughing at you Ophelia, but it’s affectionate, because I have the exact same thing.

    For me, I’ve just had to face up to the fact that solitude is something that I have to earn through time management and self care. Just like reading or videogame time. Which, come to think of it, are both things I like to do in solitude.

  13. 14

    Not Ophelia. Greta.

    Damnit! I’ve started as a helper at a beginners dance class at my studio, and I’ve been learning so many new names in the last two weeks that I’ve even started confusing the names of people I’ve known for ages. >.<

  14. 15

    My experience with depression and solitude is much like Jadehawk has described, which surprises me because I don’t think of our lives as being all that similar (based on other Jadehawk comments I have read). Having other people around seems to set a floor under my depression. And in my normal days, I like being around people, even those I don’t know. I’m one of those aggravating people who will make a funny remark to the total stranger behind me while we’re waiting in line, and if you’re fool enough to laugh I WILL follow it up with friendly chitchat. On my normal days. It’s OK though, I won’t follow you back to your table.

    On my depressed days, I can’t stand to be around the complete strangers for very long, and I can’t quite get the gumption up to begin a conversation which would change their status to “Not quite complete strangers because we had that chat once.” I used to go home and be more depressed on days like this, but now The Boyfriend lives there too and he’s pretty much around all the time I’m awake. Sometimes he’s got an entire band there for practice, even. So the former solitude of the house now mostly isn’t, and I mostly am kept out of the deepest holes. It feels odd sometimes but mostly it’s good.

  15. 17

    […] In fact, I don’t just love time alone. I need it. I’m an introvert, and a big part of what that means is that I’m replenished and rejuvenated by time alone, and exhausted by time with others. It’s not that I don’t enjoy time with others — I do, very much. It’s just that I hit a wall with it. I enjoy it for a couple/few hours (more or fewer hours depending on the people and the situation), and then I get tired and need to go away and be alone for a while. (I believe the term for this is “social introvert.”) Solitude isn’t just a pleasure: it’s a necessity. […]

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