It’s December, and the social invitations are overflowing. Family, friends, co-workers and sometimes neighbors all want a piece of your time. If you’re like me, and you have a big family and friends from all parts of your life, the invitations themselves can become overwhelming at any time of year. But when you add socializing with mental illness to the mix, handling potential gatherings sometimes feels impossible.
Before I had bipolar disorder, I was a very sociable person. I went to parties, I met with groups of friends, I even went out on dates! But since I’ve experienced bipolar depression, my whole outlook on social events has changed. Instead of being excited about new social affairs, I’m simultaneously interested and afraid. The extrovert in me gets energy from being around people, and, therefore, wants to attend. But my bipolar brain is afraid of not having fun, or that nobody will talk to me, or of being alone in a room full of people. Sometimes I let my bipolar brain win.
Last week, two very good friends invited me to their holiday party. Now that they’re married with four children, their parties are family affairs with kid-friendly activities and lots of couples. Every year they invite me, and every year I decline. This year, I thought I’d make it because I’ve been feeling better. Then the negative thoughts started to swarm: You’ll be the only one without children, and you won’t have anyone to talk to because the hosts will be hosting. These thoughts aren’t that irrational, since I have spent entire parties alone, and I have nearly cried from loneliness at events where I’ve only known the hosts. But truly irrational are the beliefs attached to these thoughts — I’m boring, I’m always socially awkward, I don’t know how to make friends.
Socializing with mental illness also affects conditions other than bipolar disorder. I recently started seeing someone who has an anxiety disorder. It doesn’t necessarily affect our dates or our communication, but it does affect other kinds of socializing. Where I might get depressed about a party, he might become anxious about the same event, and that anxiety might manifest in physical symptoms or anger.
The other day, I asked him to attend a New Year’s Eve party with me. The party is another situation for me where I don’t know anyone but the hosts. My thinking was, if I can bring someone to this party with me, I will have someone to talk to so I won’t feel so alone and awkward. Plus, who doesn’t love a built-in kiss at midnight? But for my friend, a party full of strangers can be an anxiety trigger, even if I’m there, because it represents an unknown and potentially uncontrollable situation. He’s much more content staying at home with family on New Year’s Eve, while I will always opt to attend a public event, but with as much social fortification as possible. Either way, neither of us would ever go to a party alone, or just make a quick decision about a social event without doing some self-therapy first.
So if you have a friend who always declines your party invitations, or never stays at your functions for very long, they might be suffering from a mental illness that affects their ability to socialize. Understand them. Don’t block them out of your life. And definitely, invite them and when you can, give them some one-on-one time.