Trauma & How the Depressed Brain Pushes Us Into Social Isolation

Trauma and how the Depressed Brain Pushes us into Social Isolation

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Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:

It was 2016, and I’d just returned home to the Bay Area following a year-long stay in Uruguay.

Life felt starkly different than it had before I’d left, a recent college graduate. Several friends from uni still lived somewhat close by, but we were no longer a regular part of each other’s lives. Others had moved away, and others I’d lost contact with.

I remembered the loneliness I’d felt when I’d first arrived in Uruguay, and how I’d attributed these feelings to being a foreigner. Here, I was back in the U.S. though, and the feelings remained the same as they’d been 10,000 miles away.

It felt like my life had shrunk significantly. People my age were beginning new chapters in theirs, while mine stayed stuck on a page that just wasn’t turning.

And so, I applied for jobs and embarked on “real adult life,” surrounded by an air of solitude, all while missing the comfort, familiarity, and connectedness of my college community.

Though I spent time with new people that year, my basket felt empty around them. Most seemed only interested in alcohol-centered activities.

I longed for deeper and closer connections, built less on shared voids and more on mutual passions and support. Friendships where we could talk about the things we were most passionate about, and be met with interest and engagement in response. So many times throughout those months I’d think things like, There has to be more than numbing out and conversations that change topics every three seconds. More than the temporary illusion of closeness that alcohol provides.

After about a year and a half of living this way, negative thoughts crept in. Thoughts like, Maybe close friendships just arent in the cards for me. For the most part, people had only ever seemed to have brought pain and self-doubt into my life. This wasn’t fully true,  but my depressed brain believed it at the time.

Maybe itd be best to just live life on my own, and not even try anymore. Get a fresh start. Separate from the past.

I didn’t need anyone to be happy, I decided.

Moving seemed the most sensible way to achieve this. So I put an offer on a studio in Sacramento, where rent was cheaper and the pace of living a bit slower.

Greek hermit monks back in the ninth century resided within small caves carved out from the giant rocks of Meteora. The caves were constructed to be difficult to enter, with people having to climb or use a ladder to get to them (steps have since replaced them).

This idea appealed to me. Metaphorically, if not literally, it’s what I envisioned for my studio apartment. It would be my first time living entirely on my own without housemates.

I left in an attempt to outrun my own negative past. But that’s not how trauma works. It isn’t so easily discarded.

***

People had hurt me. And not just in a minor get-over-it-within-a-few-days kind of way, but profoundly—and for a while, it had felt, irreversibly. Starting at a young age.

An introvert, in early elementary school, I often preferred my own projects, hobbies, books, and solo pursuits over spending time with big groups of kids. I had friends and acquaintances, just no one I was all that enthusiastic about.

C was one friend I did make an effort for, though.

We’d record songs about “booty butts” on our PlaySchool tape recorders. We’d exchange inside jokes in accents, with exaggerated facial expressions befuddling to outside observers, but endlessly hilarious to the two of us.

I experienced intimacy with her in the way that Alain de Botton described it; as “the capacity to be rather weird with someone—and finding that that’s okay with them.”

As it turned out though, I wasn’t as indispensable to C as she was to me. I remember that day on the school playground vividly. C had just overheard me refer to her as my best friend.

“Is it okay if you’re my second best friend?” she asked me, eyes wide. Because I really like Courtney…”

That sting of discovering I came in second planted the seeds for a self-fulfilling prophecy.

***

Our connection never quite felt the same after that conversation. C and I gradually drifted until one day, it was like we’d never been friends at all. We became two strangers who’d occasionally pass each other in the halls.

Fast forward to the start of seventh grade, when the friends I’d eaten lunch with for over a year told me I could no longer sit with them.

I remember quietly nodding when one of the girls informed me of their decision, then walking away feeling like I was treading through water—ears clogged, vision blurred.

For the remainder of that year I spent lunch down in the science building’s dungeon-like multi-purpose room, watching movies like Jimmy Neutron alongside the school’s other outcasts. I’d sometimes go an entire lunch without saying a single word to anyone but the janitor.

As I chewed my apple slices and tried not to think about how one of my former friends used to always ask for the skinless ones, my mind mapped a new lesson onto its neural pathways that would endure for many years:

Youre not someone who was meant for relationships.

Back in elementary school, I’d spent time apart from others willingly. Here now in middle school, I did so out of shame and necessity. There wasn’t any choice in the matter.

If you dont expect people to hold you up, theres no way they can let you down, I wrote in my diary at the time. I dont need anybody but myself.

***

A year or so later, Denise became my friend. Initially, Denise brought me out of my shell with her unbound and “unapologetically me” energy. I often left our hangouts with my cheeks aching from having laughed so much.

Eventually, though, I found myself paying for things far too often (when I resisted, she’d call me selfish). She’d leave messes after spending time at my house, then dismiss me (with an eye roll) when I’d try voicing how this made me feel.

It took almost a year to disentangle from the friendship. I think I stayed as long as I did because, like with C, around Denise I didn’t feel so dead inside. The seventh grade friend rejection had plummeted my confidence, leading to a depression that made occasional pain seem like a reasonable price to pay for the reward of feeling just a bit more alive. At least I have a friend, went my irrational logic.

Toward the later years of high school, I began forging healthier friendships. One I met in geometry class. He asked if he could borrow my protractor, and I recognized him from our school’s bird-calling contest. It turned out that he and I lived close, so many days we’d walk home together.  He was one of the first people I came out to towards the later years of high school.

Another sat in front of me in history class. She and I chatted so much that the teacher separated us; thereafter, we communicated through passing notes (some of which I still have).

And for a few years or so (starting in college) I seemed to be living closer to my full potential than ever before. At long last I felt connected to a community, with diverse friend options, social invitations, and ample involvement in clubs.

Fast forward back to 2016.

As I drove past cornfields and yellowed hills that were comforting in their repetitive barrenness, it occurred to me that maybe those fleeting moments of connection, all those friendships I’d supposedly made, had been nothing more than mirages.

Had any of it even been real? I wondered.

Such is the logic a depressed mind believes when looking back on neutral—or even positive—experiences. It has a way of rubbing out the color and convincing you that everything was black and white all along.

***

 

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I fell into comforting rituals during those initial weeks. Many mornings I’d take a smoothie to the park on the corner and read while watching squirrels make playgrounds out of the white stone fountain.

Other days I’d pedal a baby-blue bike past the Victorian houses and leafy green trees that dotted Midtown’s tranquil residential streets. Some nights I’d attend comedy shows, experiencing life vicariously without any risk brought by direct human interaction.

And yet my day-to-day life lacked structure. Nothing pulled me from bed in the morning. Few tasks confronted me that absolutely needed to be completed (ridesharing was a job I could work purely on my own schedule). I also wasn’t meeting new people or forming relationships. Rideshare interactions did provide meaningful conversation at the time, but I never saw those passengers again beyond that one ride I gave them.

I told myself this was okay. That it was exactly what I’d proclaimed to have wanted, even: to be independent and not need any company but my own.

***

Close to a couple months in though, that feeling changed. The desire for connection took root again inside my heart, and I began messaging a woman I’d matched with on the dating apps.

The exchanges started out low-key, friendly, and casual before evolving to more personal disclosure. Soon they read like long confessionals, immensely cathartic and diary-like in their breadth and revelation.

Like me, G was in a phase of life where she wanted to shut out what she too perceived to be the big, loud, and unrelenting world. She’d withdrawn from many friends, lost the desire to socialize, and felt her life only had room for meaningful connections.

Our messages seemed to, at least partially, be meeting that need. In time they progressed into phone calls, which turned into very occasional in-person hangouts.

Not long after though, a bad feeling began to weigh on me, covering over the initial pleasantness.  I realized I’d fallen into an unhealthy dependence on her, even though she couldn’t give me the commitment that I sought and deeply wanted.

As my world continued to shrink, my mental health took a nose-dive as well. Brainfog and fatigue had become parts of my daily reality.

A few months in, I realized I’d allowed G to become my only form of social support. My plan had been to do life on my own; not succumb to the swampy pull of a relationship that my brain knew was bad for me.

Yet there I was.

Things reached a breaking point, and once they did, all that I’d buried that had pushed me to want to withdraw from the world months back surfaced with a vengeance. I realized then that it wouldn’t go away on its own; I would need to confront it. Running away was no longer the solution. It never had been.

***

I moved back to the Bay Area to be closer to family. Once resettled, I resumed sessions with my therapist. She and I revisited those formative childhood friendship experiences in an attempt to reach the root of my need to shut the world out.

What came up was a recollection of a night some friends had just spent time at my house. I was 15 or 16 and had spent the evening crying in my room while four of them hooked up in my basement. One of them had been the guy who was my first kiss.

None of them noticed my puffy eyes as they left, but my dad did. And I won’t ever forget the sad look on his face when he asked what was wrong, paired with the somber and quiet tone of what he said next:

“Eleni… why do you spend time with people who make you feel this way?”

I wouldn’t have an answer for years. But I realized then—and it helped to remind myself—that I may not have consciously chosen, but tolerated every friend who ultimately hurt me. Every romantic partner I felt didn’t value me. Every date or housemate who left me feeling unseen, or seemed to care minimally about my well-being. I tolerated it back when I was asleep. But I’m awake now and can choose differently.

I can elect to keep my heart safe. I can bar access to those who toss it around like teenagers tumbling through a hasty match of drunk beach volleyball.

And I can look at my own role as well.

Unexamined trauma made me insensitive at times. After being hurt, a defender awoke within me while my better and kinder self went to sleep. I’d lost the ability to distinguish between friend and foe, which implicated me into a cycle of harm. I didn’t always nurture my friendships. I wasn’t always the best with follow-through, even though I wanted nurturance and follow-through from others. I often didn’t communicate directly, and would let resentments build up over time, until eventually they would boil over.

Yes, you had some scarring experiences; but not everyone who was once a part of your life was bad or toxic. Some of the friendships simply ran their course.

In the ones where you didnt feel supported, what could you have done to more clearly communicate your needs? In what ways were you not assertive, or did you wait to bring things up only once they’d reached a boiling point?

Im part of the equation. How am I behaving?

I’d never thought to ask the friends back in middle school why they’d been upset with me. Nor did I seek to clarify what I’d done, or not done. I didn’t think for even a minute that maybe the issue was one we could work through, or that there was something I was doing that I could change.

The me of today would want to know, so that I could avoid repeating similar behavior. I’d want to listen to their feelings and make changes to potentially salvage our friendship. I’d remember that my actions fall within my control. That even if I’m engaging in one that has an unintended negative impact, it doesn’t mean I’m bad. It means I have habits to adjust. Behaviors to reflect on. New skills to learn.

***

These realizations weighed down on me, compelling me to take better care of my friendships in the months that followed.

I paid more attention to moments that I’d moved too fast to fully notice or feel gratitude for before. One of these moments included a recent camping trip with my friend. We woke to the sounds of the river. On the way home we made a pit stop at a cafe nestled (serendipitously) amidst the trees. Inside it we read the newspaper over buttered toast and coffee, in comfortable silence.

Michelle Obama wrote of these types of friendships:

They need no witnesses. They are not trying to accomplish something that can be measured or cashed in upon; the substance mostly happens behind the scenes.”

***

By moving with a wounded heart to a new city on my own, I’d tried to separate from pain, and simply put, it didn’t work. The line between healthy and restorative solitude and harmful isolation can be blurry, and I’d traveled too far towards the latter end.

Healthy human connection is our life force, likely sounds obvious, particularly to those who’ve never experienced a major depressive spell. As I came to find though, it’s possible to know something intellectually, but actually going through the experience teaches the lesson more powerfully than words could ever.

Living on my own without a social safety net made the lesson abundantly clear. It tattooed the message onto my brain.

I had trouble distinguishing between the two at the time, but I now realize there are some relationships you should nurture, some you should turn away from. There are times I should close myself off, and times I should open up. It’s more nuanced than an all or nothing strategy.

Our muscle memory can walk us into the same situations that hurt our younger selves. It’s so important to heal what’s beneath that pattern, so as to interrupt it. It’s only when we do that we can then access what truly sustains our spirits. It’s our higher selves who decide whether the cycle continues. Only we can be the ones to disrupt it.

These realizations remind me of my agency. They reassure me that the past isn’t destined to repeat.

They free me by plucking me from the hamster wheel I once ran on for so many years. It’s been a relief to hear quiet in place of spinning metal. It’s a sound of utmost peace to my once beaten-down soul.

​EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: Gabriel Nathan | EDITOR: Evan Bowen-Gaddy | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | SITE ORIGINATOR: Bud Clayman

 

Eleni is a Spanish interpreter and freelance writer living in Oakland, CA. In her spare time she enjoys wandering through nature, reading psychology and mindfulness content, speaking Spanish, and petting cats. Connect with Eleni on Medium and Instagram.