Overcoming Mental Illness Meant Accepting I’m an Introvert
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
“Childhood is the best time of your life.” That’s what everyone told me when I was growing up. Maybe it was supposed to help me appreciate my youth—it didn’t work. If these were my best years, the rest of my life was hopeless. I didn’t know I was an introvert, or how this shaped my younger years. There’s no way of knowing how my life would have been different or if I would have struggled with my mental health if I was extroverted. Yet, a lot of the problems I experienced were linked to this, and not accepting myself for who I was.
I grew up feeling abnormal. I was the quiet girl at every school I went to, the girl who only had a couple friends, the girl who would often spend her lunch break reading a book. There were a few quiet children in my classes, but somehow they managed to fit in with the other students. I was bullied—name calling, physical violence occasionally, theft of my belongings in my teens. People would ask me out, but only as a joke. So, I said “no” to everyone, because I didn’t know if any of them were ever genuine. I recall one occasion where a boy in my class got his sister to hit me on the way home from school. I was older and could have fought back, but the boy said he’d beat me up if I did. All of this encouraged anyone else who might have talked to me to stay as far away as possible.
There was no internet to learn about being an introvert, and the only books I had access to were limited to those stocked by the library bus that visited our area once a week. None of them covered the subject. Today, everyone seems to know about everything, and if they don’t, there’s Google.
After years of being bullied and feeling worthless, it was impossible to see myself as normal. I thought if everyone else could socialize and be outgoing, and they all treated me like I was the abnormal one, then it must be true. This made me withdraw and stay away from people more and more. It was like I felt embarrassed for existing at all. I had one or two close friends at different times in my life, but never felt like I connected with people the way others did. They talked and laughed together easily, and because I was so used to people laughing at me, I had trouble gathering whether or not they were laughing at me. I felt like everyone could tell that something was wrong with me just by looking.
I went into foster care at the age of thirteen. At first, I lived in a children’s home for a while before bouncing around from one foster home to another. This only drove me further apart from kids my age. Kids at school all talked about their family and their parents. My friend’s brother asked if I had bars on my bedroom window, and other children made up stories about why I was in care, as if it was my fault. I was too embarrassed to admit my dad was violent, because I believed that had to be my fault.
While comparing the home to a prison was unrealistic, I did feel imprisoned in my own life. I was the odd one out even in that setting, where the other children had experienced traumatic events in their lives. It should have given us a connection, but it didn’t. I was still different because my personality was different from theirs. They drank and smoked, dated boys, and shoplifted. I wasn’t interested in any of that, but I occasionally joined in the drinking to try and fit in.
Living in a home with other children to whom I wasn’t related and with whom I had little in common wasn’t a great experience for me. There was almost no privacy. Most of the time, I shared a room with another child. So, even escaping to my room wasn’t an option, because I would never be alone there for long. I just wanted to listen to and get lost in my favorite music, but I couldn’t relax in the same way I would if I had my own room.
I was told to talk to people
I missed a lot of school, because I just needed to escape the bullying, and being on my own during the day was the only time I got to be alone. I would go to the library and read books where the characters always overcame whatever problem they were facing, or had better lives than me. Or if the library staff realized I should be in school and asked me to leave, I would ride around on buses for most of the day listening to CDs. It was easy to get absorbed in the music. Because of how far behind I fell with schoolwork, I was held back a year. This led to me leaving school without any qualifications. I just couldn’t cope with an extra year of school.
My family (when I lived with them) and the people I worked with after I left school all encouraged me to talk to people and make friends, as if it was that easy. I felt, after years of being bullied and feeling different from everyone else, why would anyone want to be friends with someone like me? I hated myself, and assumed everyone else would feel the same about me.
It felt like everyone was in a social group that suited them and I didn’t fit into any of these groups. There were the smart kids who stuck together, the kids who were popular with both the students and the teachers (and were chosen for everything), and even the quiet kids who still seemed to have more in common with each other than I had with most of the students.
Surprisingly, I loved drama classes at school on the rare occasions we had them. Maybe it was because I could be someone else. As an adult, I joined a drama group, but it was the parts where I had to socialize as myself that I struggled with. After a while, the loneliness ate away at me and I became depressed, feeling like my life was hopeless. Friendships never seemed to last long outside of one pen pal, who has now been my friend offline for over 20 years. It helped that we had a lot in common, like our shared interest in the paranormal.
It sounds so simple, and it is, but I had no idea. Now, I know that if I read out some of my work at an open-mic night, the mental energy spent on reading in front of an audience and the socializing isn’t so bad, provided I spend the next night at home. I realize that many people still won’t understand, but I feel less guilty now, and am more accepting of myself. I know I’m doing what is best for me, and trying to please other people who don’t understand won’t help me or them.
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Wanting to die
Looking back, I see that my mental health suffered because I was an introvert and I didn’t understand myself. Plenty of introverts go through life with lots of friends, a career, family and much more. I stayed in my room wishing to die.
I attempted to die by suicide several times, but these didn’t work, and I probably didn’t want to die as much as I thought I did. I only wanted things to be different. I wanted them to be better. I just didn’t know how to make them better.
Feeling like a failure
I carried on for several more years, trying to hold down a job as soon as I was old enough to be employed. I tried joining various social groups during my twenties and thirties, but still felt disconnected from everyone. One of the strongest memories I have of one of my failed jobs was one position where I was expected to answer the phones. The callers could be tenants who wanted to insulate their homes, or contractors scheduled to carry out the installations. The emotions I felt are hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t gone through the same thing. There was the feeling of dread attached to not knowing who would be on the other end, and the fear I might not know how to help them. I worried I may just freeze up and not know what to say. I worried about work so much that I would have nightmares, wake up crying, and spend all of my non-working time worrying. When I left, it was after taking a call I didn’t feel prepared for. I went for an early lunch and never came back. It made me feel like a complete failure that I couldn’t do this simple task that everyone else seemed to manage without a second thought.
Learning about being an introvert
I was in my late thirties when I read a book called “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain, that changed my life for the better. I recognized so much of myself in the examples she used, and was surprised by the idea of introverts doing things like public speaking and enjoying it. I had tried spoken-word open mic nights and co-hosted a book review podcast, and mostly found comfort in reading from a page and pretending the audience wasn’t there. Podcasting wasn’t as awkward as it could have been. It’s easier to imagine nobody listening when you record something on your own or in a room with one other person.
It took two years to unravel a lot of the damage caused by growing up without understanding myself. I used some of the tactics covered in the book. This included thinking of social events and public speaking as spending mental energy. For an introvert, this energy needs to be replenished with quiet time alone, or with close friends or family. So, I’d prioritize the things I really wanted to do or had little choice in and see if I still had the bandwidth for anything else. Looking back on my younger years, I can see how knowing about this would have helped. For example, when I moved to the other side of the country to work with disabled children: On my days off, I would talk to the nearest town just to get out of the shared housing. Instead, my social energy would have been better spent around the other employees getting to know them, then spending some time alone in my room to balance that out. After two weeks, I left because I wasn’t sleeping and constantly felt on edge.
The simple step of understanding how I feel and knowing what I need to do after something socially exhausting has changed my life, and built up my career. I’m finally finding traction as a freelancer, and am even feeling less anxiety in video interviews. Before I understood and accepted myself as an introvert, I wouldn’t have been able to do those things. I know when to push myself and when to be lenient with myself and take a step back. Sometimes a little discomfort is manageable if I know the end goal is worth it. For example, I was nervous about the video calls for some recent job interviews and may not have been able to contribute or speak out as much as other people, but I got through it, knowing it would lead to the type of work I enjoy—writing and more or less being left alone to do my job until the editing stages. I made lots of notes and placed them around my laptop, so if I panicked and my mind went blank, the info and questions would be easy to find.
I won’t lie and say my life is perfect now, but I have managed to build up more confidence than I had. With each achievement and challenge I overcome, I feel stronger. Sometimes I still feel like I don’t fit, or like I‘ve failed at something everyone else manages to do. When this happens, I try to remind myself of how far I’ve come.
Understanding is definitely the key to living my life to the fullest as an introvert. Personally, some of the signs that I’m getting socially drained are switching off mentally, giving minimal responses when someone asks me something, or feeling like time is dragging even when I’m doing something I usually enjoy. If I’m not able to leave immediately, I just try not to beat myself up or feel bad for not being as social as everyone else. I think other struggling introverts reading this could follow my example, find out what works for them, and achieve more than they ever expected to. For me, recharging my energy can involve reading a book, binging on my favorite TV shows, playing a game on my phone or just going for a walk. I just wish someone had talked to me about being an introvert when I was younger. If nothing else, it could have helped me manage things better. It might have saved me a lot of mental pain.
If you or someone you know may be in crisis or considering suicide, please call, text, or chat the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.