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🎧You’re Gonna Be Popular
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🎧 Listen to Sarah read this installment of Cured:
My idea about what it will mean to be recovered from serious mental illness gets tangled up with the American obsession with being very, very social. Having friends can be wholesome and fortifying, but not when it’s seen as evidence that we’re worthy. The misconception is that if we have lots and lots of people around (virtually or corporeally), then we’re okay. This line of thinking leads us to regularly attend brunch when we don’t want to, tally the number of people who wish us a happy birthday, take likes and shares on social media seriously, and believe we should have fifty friends instead of the more reasonable (and more common) two or three.
I’ve always been a solitary, albeit a sociable one. The term introvert is thrown around too easily and defined in different ways, but in the sense that some people are fueled by being alone and enjoying their own company, I suppose it applies to me. I don’t hunger to be around others. Small talk with my neighbors, being with my family, and cat videos on Instagram meet a surprising amount of my need for connection.
Some of us are hardwired for solitude. Researchers theorize that our brains have a social circuitry that strives for homeostasis. When it’s depleted, some people need a lot of interaction to get even a faint dopamine hit; others need little interaction to get the same bump.
Much is made about how important social connection is to our mental well-being, and social support is considered fundamental to mental health recovery. One’s social support network includes someone to do things with, someone who can give emotional support, someone who can validate you and what you might be going through, someone who can do you a favor like driving you to a medical appointment, and someone who has the knowledge to guide you through a problem or help you reach a goal.
But the data is fuzzy when it comes to how much being social helps one heal from mental illness. Ultimately, in any study on social connection and mental health, there’s no way to tell if socializing spurs recovery or if those who’ve recovered have more social interactions.
Nevertheless, I decide to do things. People—normal people—do things. They go to brunch and parties and don’t feel at all miserable. It’s a big goal, given that I’ve spent the past five years living with my mother and leaving the house only when I had to.
I start by going with my family to the theater—my mother’s favorite. To her, almost any musical theater production is a must-see. She raised us on musicals, taking us to see them and playing recordings of Oklahoma! and My Fair Lady and Cats. I knew all the words to “When I Take You Out in My Surry” before I could say the Pledge of Allegiance. My mother sees her share of heady, intellectual theater too, but she prefers “a little song and a little dance,” as she puts it, and a happy ending.
Halfway through A Chorus Line, the small theater feels like it’s swallowing me. My thoughts race: Something is wrong. I have to get out of here. I’m breaking. During the finale, my heart pounds practically in time with each leg lift in the kick line.
But I make it through and force myself to go again. At a local production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” I sit alongside my nephew, niece, sister, brother-in-law, and mother and watch the show. Onstage the lead actor is behind bars. He wears only a loin cloth and sings of his woes. His voice is redolent, steady, Broadway quality. The rest of the production is less Broadway and more community theater. I’m there but also detached—what psychiatry calls derealization and depersonalization. My thoughts race about how long the play will last, how long it will take us to get home, and what I’ll do when I get home.
The lead actor with the Broadway voice sings a refrain from an earlier song. The curtain call goes on and on. My hands hurt from clapping. I manage to get through standing ovation after standing ovation without breaking down.
I see so many plays and musicals I could be a theater critic. During each one, I have a panic attack or feel like I’m disappearing or that the people around me aren’t real. But it happens less and less.
It might seem absurd to count attending the theater regularly as a sign that I was becoming cured of mental illness, but it is.
Recovery doesn’t look the way I thought it would. I thought it meant being social—very social—and loving it. The well-adjusted woman has friends—lots of them. She follows others on social media, and they follow her back. She’s close to her family and enjoys every second of every holiday. She has a romantic partner with whom to celebrate Valentine’s Day or, at the very least, a “tribe” of friends with whom to celebrate “Galentine’s Day.” She travels and chats and makes lifelong friends on airplanes. All the while, she’s blissfully at ease, her emotions soothing and her behaviors producing the results she desires.
I’ve been recovered for five years, and I’m nothing like that woman. In fact, my life looks surprisingly similar to how it did when I was sick. It’s quiet. I still become anxious in crowded places and avoid going into stores. I prefer not to leave the house or go out to dinner or go anywhere really and like to stay home and write.
A psychiatrist might diagnose me with social anxiety disorder. The difference is that these are all choices I’ve made, ones that further my goals and give me the life I want.
Some would say I’m isolated. A few years ago, in writing about the differences between solitude and isolation for Longreads, I described solitude as “a strength…a skill to be mastered.” I feel a kinship with others who’ve found solace in rejecting an ultra-social life and instead cultivate the time and interest to be with themselves.
Enjoying ‘Cured’? Read the prequel, ‘Pathological’ (HarperCollins):
Go to Chapter 16.