My first year of graduate school ended this week. After returning some library books and meeting with my mentor, I headed back to my car congratulating myself on a successful year, but unable to shake a growing cold feeling in my stomach. In a few weeks, I head out to an academic summer camp at the University of Michigan, followed by a seminar in D.C., after which classes start up again. The last three years have been characterized by moving between states and cities, switching jobs and churches, and falling out of touch with old social groups. With all these changes came the recurring cold feeling in my stomach, which I was later able to admit was loneliness.
Change takes courage and, for those who are both sensitive and introverted, lots of energy. Furthermore, there’s cultural pressure to present oneself to peers as a strong independent woman. Seeking out companionship and support is scary, especially if you’ve been let down by people in the Church before. That well-meaning middle-aged lady who awkwardly tried to match you with the only other single person in your church (because the only single guy and the only single gal in the parish obvious belong together, right?). The college girl you opened up to about your anxiety who proceeded to invite you to her Bible study where she recited Philippians 4:6-7 while making eye contact with you. The feelings that you don’t belong anywhere build up, and when you enter a new environment for the umpteenth time, it becomes easier to lie about your needs rather than to actively seek out community. Let’s face it, it’s easier to lie about it than to be the object of pity and condescension.
“I enjoy alone time, anyway.”
“I’m just not social.”
“I’m an introvert, so I enjoy keeping to myself on the weekends.”
Overtime, you build up enough defenses and barriers to convince yourself that you enjoy loneliness, but the cold feeling in your stomach doesn’t go away. That’s because you can preform worlds of self-care, but there are things that other people do for you that you can’t do for yourself. Companionship as necessary for mental health is easy for many of us to overlook, but it’s a plight that could drown us.
If you’re going through big life changes — moving, switching jobs, starting school, finishing school, getting surgery — whatever it is, know that you don’t have to be tough all the time. Know that you rock for having the courage to live life and even the most successful people never made it on their own. You don’t have to be friends with everyone or open up to people more than you feel like. If you have even one person whom you know will lift you up and encourage you, treasure that and make an effort to keep in touch.
There have been times that I was unable to distinguish between drawing healthy boundaries of personal space and shutting people out completely. The flurry of life changes I’ve experienced over the last few years have, at times, made it difficult for me to admit loneliness. Today, I’m okay with admitting to myself that the end of the semester is sad because I was just getting to know people in my department. I’m willing to admit that moving to a new city for most of the summer is scary, and I’m glad to have friends and family who will let me call and text them as often as I need.
It’s okay to feel lonely and uprooted. Finding people who believe in you and will support you every step of the way is as important as the time and effort you put into self-care.
If you have a story about mental illness—whether personal or concerning a loved one—please consider sharing your experience by writing a guest post, doing an interview with one of us, or joining the team as a regular contributor. Even if you aren’t at a place yet where you feel comfortable disclosing your name, the church body needs your voice. Let’s shine a light on the darkness, together.