Home Alone: Finding Connection During the Pandemic

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“Creating Our Mental Health”: Welcome to a conversation between two social therapists who meet regularly to share and advance our therapeutic work. We hope these dialogues can support and stimulate others who are integrating developmental conversations into their therapeutic practices and personal growth. See the first post in the series for a brief explanation of what social therapy is and the perspectives we’re coming from in our dialogues.

Photo shows back view of woman sitting holding a tea with a laptop computer with a young Asian man smiling on the screen

Hugh:  It’s a crisis moment for so many struggling with serious depression, anxiety and feelings of loneliness. Our mental health system—particularly community clinics and peer-support organizations—has been overwhelmed by calls for help.

Ann:  Yeah. The pandemic has only intensified feelings of loneliness, lack of community and need for social connection.

Hugh:  This new wave of emotional distress, seems to me, is a perfectly reasonable human response to living our lives in an increasingly isolated and uncertain world. Good grief, is it any wonder that in year three of this pandemic—the enforced isolation, political paralysis, climate disaster, increased violence, and on and on—that we see even more depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation?

A client texted me this week saying, “I’m crying all the time. I’m crying right now. Can you call and talk to me?” As it happened, I was not feeling well and wasn’t able to call her back at that moment. So I texted her to say that she should be active in getting support. I suggested she call her mother, her sister, other friends, or fellow group members (she’s in one of my weekly social therapy groups) and not stop until she made a connection. When I see her next, I don’t want to assume I know what this crying is all about. I want to explore it with her. I want to say to her, “Let’s take a look at how you’re crying all the time. Let’s explore it. Are other people you know crying too? How do they respond when you tell them you’re crying? Is the crying a new thing for you, or have you always cried a lot? How do you feel about it? How is it having this conversation with me?

Ann:  Yeah. If we let go of the presupposition that her crying is a psychiatric symptom that needs to be “fixed”—if we listen and explore together how the crying is part of her life right now, under very specific conditions—maybe we can move around and about the crying together and create some new emotions. I’m not suggesting that this is easy to do. We often have a hard time hearing about and getting close to other people’s pain. We tend to not know what to say, or try to find a solution to their problem, or we leave them alone. Mostly, we just want others’ pain to go away.

Hugh:  Yes indeed. More broadly, most of us aren’t very good at talking with and listening to each other in very intimate ways. That compounds people’s feeling isolated, alone and separate. When I suggested my client speak to others about her pain, someone she speaks to might come back with something like, “Oh, so you’re crying all the time? Why don’t you just take your mind off what’s bothering you. Distract yourself; watch a movie.” They may have the best of intentions. But their advice giving might also leave my client still feeling alone emotionally.

On the other hand, sometimes people can be wonderfully responsive, which can change everything. I was recently telling a friend about some potentially serious health problems I’m having now, and she listened attentively. Then she said to me, thoughtfully, “Hugh, that’s a lot.” I felt so heard and cared by her that I cried and told her about how frightened I was. It was so relieving. That kind of listening is something that can be transformatory.

Ann:  Thanks for giving us that. That’s very touching.

Hugh:  It makes me think of these groups Rachel Mickenberg and I do every month where people from all different class backgrounds, ages and races come together to talk with each other about how they’re doing emotionally. The groups are called Creating Our Mental Health, and we help people discover new ways of talking to and being with each other. We’re discovering how people can be curious about others, ask questions to find out more about what the other person is saying, and in this way, listen actively and create intimate conversation as partners. They love it; they embrace it; many return each month and invite friends or family to join. They’re eager to develop these skills for building community. More and more they tell us they’re able to be better creators of these environments in their everyday lives as well.

Ann: If we’re going to make a dent in our mental health crisis, we’re all going to have to get better at “emotional conversations” and active listening.

Hugh:  I agree. The pandemic has kept us home alone and isolated. But it’s also opened up new possibilities. I think we’re discovering in our social therapy groups and Creating Our Mental Health groups that there are new possibilities for people to work collaboratively to deal with our emotional difficulties and to create new emotional connections, new emotions and new kinds of intimacy. What it means to be alive is to create new ways of living our lives and possibly transforming the pain and isolation of this difficult historical moment.

Ann:  So for our dear readers, here are some directions/suggestions for concrete things to do/ways to have conversations with others “home alone” during this pandemic and beyond. We offer them as possibilities for connecting to others and creating intimacy:

  • Make a new connection! Reach out to someone you miss and want to spend some time with. Arrange a Zoom date or phone call. Eat a (virtual) meal together, watch a movie, read an article, or share some other performance together.
  • Call a friend for a “creating our mental health” chat. Ask how they’re doing. Don’t assume you know what the other is saying. Explore! Be curious! Ask them to say more, to say what they mean, or what that looks like for them. Make the conversation an adventure that you’re creating together.
  • Share your emotional appreciation. Share the emotional impact of your conversation. You could say, “I’m so glad you called, I’ve been missing you,” or “It’s such a joy to be with you,” or infinite other possibilities.
  • Ask about the impact of your conversation on them. “I feel like we just got started talking—was this good for you—can we set up another conversation?” or “How has this conversation been for you?”
  • Ask them if there’s anything they want or need from you. You could say “How can I help?” or “Is there something I could do for you? I want to be there for you.”

Hugh:  Try out some new ways of talking (and listening) this week—and let us know how it went for you in the COMMENTS below. We are seriously interested in your experience! We promise to respond.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you, Hugh and Ann, for this uplifting and inspiring message. During these stressful past two years, we have found that getting outdoors every day, even for only a short time in bad weather, and maintaining connectivity with our family and friends, albeit remotely, have been essential to our mental health and overall well-being. We are indeed more fortunate than most to have enjoyed 56 wonderful years together (Hugh was my best man at our wedding), but we can readily understand and empathize with the stress and despair of isolation that so many have experienced. We hope that a daily bit of fresh air and reaching out to at least one other person every day will be as helpful to others as it has been to us. Chaz and Lucy Brendler

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