In a uniquely American tradition, thousands of people gathered this past Thursday morning in the town of Punxutawney, PA., to wait for a distinctly unscientific weather forecast.
Punxutawney Phil, star of the Groundhog Day celebration every February 2 for 131 years, emerged from his den just after sunrise, although it took the crowd’s chanting of “Phil! Phil! Phil!” to awaken him. At 7:20 a.m., town officials declared that Phil saw his own shadow and was frightened back into his den. That is supposed to signal six more weeks of winter weather.
In a way, I can relate to the little Pennsylvania rodent. He has his shadow; I have my depression. The darkness forces each of us indoors.
Indeed, “social isolation” appears on the official list of symptoms when a doctor assesses whether a person has major depressive disorder, or clinical depression. Using the Mayo Clinic as a source, I compiled these categories and details of some of those symptoms:
Mood: Anxiety, apathy, general discontent, guilt, hopelessness, loss of interest or pleasure in activities, mood swings or sadness.
Sleep: Early awakening, excess sleepiness, insomnia or restless sleep.
Whole body: Excessive hunger, fatigue, loss of appetite, restlessness, weight gain or weight loss.
Behavioral: Agitation, excessive crying, irritability or social isolation.
Cognitive: Lack of concentration, slowness in activity or thoughts of suicide.
That list includes a wide range of behaviors and attitudes. In some ways, diagnosing depression requires both the knowledge of science and the subtlety of art from a doctor. With enough persistent symptoms — present for at least two weeks — a person could qualify as having the mental illness. Many of those symptoms are difficult to pin down exactly, such as anxiety, apathy, fatigue, lack of concentration. Others such as insomnia, excessive crying and loss of appetite can be discerned more concretely.
Social isolation fits into the latter group and can pose one of the more obvious manifestations of the illness. My experience indicates that my depression has intensified when I am isolating — from people or even from myself. I avoid parties, even those involving family or close friends. Sometimes, the big parties are easier to handle at such times because it’s much more possible to “isolate” in the midst of a lot of people by simply going off in a corner and silently sipping a glass of sodie.
Isolation can involve more than the bigger, more formal gatherings that pop up during the holidays or unique celebrations like a graduation or birthday. I have times that I cancel lunch with a good friend, or stay in my cubicle at work rather than engage in small talk with colleagues, or stay in bed rather than attend Sunday Mass, or even remain upstairs in my bedroom rather than go downstairs for dinner with my wife, children and grandsons.
Then there is the odd “isolation from self.” In such moments, I do everything I can to distract myself from everyday life. I park myself in front of the TV all day. I read a book. I get very, very quiet. What I don’t do, at least not much, is write or pray. Those activities involve thinking, spending time with myself in my head.
When I’m depressed, I avoid everyone possible — including myself. When I see that shadow that is depression, I beat a hasty retreat back into my isolated den.
How do I and others familiar with this behavior force ourselves back into the welcome company of society, especially loved ones? I don’t have that answer. Yet.