loneliness, trauma and the rise of poor mental health
Frequently adults refer themselves to me wondering whether they have undiagnosed conditions such as Aspergers, or ADHD. They will explain that they have been like this for ages, they have never had a diagnosis; ‘what do you think?’
They recognise that from a certain point in their lives they failed to do as well as they could. They know that their education didn’t go well. They may speak of problems with concentration and having put all this together, have come to the conclusion that they have always had an undiagnosed condition. There is no sense that the problems they describe may relate to anything that happened to them.
Piecing a story together
A lot of the work I do involves helping people to make links between the symptoms that they struggle with;
- poor sleeping
- obsessional behaviours
and the events that have coincided with the development of these symptoms.
Frequently, a common link in these kind of presentations is a combination of childhood trauma, and loneliness.
There are a lot of people who live with a diagnosis of depression, and end up on medication for depression, when often it appears that their depression may be a symptom of an older and more longstanding experience involving one or both; trauma and loneliness.
Loneliness is often part of a childhood experience that is overlooked. For many of us, the idea that we have suffered with an unhealthy degree of loneliness can quickly be brushed aside, it is the kind of experience that can be seen as a moral issue.
Instead of the condition being taken seriously as something that has been a heavy burden on the mind and psyche of the developing infant, child and adolescent, it can quickly be seen as the individuals’ fault. People will look at the rather detached child and come to the conclusion that they are looking at a failure to join in rather than evidence of unhappiness or distress. The sense being that the person has chosen to be alone.
Rather than considering that the aloneness may be resulting from environmental issues, issues in the family and home. It becomes woven into the narrative we have our selves ‘I was always told I was difficult and didn’t join in’.
Living with loneliness
Loneliness can be a very hard thing to live with. We get used to it, we adapt because that is what people do. We may enjoy aspects of the solitude, like someone who we say tends to prefer their own company. But loneliness, though we may adapt successfully to it, weakens us.
So for example, an only child in a one parent family lacks some of the ordinary emotional insulation that can go with being part of a sibling group. I am not saying that having siblings makes you stronger, I am well aware that sibling relationships are generally complicated. But growing up being part of a group can insulate you from an existential sense of loneliness.
Loneliness and trauma
Sometimes the loneliness is combined with traumatic experiences. Perhaps growing up with an unpredictable parent who would quickly resort to anger and violence to make an arbitrary point. Then there often develops a hyper-vigilant defensive set up to monitor the environment for threats. All of which diminishes the capacity to concentrate and emphasises the sense of isolation.
These kind of experiences place a heavy burden on the individual, and often it is from these kind of stressful experiences that symptoms develop.
There may a steady loss of concentration resulting in poor and unfinished school work resulting in further trouble. Children or adolescents growing up in these conditions are unlikely to be able to work to their potential. It is easier for them to slip through the system without appropriate care and interest being applied to them, than it is that they get the care needed to understand what is happening to them.
A spiral is set up where further symptoms develop:
- sleeping problems,
- bodily symptoms such as irritable bowel syndrome or
- obsessional behaviours
all start to develop and move the individual further along the continuum into poor mental health.
The individual develops a career of poor mental health, is given diagnoses and medication, and often the underlying experience of loneliness and trauma is unacknowledged.
When I am asked if I think someone has an undiagnosed condition, I first try to understand how the person asking me the question came to be them.