Mental illness messes with people and interferes in their lives in numerous ways. Each mental illness has a list of symptoms people experience, and beyond that, mental illness inserts itself in sneaky, obnoxious ways. Something many, if not all, mental illnesses do is put people on red alert for stranger danger.
Parents warn their children not to approach strangers, people they don’t know. Instilling this caution in appropriate ways is healthy because it makes children aware of their surroundings and realize that not every person they will encounter is a trustworthy human being. This is healthy awareness of stranger danger.
Mental illnesses take stranger danger in a different direction and to an entirely new level. Mental illness can turn someone into his or her own stranger. This isn’t a stranger that is a threat to others. Not at all. Instead, this is a stranger that can be anxiety-provoking for the person him/herself.
Mental Illness Can Make Someone a Stranger to Himself
Imagine being an outsider in your own mind. This is what Isaac Bittman must face in the novel Twenty-Four Shadows. He’s been diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, what used to be called multiple personality disorder. Isaac perpetually feels like a stranger in his own mind, and to him it’s frightening because he doesn’t understand it.
- * Isaac has twenty-three alternate parts of himself (called “alters” or “parts”), but he doesn’t know them. He thinks of these strangers as things, which causes problems.
- * Isaac doesn’t know what his strangers are up to, and that causes great anxiety.
- * Isaac now feels like a stranger in his own family. He watches his wife, son, and best friend be “normal” and feels suddenly estranged from both them and himself.
Mental Illness Can Make Someone a Stranger in the World
Living with mental illness can be isolating. Mental illness isn’t a wrong way of being; instead, it’s a different way of experiencing the world. Still, someone’s symptoms (which differ for each diagnosis), can make him or her feel separate from the rest of the world.
In My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel, Brian Cunningham has such severe social anxiety that he is diagnosed with avoidant personality disorder. He wants to be able to connect with people, to have friends, but he is too afraid. He feels like he doesn’t fit in because he’s a complete stranger in the world.
Reduce Stranger Danger
This stranger, the stranger that is the self and the world, is quite hard to deal with because there is no real escape, at least not in the traditional sense. That’s okay, because escaping is just avoiding, and avoidance doesn’t work.
Avoidance consumes a lot of time and energy, and it greatly interferes with the ability to live a purposeful, valued life.” — Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 Steps
If avoiding the stranger danger, the fear and anxiety that comes, legitimately so, from feeling like a stranger to yourself, the world, or both, doesn’t work, certainly there must be something that does. There is indeed something that works to reduce the sense of stranger danger within you and around you. Actually, there are three somethings:
- * Accept what feels like a stranger. It’s part of your world, and struggling against it only wears you out and increases fear, anxiety, and stress. Isaac can acknowledge the presence of his alters. Brian can acknowledge that the world isn’t going to go away.
- * Define your values, your purpose. What do you want in your life? How do you want to become familiar with your inner and outer worlds so you no longer fear stranger danger? What will your life look like when the stranger danger is gone? (Well, the situation might not actually be gone, but the anxiety, fear, and sense of danger will be gone because you’ve replaced it with something else.)
- * Decide on an action plan. Taking action is the most powerful way to replace a sense of stranger danger with one of familiarity. Taking action, even small steps every day, gives us a sense of power over what’s bothering us and stomps on fear and anxiety.
Mental illness plays all sorts of nasty little tricks, including making people feel like strangers within themselves and within the world. This can create extreme anxiety and fear, causing a sense of stranger danger. Acknowledge exactly what feels like stranger danger and accept it’s presence. Know what you want to replace it with, and create a plan of action. These steps will help you reduce stranger danger and replace it with familiarity and content.
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