Last month I facilitated an online forum with SANE Australia about socialising with a mental illness. It was an amazing way to connect with the community and talk about an important topic. It got me reflecting on my own social habits and how they change depending on my mental health status.
Soon after, I started thinking about the term ‘social butterfly’. Social butterflies are those who flutter from group to group; charming others with their gregariousness. At times, I can be this person. But at other times I can become extremely isolated. So I found myself on google, amusing myself with descriptions of social butterflies when I came across a charming little creature that I related to: the hermit butterfly. I tried in vain to find out details about this little guy but they are hard to find. But it’s name fascinated me.
So I made up my own narrative. I started to view this hermit butterfly as a metaphor for myself. A butterfly who can sometimes flutter from group to group but also can be solitary in nature. This pattern occurs for me due to many reasons. One being that as a Bipolar person, my social habits vary with episodes. When manic, especially hypomanic, I become extremely social. If you ever hear me utter the phrase ‘I’m the happiest I’ve ever been/been in in a long time’ it is a sure fire sign I am hypomanic. This phrase will often be uttered over drinks with friends that I have suggested (I don’t normally drink). When hypo/manic I am constantly texting and messaging people and organising plans. I will go an entire week without eating at home. This is the social butterfly side of me. Whilst depressed or down in anyway, I am the opposite. I become recluse. Stop showing up to footy training, cancel plans, and barely leave my bedroom. This is the hermit butterfly side of me.
The butterfly analogy doesn’t just extend to my Bipolar disorder it also relates to my nature as an ambivert. As an ambivert I have equal amounts of introvert and extrovert tendencies. As a social butterfly or extrovert, I generally enjoy socialising, thrive in positions of leadership and I love presenting and putting myself out there. But the hermit in me needs time alone to breathe. To read, to listen to music, to exercise all on my lonesome. I find that, as much as I love having a social life, it exhausts me. And this is why I identify so much with the metaphor of a hermit butterfly. I straddle the worlds of a hermit and a social butterfly constantly.
This can make it difficult for me to strike a balance. Socialising enriches me and also drains me. Excessive socialising can both be a cause and sign of oncoming mania. Yet too little socialisation puts me at risk of becoming flat and down. I need to socialise but not too much. Therefore, managing my social demands is highly important for managing my mental health.
One strategy I have put in place to manage my social demands is having a sort of quota for social interactions. I make it part of my self-care to see at least one friend a week. I generally aim for quality time with two people, plus my footy training sessions with the girls. Anything more than three is becoming too much. I also try not to reply to messages straight away unless urgent. It can become very easy for me to become engrossed in chats and let them distract me from my daily tasks and me time. I’m still struggling with this though, to tell you the truth. I also limit the length of my social meetings. If I feel like I don’t want to socialise but I should get out of the house I will make myself make an appearance for at least an hour. This makes me feel proud of myself for getting out of my comfort zone for just a while.
In reflecting upon all this I had an epiphany. Aren’t all butterflies solitary? I’ve never seen more than one together in the same place except for at the zoo. A simple google confirms it: Butterflies aren’t social at all! Butterflies only appear social but actually prefer their own company. All butterflies are hermit butterflies! And somehow that makes me feel less lonely in being the oxymoron that I am. I am a not-so-social butterfly.
So what’s my number one coping strategy for being a not-so-social butterfly? Sure, valuing my time and divvying up social demands is one thing. But the ultimate liberation comes from learning to accept and forgive myself. Yes, I may be a walking contradiction. But maybe I wasn’t born to fit into neat little boxes? I am a broad spectrum of identities. Because you know something else cool about butterflies? No two butterflies markings are the same. We are all unique. Whether we are the social butterflies of popular paradigm or the hermit butterflies of reality. Or something in the middle. And we are all beautiful just as we are.