Hikikomori: Your stories about refusing to leave bedrooms

Young man lying on sofa in dark room

Has a family member or friend withdrawn into their bedroom for months or years on end? A Magazine feature published earlier this month raised this question, and there was a huge response from readers.

After an article about the young people in Japan who remain holed up in their homes - known as hikikomori - readers from across the world got in touch with similar stories. Some withdrew from the world themselves, others witnessed a loved one doing so. Here is a selection of their comments:

In withdrawal

I shut myself away from society about 12 years ago. I still haven't recovered and spend my time alone. I don't work, I don't go out, and I survive on welfare. I think a major problem with people like me is that we're ultimately afraid of failure. Things have changed in the world. There are no longer secure career slots open for everyone with a little ambition and an education. We're afraid of becoming a part of even worse statistics, such as being homeless. Nicholas, Massachusetts, US

Mike's room with painting on the window sill and wooden mask from Sierra Leone Mike's window at 5am, with a study for one of his artworks on the sill

After different jobs in New York, a happy stint as an earthquake relief volunteer in Haiti (cut short by my father's death) and a year teaching in Sierra Leone, I settled at my mother's home when I came back to New York. My withdrawal started when I waited too long to sign up for an art class. I took it as an overwhelming disappointment. I feared my friends and family would have countless reasons to be angry or embarrassed by me. So I spend my days inside, hidden away in some room where I can close the blinds and not subject my neighbours to what I've become; a shut-in who feels stuck in domestic purgatory. I've been seeing a psychiatrist, tried different medications, hobbies, exercise. My mother has seen me lay waste to walls, chairs, household appliances, and also physically abuse myself - banging my head into walls or trying to put a lit cigarette out on my arm. It is because of this that I keep my distance from her. I know how much these terrifying incidents affect her, and my self-hatred almost always reaches its apex when I see the look of fear and helplessness in her face. My dad, whom I loved dearly though never had a consistent relationship with after he moved out, always saw great potential in me. Since he's been gone, all the things about me that used to bring him joy have waned. I don't make art, I don't see his grandchildren from a former marriage, I don't pick up a hockey stick. I'm angry he died when he did, I'm embarrassed that I don't have a career. Those are the two giants that knock down the door of depression, and then bitterness, paranoia, ignorance, hatred creep in. So you stick yourself in a hole where no one can get to you and stay there. Mike, New York, US

Just a Japanese thing?

Screengrab of previous story
  • Hikikomori is in the Oxford English Dictionary as "In Japan: abnormal avoidance of social contact"
  • Western societies frequently "take time out" in gap years or have "false starts" on careers or courses without stigma
  • Experts say preconditions for a hikikomori-like problem are falling into place in Europe, with 50% youth unemployment in some countries, forcing young people to continue living at home

I am 43 and have lived with my parents all my life. My sisters had it easy - get pregnant and be given a council house/flat. I have no self-esteem, no confidence and no friends. This has been a problem from when I started primary school. I was never really taught social skills as a child because my parents were never really that social themselves. I'm not violent towards my parents - I could never be, I'm a pretty passive person. I do get angry with myself when I see how easy others find life. After all, it was me who put myself in this situation. I just don't know how to get out of it. I go out to work but only because I have to, to survive. The rest of my time I spend in my room. My parents and sisters do not know how I am suffering. I could never tell them. If I was forced to move out, the only way I would leave is in a body bag. Darren, London, UK

I am a retired professor of astrophysics. I have only just avoided being a hikikomori myself. Since I was a child I felt awkward in society, and have tended to avoid human contact. I was fortunate to live in a rather short period of time when mathematical and scientific skills, which are easily acquired with minimal human interaction, were reasonably well rewarded. But I always felt that I was clinging to a cliff by my fingernails. Both my ex-wife and my wife have commented on the fact that I don't seem to have any friends of my own. That's not quite true, but not far wrong. I remain with the feeling that in the long term I am going to end up living, and dying, on the street. P, California, US

Re-emerged

In sixth form I more or less stopped going to school. My grades were always good, but by the time I finished at 17, I had an attendance rate over the two years of less than 30%. I retreated to my room, became obsessive, paranoid. I wanted to go out and be social but felt that it was difficult. When I did go out, I tended to drink heavily, which made things worse. I went to uni immediately after finishing school. Those three years were a black hole of drink and isolation. About halfway through my second year I was diagnosed with "some sort of agoraphobia", but no one could decide on treatment. I'm not sure how or why things changed. Some days I feel it start to take over me again, usually after a period of enforced confinement due to illness. I drag myself out for a walk. In a way this is confinement - I'll often walk on my own, listening to music. I'll arrange to do things with people, which helps. Eddie, Merseyside, UK

I'm 37 and a teacher. When I was 14, I made a conscious decision to not pursue the girl I was interested in because of bullying at school. I decided that social relationships were impossible and stopped trying to trust my contemporaries for about three years. Adopting a siege mentality, I began to withdraw from all possible relationships and became profoundly unhappy. By the time I went to university at 18 I had few grown-up social skills and ended up going back to my family home, where I stewed for a long couple of years. It took me years to learn how to partake in society properly and find acceptance in myself and to be accepted by others. The journey was painful and solitary, but fortunately bloody-minded stubbornness pays off in the end. People have no idea what's going on until you tell them, but if you have no one you can tell, where do you go? Bret, Texas, US

If you're affected by this issue

It could make all the difference to talk to someone about how you're feeling - your GP/family doctor, or to someone who is trained to help.

Medical professionals and counsellors are trained to deal with the problems you are experiencing.

You could also try The Samaritans:

  • Telephone: 08457 90 90 90
  • Website
  • Email: jo@samaritans.co.uk
  • Text: 07725 90 90 90

There's more information about depression on the One Life site.

I withdrew when I was 15. There were many reasons as to why. I would stay in my room all day - eat meals there and even avoid going to the bathroom if there were non-family members in the house. At 18 I went to an alternative therapist. After one session I dared to walk outside in public but not interact with people. I stayed with the alternative route and it has been a long journey. I still struggle to make friends, have relationships, interviews, exams and take phone calls, but I have taken many steps forward. I have started pushing myself forward more and more and do feel as though I am on the brink of overcoming it all soon. I am behind on social skills that I should already have at my age, but I am determined that I will catch up. Samantha, Lincolnshire, UK

I loved withdrawing myself from the whole world, which includes my family and best friends. I found isolation a safe retreat. But it was eating me up, I lost 9kg (20lb) and knew that eventually it would kill me. I tried to fight back by reading books which made me laugh because essentially I was depressed. Facebook, games, slowly opening up to friends and telling them I was down. I sought help and said a lot of prayers. But the first step is to say I want to come out of this darkness. Watila, Tamil Nadu, India

I withdrew from society for at least five years, maybe longer. Honestly, that time is mostly a blur. For the most part, the farthest I'd travel was my mother's backyard, and maybe to the store. I have social anxiety disorder, and it almost ruined my life. Crippling anxiety most of the time that is somewhat managed now by medication and therapy. I also go to group therapy sessions so I don't isolate myself again. Maybe meeting Eric, now my fiance, on the internet brought me out of my shell. It gave me a reason to go out. I suppose I needed that push. Andrea, Wisconsin, US

Start Quote

Once I had a social life I could be confident in, I no longer needed to stay in my room ”

End Quote

This describes me, aged 11-16. As a child I had always been happy to play alone, but had never been wary of social interaction. At secondary school, I was bullied. I didn't feel I could stand my ground, so I withdrew. I didn't want to spend time with anyone. Not even my family. I would spend hours in my room watching TV, cleaning it, reading, drawing, listening to music - so long as it didn't require speaking to people. The fact that I was coming to terms with being gay was also a major factor, and I felt the world didn't want to accept me. On the odd occasions that I went outside, I was terrified about being recognised. I went to great lengths to avoid this, wearing hats, hoods and sunglasses. I broke out of the cycle when I started to find friends who would invite me out, and the bullying subsided. Once I had a social life I could be confident in, I no longer needed or wanted to stay in my room all the time. That period of my life has had a lasting impact on how I behave. I still feel the need to withdraw into my own company, although not to an extent that is abnormal. I sometimes lack confidence, and have paranoid thoughts about what people think of me. It seems I am fortunate that I managed to break free. Tristan, Bristol, UK

The loved ones

Perhaps a large number of otaku and hikikomori have autistic spectrum disorders such as Asperger syndrome. My sons aged 15 and 13 have this diagnosis and they are heavily into manga and anime [Japanese comics and animation], are socially awkward, prefer to stay at home (where they say they feel safe and comfortable), love computers and have unusually formal and old-fashioned language. To them the anime world is more real, understandable and attractive. They have both withdrawn to the degree that I have now been forced to home school them. My husband and I also find ourselves increasingly isolated and trapped in the home environment simply because we don't feel able to leave the boys on their own for any significant time. When the isolation becomes entrenched the way back out in the real world gets harder. My younger son is obsessed with anything Japanese and wants to live there because, in his own words, "I would fit in there. Nobody would thing I am strange. In Japan I would be seen as normal and my way of thinking would be appreciated." Cassandra, Wollongong, Australia

Start Quote

The trigger was a broken front tooth in a hockey accident - it seems so insignificant”

End Quote Mark

My son Ed has now been holed up in his room for more than six months. It was a slow withdrawal at first - days off school or having to come home early. We took him out of school before Christmas 2012 to take the pressure off him. Most of his time is spent in his room, which is blocked off from all daylight with the blind down and a blanket covering his window. It's like a cooker in there, but he won't come out. We try to lure him out with food, but often it will sit on the kitchen table getting cold, so we end up taking it up to him. He says he is very grateful to us for looking after him, but that he feels a burden to us. He has deleted all but a few of his friends on Facebook, as it made him angry to read what everyone was up to. I asked him where he saw himself being in a few years' time. All he wants to do is live anonymously in a large town and do something with no pressure like collecting supermarket trolleys. A couple of years ago he was heading for straight As at school and then university. He was an active sportsman. We are told that the trigger was a broken front tooth four years ago in a hockey accident, which made him initially loose a little confidence, spiralling down to the trough he is in now. It seems so insignificant. He has finally, after a lot of waiting and false dawns, been assessed (with severe depression and anxiety) and is seeing a psychiatrist next week. They are going to give him counselling and Prozac to try and boost him out of his catatonic state. We'll wait and hope. What has happened to my beautiful son? Mark, Northumberland, UK

My daughter was part of the hikikomori craze when she was 16. I never took her for counselling and medical treatment since I knew it was peer pressure that led her to it. But personally, I sought counselling. I dealt with her as a friend, put my arms around her and reminded her that I love her. I pretended not to see her faults and weaknesses but focused on her positive attributes. I held her hand and said, "I am with you." I spent more time with her and took her for dinner whenever I could. Answered prayers took place after half a year. She became stronger and learnt how to deal with her peers. Christine, Tokyo, Japan

Start Quote

I regularly hear from parents that the reason their son or daughter isn't at school is that they 'can't'”

End Quote Ben

We have a few kids like this every year at my school. They're not unlike the "emo" crew that Western readers will be more familiar with. Inevitably something happens that they don't like and they declare they're not going out until the world changes. With girls, it's usually as a result of a falling out with a group of friends. We all go through teen angst, but what is different in Japan is the way the Japanese prefer to deal with problems - by allowing them to sort themselves out rather than confront and deal with them. Something like "I know you're upset with your friends but you can't spend your life in your room, so off you go to school!" is a phrase that would never be uttered by a Japanese parent. I regularly hear from parents that the reason their son or daughter isn't attending classes is that they "can't". Suggesting that they insist they go, because hiding from a problem is no way to resolve it, just falls on deaf ears or is similarly met with "can't". So nothing is done and the kids turn into adults exactly as they are when they first decided not to confront their difficulties. Ben, Okayama, Japan

My niece withdrew from society for a few years after she completed junior high. About a year into her withdrawal, the community started talking about it like it was a deliberate act on her part. I started visiting her occasionally, talking about birds, bees and trees - in other words, I befriended her. Eventually I started getting smiles and even laughter. She broke down in tears telling me, as if thinking aloud to herself, "You think I want to be like that? You think I don't want to dress up nicely and go to work? I want to go down the road but I can't." I realised she was in some form of depression. So on one of my visits, I invited her to my home whenever she felt like coming out. That was the beginning of our exchange visits. She now has a job, has blossomed into a beautiful young woman and become a social butterfly. When one realises a family member is withdrawing, reach out to that individual as a friend - no lectures, no judgements - and show him or her that he or she matters. A lot of social problems stem from people who feel they do not matter. Margaret, Tokyo, Japan

Thanks to all who contributed their stories.

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