Let’s talk about feelings, okay?
My mom has always told me that I “feel things very intensely.” Beginning in the fifth or sixth grade I began to fill notebooks with angsty, pained, (and painful to read) poems about love and loss (in all the wisdom I could muster from my 12-year-old heart). I have a distinct memory of my high school self becoming so consumed with a book on a family camping trip that I talked to no one until I finished it, and cried inconsolably for hours after I was done (in my defense, though, it was a really sad book). But I couldn’t put the book down, rejoin the real world, and walk away from how deeply it made me feel.
Then, when I began counseling in college and we had started exploring a diagnosis of depression, my therapist asked if I had always “tended toward the melancholy.” While that’s not a particularly flattering way to think of oneself (“why yes, I do identify closely with Eeyore, thank you for asking!”), I thought back on my notebooks and on my general outlook and had to admit that, at times, I did.
This tendency to see things with a bit of an overcast tone, on top of a propensity for feeling any kind of emotion intensely, means that I easily become sad -- and then, quickly, very sad. In a person with healthy coping skills and emotional regulation, this kind of sadness, whether from a book or a movie, or from a personal disappointment, or a tragic current event on the other side of the world, can be a passing feeling that might be remedied by a long walk, a talk with a friend, or a journaling session. But in my own experience with with depression, that kind of sadness -- the kind that should be faced and handled as a part of a healthy emotional life -- can trigger a deeper, more disturbing emotional response. For me, at least, the regular everyday sadness of life’s normal events can be like giving my depression a foothold in my soul, a place for it to grab on and take root.
So as I sank deeply into my depression over the past year or two, I began to avoid certain things that I knew would make me sad. I’ll read a crime thriller at the drop of a hat, but pushing myself to read something that had more emotional depth became off-limits. I can only see this in retrospect -- but I spent a good couple of years reading more far-fetched mysteries and police procedurals than I can count, while ignoring books I’d long wanted to read by favorites like Toni Morrison or John Updike because I was scared of what those beloved writers might make me feel. Likewise, I turned away from movies or TV shows that skew toward the tragic and opted either for sitcoms or, again, crime dramas. I passed by articles in the news that looked interesting and thought-provoking because they were about current events or social conditions that would make me feel sad about the state of the world.
I feared that if I allowed myself to feel unhappy in response to an appropriately sad stimulus, my depressive symptoms would take hold, that I would allow the weight of my illness to pull me further down into the spiral of despair that I experience when I am having an episode of major depression. (This spiral will be the sole subject of a future post, I promise. It will be fun.) I couldn’t let myself do it. It felt like too big a risk to give my depression even a fleeting chance to worm its way deeper into me.
I must state here that this is an observation I am making about myself only, and in retrospect only. I know that many people with depression seek out sad music or other media or news to validate their feelings and to feel less alone in their sadness. Personally, I avoided it at all costs. There’s no right way to experience mental illness (again, more on this another time).
But as I am growing and learning about self-care and becoming well, I’m working on learning the appropriate ways of dealing with normal emotional responses to sad things. I recently watched a speech that made me cry. I knew it would make me cry, and feel sad, and I was tempted to go to bed before it came on, but my husband encouraged me not to miss it and so we watched it together. (Coping skill #1: have someone with you for moral support.) I did cry, and I did feel sad, but then afterwards it felt okay. I did not feel the long, spindly fingers of depression reaching up from the depths of the spiral to grab at me. My husband showed me cat videos that made me smile. (Coping skill #2: laugh at things that are funny.)
And tonight, as I’m writing, we’ve decided to go see “Manchester-by-the-Sea,” a film set in my hometown (woot!) that is supposed to be excellent and also incredibly sad. I have asked myself, and my ever-patient husband, several times this week: “Why do we want to go see something so sad?” And also, “How am I supposed to choose to go do something for ‘fun’ that I know is going to make me cry?” Again, I imagined that after watching it I would come home in tears, emotionally wrecked and feeling devastated about fictional characters to whom fictitious sad things happened. (Coping skill #3: remember that sometimes sad things are not real.)
But I have decided, in a slow but clearly evolving way, that I am not going to be someone who misses out on life experiences like weeping at the end of an outstanding novel, or crying through a touching, phenomenally-acted film, or mourning with the people of another country who have just survived a terrible earthquake, just because it will make me have feelings. Feelings are okay. Feelings are real and raw and sometimes they hurt, and if you are mentally ill then a lot of the time they hurt, but part of life is learning to feel things as they come over you, and deciding what to do with them, and absorbing them into your human experience so that they make you a better, more insightful, more compassionate person. (Coping skill #4: remind yourself that feelings are allowed as part of your human experience.)
On hard days, or in the midst of a depressive episode, there can be wisdom in choosing to filter out some of the things that cause sadness and despair. But on healthy days, through the ins and outs of life, finding my footing as an emotionally healthy person, capable of feeling and gauging and processing my response to life, is one of the best ways to learn self-care and to grow in my understanding and capacity to care for others.
So, in that spirit, I’m headed to the movies -- with a pack of tissues.
So, you’re really sick -- like with the flu, or a stomach bug -- and you cannot leave the house. Maybe you call in to work, or text a friend to cancel plans, and they tell you to “take good care of yourself.” What does that phrase mean to you?
If you’re fighting your way through the flu, it probably means lots of rest. You might think of hunkering down on your couch or in your bed with lots of Gatorade and water, a Netflix show to binge-watch, a caring parent or significant other or roommate to bring you chicken noodle soup. You might think of all the Nyquil you’re going to pop at bedtime to try to get some sleep. You’ll cuddle up under some blankets and doze and pet your cat and groan for your loved ones to bring you tissues. You’re taking care of yourself.
Or, maybe you’re told to take care of yourself when you’re stressed, or overworked, or going through a breakup. Then you might think of soaking in a luxurious bubble bath, wine glass at hand, soothing music in the background… or, if you’re less like me and more like my husband, it could involve a long session of intense video game playing. Self-care means different things to everyone, and that’s a good thing.
The term “self-care,” though, as it’s intended in the mental health community, is a little trickier to get a handle on, and it’s important to clearly define. It’s easy to settle the idea of self-care into a cozy, comfy box that contains only the warm, fuzzy, happy things we do to take care of ourselves. And don’t misunderstand me: all the things above are absolutely forms of self-care, and valuable ones (for those with mental illness and those without)! But now I want to talk about the nitty gritty, hard-fought, hard-won self-care that those of us with mental illness need to do to really learn to value who we are, to know what we need and want, and to love ourselves. (Cheesy? yes. True? also yes.)
In my personal experience, this kind of self-care is not pretty. It’s not the steam of a comforting bowl of soup wafting up toward your face or sinking into a foot massage during a pedicure. It’s raw, and real, and painful, and it’s absolutely critical to recovery.
It’s picking up the phone, of which you are terrified, to call a therapist, whom you do not know and of whom you are also terrified, to seek help.
It’s baring your soul to said therapist, after one session or after many, many sessions, and fighting back or letting forth tears as you allow the true contents of your heart and mind to leak out into someone else’s presence.
It’s dragging yourself from your bed, with long-unchanged sheets, out of your long-unchanged pajamas, to your shower, though you’re unable to believe that you’re worthy of feeling warm and clean and presentable to the world.
It’s being brave enough to go to work, to the grocery store, to the coffee shop, despite the fear that your desperate sadness, your inexplicable hopelessness might just seep out into the world around you, poisoning the innocent people you come across, or showing them how truly indefensible you are.
It’s learning that night after night of bingeing on greasy takeout and reality TV is not indulging in self-care and comfort food, but denying your body the invigoration of a brisk walk and the decency of some vegetables, and teaching it that the many things it does for you each day are worthless and without meaning.
It’s facing the man at the running shoe store who wants you to take a test run in the shoes you’ve tried on, though you’re mortified because you haven’t run in years, because you have realized that you deserve sneakers that will let you move your body and get healthy.
It’s an acknowledgement that what your illness is making you want -- to hide from the world, to stay in bed, to eat all the ice cream, to refuse to make plans -- are not the things that your soul needs to be well. It’s a process of realizing that you are capable of doing things that are not fun. That do not feel good. That make you afraid and anxious and sad and overwhelmed. And that once you do them, you will be a step closer to being a more whole person.
It’s a new year, and thus a good time to talk about the idea of caring for ourselves in all kinds of ways. For me, this year marks a full 12 months of participating in therapy, of engaging with my mental illness, of seeking to be honest with myself about how sick I have been and how much better I want to get.
Each January I make all kinds of promises to myself surrounding self-care, but I’ve come to realize how backwards my motivation has been. I resolved to lose weight because I didn’t like the way I looked -- not because I deserve to be healthy and have more energy. I resolved to read certain books because I told myself I’m not well-read enough -- not because I just love to read. I resolved to organize some part of my house because I felt ashamed at how it looked to others -- not because I deserve to feel peaceful and comfortable in my home.
This year brings many of those same goals, but with an entirely different perspective. I still want to eat better and exercise, to lose weight, to read certain things and clean certain things and on and on. But after a year of evaluating the idea of self-care, I’m no longer doing them out of shame and guilt and embarrassment. I’m doing them to take care of myself in ways that feed my body and soul, because I am strong and I am brave and I can do them and I deserve more.
There will be days of Netflix marathons, and ice cream, and bubble baths, and greasy takeout. But they will be in the company of days of daring myself to do the hard things that I deserve to do, not because I should, but because I can, and because I will be more well because of them.