anecdotes and reflections on life with depression and anxiety
I've been thinking about Thanksgiving because -- gasp -- it's less than two weeks away. I'm gearing up for the big grocery shop, dreaming of which kinds of wine to buy to go with dinner and already working on some of the goodies I can freeze ahead (make these. Just... do it.)
But it's important to note that amidst all of the festive preparations I'm making to get ready for this holiday and the others soon to follow, I'm still doing the basic things I need to do to take care of myself. I'm still sitting in front of my sun lamp for 30 minutes every morning. I'm still taking my meds. I'm still making time for naps when I need them and walks when I need those, too. Because one thing I'm starting to learn (over years of slow progress), it's that letting those seemingly small things fall to the wayside is a.) the perfect invitation for daily, all-consuming depression to charge back into my life and b.) a way for all of my planning and excitement and preparations to fall apart.
Maybe it seems incongruous to you that a person with mental illness (and an introvert, no less!) would enjoy entertaining. But I do, sometimes. When I'm well. When I have time to plan. And, most importantly, when I can take the time to do things on my own terms.
So in the five years I've been hosting a holiday dinner for my family, I've picked up a few tricks. Forcing myself to take the time I need for self-care is the foundation of this whole operation. And recognizing that doing this entertaining thing in my (admittedly neurotic, highly enthusiastic, decidedly overplanned) way is part of how I take care of myself. Here's some of what "my way" looks like.
I've learned that I have to make a plan. I have to write down the steps. I have to ponder the steps and switch around their order and rewrite the list. Sometimes I like to hand write a list and type it up somewhere too. When I've got a plan -- one that's articulated, not just floating in my head -- I feel less anxious, I feel empowered to do what needs to be done, and I feel in control of the situation (a pretty critical need for a person with anxiety). I actually have a Thanksgiving-day timeline of when things need to come out of the fridge and go in the oven and come out of the oven and etc. etc. (This is partly because of anxiety, and partly because I grew up watching my mom make [less crazed] lists like these, and partly just because I'm a nerd who likes lists. I'm fine with all of these reasons.)
And because I'm a planner but also a realist, I've learned to accept that, inevitably, the plan will change. A dish might not get prepped the day I want it to be done. I might not get a chance to set the table as early as I like. Guests might come early, or they might come late. They might ask to bring a friend. They might not be able to make it. None of it is personal. And it will all be okay. The short and long of it is this: people who love each other will be together. No one will starve. No one will be mad at me. Everything will be fine. Even if it's not how I envisioned it as I planned and re-planned. (Last year, everything went swimmingly until I put several dishes in the oven to heat up right before serving. I got anxious and impatient and ended up serving everything nearly cold. I apologized 18 times and repeatedly offered to microwave everyone's plates, while simultaneously worrying about how dirty the inside of my microwave might be). No one cared as much as I did. It was fine.
Now, in the midst of all of these plans and ever-evolving schedules, and my pages-long, absurdly detailed to-do lists -- I have been starting to do something revolutionary. I add scheduled breaks to my litany of things to do. It started a couple of years ago when I realized that if I didn't plan a time to shower and get ready, I would be doing it as guests were walking in the door, and I wouldn't look as put together as I'd like -- instead I'd be a red-faced, sweaty mess who isn't sure about what she's wearing. So I scheduled a getting-ready time and felt much more calm and collected, knowing I was good to go well before I'd start to hear knocks on the door.
The year after that, my husband and mother-in-law suggested we add a "mimosa break" to the schedule. That certainly didn't hurt, either. Making time to remember that it's a festive day, a fun day, a celebratory day -- that's a good practice, when we can instead get caught up so easily in checking the oven and worrying about an overcooked turkey. I should be having fun.
The most important thing I've learned, though, is that I don't have to do it alone. I don't need to race around to dust and vacuum while I'm also chopping onions and brining a turkey. I have a husband for that! I don't need to bake all of the pies and make all of the side dishes. I have family members for that! There's no medal for doing every single thing by myself. No one will pat me on the back for refusing help. I have wonderful people who are reaching out with offers of grace and generosity and I should let them in.
Over the years I have learned that a big contributing factor to my mental illness is my self-esteem, which is tied up in my perfectionism. Hosting an annual tradition like Thanksgiving dinner has been an unexpected opportunity to learn about myself: how I can succeed at a big task by breaking it up into small, doable steps; how I react under perceived (and often entirely self-imposed) pressure to get everything right; and what those tasks look like when I give myself permission to make confident decisions, allow myself room for failure, and choose to believe that my family will really just be happy to be together in my home, no matter how the food turns out or whether the lighting looks right or the table is set just so.
What if we applied that kind of logic to our more daily challenges? What if we told ourselves we have permission to do things our own way, and that we're also allowed to mess things up? What if we reminded ourselves of the people who love us because of who we are and not what we do or don't do?
It could be a powerful mindset for our mental well-being year-round, not just during the holidays.
oh, hey --
My name is Lauren. I'm thirty-something, and I like to take naps and read good books and watch bad television. I love my husband and I love my cat, and I live with depression and anxiety, which is mostly what you'll read about here.