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.
Well, my friends, I am at last breaking the radio silence that has deafened this blog for the past two months. Many of you reached out via social media and in person to ask whether I was okay, or if a new blog post would be up soon. Thank you for caring enough to check in -- that kind of support is incredibly humbling and cheering. I’m grateful for you.
The truth is, I have been absent from this written world for a wonderful reason. I have, at last, and for now, anyway, pulled myself out of the muck and mire that is my depression. (Now, for the love of all things holy, let’s all please knock on some wood together.) I’ve not been writing because I’ve been out living! Doing busy, normal, happy things! Without the three-hour naps in the afternoon, without the nighttime dread of the following morning (well, almost, because still, I will always be the person who snoozes three times and wishes for a nap as soon as she is out of bed). Without the crippling fear of leaving the house or the distinct, stomach-wrenching feeling that nothing at all in this life matters.
Instead, I’ve been reading at the beach. I’ve been helping a friend with her little ones (is there anything happier than a two-year-old who gazes up at you when you wake him from his nap and says, “Auntie Lauren, I’m glad you’re here!”?) I’ve been painting our master bedroom and refashioning it into a relaxing, clutter-free haven from the rest of my cheerful, lived-in apartment. I’ve been enjoying time with family: celebrating my father’s semi-retirement from the local fire department and meeting an aunt and cousin for lunch with my mom to reminisce about our sweet Gram.
And in all these good, good things of life, I managed to cram the fact of my depression into a teeny, tiny box and shove it way back, into the corner of my mind, and ignore it for awhile! Well, mostly ignore it, anyway. Of course I’ve kept up with therapy appointments and my medication. I’m not throwing caution to the wind, and I’m under no illusions that I am actually depression-free, because I don’t think that will ever be a reality for me. But as I felt more well, and engaged more fully with the world around me, it became hard to want to sit down and write about the disease that has taken those things from me before. Why would I want to continue to write about mental illness, force myself to think about the difficulties with which it has engendered my life, when I finally felt able to just go about my business and live?
And so, as days strung together into weeks, and those weeks into months, my accidental summer hiatus from blogging unfolded itself into my lap and stayed there. Whereas previously I had thought constantly about the blog, jotting down new ideas for posts and checking my views, I now felt strong enough to give myself freedom from that. I had new, real-world obligations and engagements, and my therapist viewed it as a healthy thing that I was not making myself beholden to my blog followers (sorry -- I really do love you!) since it is, in fact, my blog, not anyone else’s. It was good to remind myself that I didn’t owe this writing to anyone.
But time has passed and I am learning to settle into life as a mentally healthy person. (Once again, and I cannot stress this enough: I am not taking this for granted, and I am certainly not magically healed. I’m just doing better.) And I have found that I do miss the writing, and the processing that it helps me do as I pick my way through the brambly, overgrown pathways of living with depression and anxiety. And those of you who have reached out have made it clear to me that there is something of value here for others, as well. So rather than continue the hiatus, which has allowed me some time to enjoy the summer and heal privately, I will journey on publicly once again. I hope you’ll find the trek valuable, whether it offers you encouragement, solidarity, information, or understanding.
So, here we go again! Thanks -- as always --for being here.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been in a bit of a slump the past couple of weeks. I wouldn’t call it a rut, not a downward spiral, but definitely a downturn in my mood and energy. I’m not talking about the kind of desperate, gnawing sadness that I’ve described before, not a string of really terrible, hopeless days, but more of just a low-level, doing-the-bare-minimum, getting-by kind of depression. The low moments are not as painfully low as they are on a truly awful day, but the high moments don’t feel as happy and carefree as they should (and do) when I’m completely well. I’m a little more able to get out of the house and put a smile on my face, it’s just still hard to feel like I’m glad that I’ve done so.
It’s impossible for me to tell when a slump is coming. It just happens, as I slowly realize that I have been stringing together days and days of “blah.” My body might ache a bit more; I’m more prone to headaches and stomachaches; and I sleep a lot. (For example: last night was the first night in two weeks that I was not in bed before dark.) Over the weekend I slept and slept and slept. I got up for a few hours and then went back to bed after dinner, finding it difficult to think of a reason to stay up. If I couldn’t sleep, I escaped into a crime novel and read until my eyes closed. And then I slept some more.
Sometimes I sleep like this because I’m genuinely fatigued. I took a day off from work, using sick time to try to sleep off the misery and exhaustion I was feeling. It didn’t help, but back to work I went the following day. I fought my way through the rest of the week, doing my work, taking moments here and there to check in with my husband about how I was feeling. I tried to just let the depression sit with me through my days; I was functioning but feeling a constant, dim kind of melancholy. Sitting with even just that faint sadness all the time is really, really tiring. So I sleep.
Other times, I sleep like this because I just don’t feel like there is anything more important or more interesting to do. I let the pile of clean laundry sit unfolded. I let the dust gather around the jewelry and toiletries overcrowding my dresser. I notice that the shower curtain liner is starting to mildew. I just let it all go. None of it feels more important than being horizontal, in my bed, away from the nagging world. So I sleep.
Slumps like this can last for days, weeks, even months, for me. I function, get through work, cook some occasional meals, but mostly I just use my energy to get by. Socializing is hard, even with my closest friends and family. I want my husband home but when he’s nearby I get irritated with him for no reason. As soon as I push him away I want him back in the room with me (I’m sure this is maddening, but he takes it all in stride, thank God). I cancel plans so I can rest, or sleep, or hide, and then I feel guilty about canceling plans, so I spend energy using positive self-talk to remind myself that I’m not well and I need to take care of myself. That’s exhausting too, so then I go to bed. Again.
If you see me during a slump, you might not even know I’m having one. Upon starting this blog, several people close to me let me know that they would have had “no idea” that I suffer from depression if they weren’t told. I guarantee they have all seen me during a time like this, probably not on a horrible day, but during a bit of a hard time. I have learned to smile and, if not engage, at least quietly observe what’s going on around me and try look interested (rather than grimacing at the negative thoughts in my head, or muttering under my breath for the monster to pipe down). The good thing about slumps is, while they take a lot of energy to get through and they are damned persistent, at least they don’t suck all the happiness out of a moment. I can still get in a genuine smile here and there. I’m learning that it’s better than nothing.
So, slump or no, I try my best to be present for the important moments in life. I can name birthday dinners, reunion trips with college friends, weddings, even parties that I have hosted myself that have all occurred during a rough patch. I show up. I look the part. It’s okay. I can acknowledge happy occasions and wonderful people. The deep, sustaining joy in knowing that God is good and life is beautiful is not gone from my mind and my heart; I just am less equipped during these moments to fully experience and express happiness in all its shapes and sizes. I have still made the memories, still witnessed the events, still been present in the moment. At the time, I might feel like all I’m doing is mucking my way through the swampy waters of depression, the exultant world around me hazy and out of focus; but I try to remember that what I’m doing is being here. I’m living. Maybe the happiness won’t be as big, as uproarious, as full in my heart as I want it to be; but I’m here, where the happiness is, and that’s more than worth slumping through.
Yesterday, I did something I have been talking about since I turned eighteen. I got a tattoo! (Exclamation points in this blog are scarce, I think, so I'm using them here because I'm excited!)
I have always known that I wanted a tattoo in some form of the word "joy," for a few reasons. First -- it's my middle name, and one I've been grateful for ever since I was little. It's a wonderful feeling to know that my parents incorporated part of what they felt about my birth into my name (thanks, Mom and Dad!).
As a Christian, the concept of joy as an enduring spiritual condition due to God's grace, rather than a fleeting emotion of happiness, is important to me and has become more so as I've been learning to live with the psychological condition of depression. One of my favorite Bible verses is from the book of James: "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness." (James 1:2-3, English Standard Version). For whatever reason, one of my biggest trials in life is (and, I imagine, always will be) mental illness, and I choose to believe that God will use it to make me into a more patient, steadfast person so that I become what I need to be for others.
I decided to incorporate the semicolon into the tattoo primarily because of Project Semicolon, a nonprofit organization that promotes honestly and openly confronting mental illness and addiction with love and encouragement by using a semicolon as its symbol. The idea appeals to me as both a sufferer of mental illness as well as a writer: the semicolon is what an author uses when the sentence she is writing isn't finished yet. In other words, the story continues on, rather than coming to an end. To me, the semicolon preceding the rest of the word "joy" in my tattoo represents that my sentence, or story, will go on with joy, despite the days that depression and anxiety make me feel like everything is over. I choose the semicolon, not a period. This girl's not done writing her story!
On good days…
I wake up feeling like the day is manageable. I don’t mind (too much) getting out of bed and pulling back the curtains and looking the world in the face. I feel competent and confident, and I can do my work and meet my obligations for the day without dread, fear, anxiety or apathy.
On good days…
I smile at my husband when he hugs me in the morning and we chat about how we slept as we make our coffee and get ready for the day.
On good days…
I even start a load of laundry or pick up around the house before I start work. I wipe down counters or straighten the throw pillows and blankets on the couch. I pay attention to how the apartment looks, even if just for a few minutes, and take care of myself by taking care of my surroundings. I know that tidying up will help me feel calmer and more at peace.
On good days…
I take a nap when I need one, but I don’t use hours of sleep to make the day pass. I get the rest I need to take care of myself and then I wake up and enjoy the rest of my day.
On good days…
I enjoy social time with friends and family, even after a full day of work or if I’m feeling a little tired. I value the energy they put into their relationships with me and I look forward to spending time with them.
On good days…
I like to entertain. It helps me feel good about myself and grateful for my life to host a social gathering, feed my friends some home-cooked food, and fill our apartment with the happy sounds of friends enjoying each other’s company.
On good days…
I am grateful to be who I am, where I am, and doing the things that I am doing. I am thankful for the chance to live in my own space, love my husband, pet my cat and and read my books; just to do the simple tasks of living with joy. I remember that I am okay.