A Case of Self-Care

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With the ever-increasing awareness of mental health issues, we’ve likely come across the concept of self-care as it pertains to reducing stress and managing mental illness. If you’ve been encouraged to take a bath on occasion, exercise, or unwind with a glass of wine the evening, it might have been in the name of self-care.

Having worked in a university setting as a student and professional staff, I have been encouraged to engage in self-care practices since I was a teenager. Perhaps in its overuse, self-care has lost its meaning for me, or I’ve convinced myself I don’t have time for it. Either way, until recently, I had considered self-care and its practice to be a touch “froufrou”. Of course taking time for oneself would be nice, however, things need to get done, and quite frankly, I’m tired.

In the past month, however, my therapist and I discussed reframing self-care into a concerted effort to engage in a relationship with self. Another frilly thought, at first glance. But then I thought about the relationships in my life and the effort it takes to maintain and nurture them, and realized that if I was dating myself, I would dump me.

Looking at healthy relationships around me, I see people making an effort to listen and understand their partners, taking on an equal of household responsibilities, cooking healthy meals together, trying new things, and occasionally unplugging from electronics and social media. In short, making their relationships/friends a priority and behaving as such. When is the last time I made my relationship with myself a priority? As my own oldest friend, I admit, I have neglected myself shamefully.

So this past month I have focused on jumping two feet into a relationship with self, reminding myself to take it slow and not rush into things. Wouldn’t want to scare myself off, after all.

This month, I rekindled a creative outlet in crafting and even entertained the idea of learning to crochet. I have had a quiet night in binge-watching Glee. I have taken myself to a movie. I have gone on long bike rides. I got my hair cut and made time to put make-up on in the morning. I unplugged from social media when I maxed out my cell phone data (not my choice). I did my dishes right away, because if I would do that for someone else, why wouldn’t I do that for myself?

I tried to take the pressure off myself in terms of attempting to remove all the negative symptoms associated with my illness, but instead worked to add things to my life that bring me closer to my most authentic self. Why? Because all of the loved ones in my life are in receipt of my generosity, my thoughtfulness and my time, and I need to devote just as much of that energy into my oldest and greatest relationship: the one with myself.

I’m stuck with me for life, so if that relationship is suffering, it’s no one’s responsibility but my own.

In this case, it’s not you, or anyone else.

It’s me.

Helpful, and not so much.

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Up to this point, I haven’t fully engaged with a group of people who are so essential to the recovery and wellness of people who are mentally ill: the loved ones of the mentally ill.

If you don’t think you have experienced mental illness yourself, aside from the occasional highs and lows to be expected from life, you likely know and love someone who suffers from mental illness and wonder what you can do to help. Hopefully I can help with that. I’ve given some thought as to what has been helpful to me – and maybe not so much – when it comes to supporting my mental health.

Maybe Not So Helpful: 

“Get well soon!”

Said with undoubtedly the best of intentions, and I recognize that. The trouble with responding to a “Get Well” or “Feel better soon” is that I’m managing what is anything but a linear illness, and I might not get “well” soon at all. There seems to be an added pressure with mental illness to feel better quickly and “snap out of it”, that doesn’t exist with other illnesses, in part because depression is uncomfortable and we don’t have a social script for it. Because it is an illness of the mind and there are often no physical symptoms to focus upon and treat, I sometimes feel pressure to bully myself out of my depression through sheer willpower. Certainly difficult to do when my brain is on the injured reserve list. The only thing I know for sure is that there are good days and bad days in my future, like with many other chronic illnesses.

Maybe Try: “Take care of yourself.”

“I know exactly how you feel”

A violation of one of the most important rules of interpersonal support is assuming you know EXACTLY how someone feels. Everyone is coming to the table with their own set of genetics, psychology, biological and social factors that influence their every perception. There is no possible way for you know exactly how someone feels. Using this phrase expresses the opposite of what you likely intended: that you want to relate and help your loved one feel less alone. In practice, however, you may have dismissed their feelings as trivial and invalidated their individual struggle.

Maybe try: “I can understand how that could be exhausting. Tell me more about how you’re feeling.”

“Have you tried…?”

Another expression where I recognize the effort and desire to help, however, could come across as dismissive and condescending. Have I tried…yoga? Meditation? Have I tried NOT being sad? Chances are if I’m sharing with you how things are not going well, I’ve exhausted many of the suggestions I’ve gleaned from friends, doctors, the internet, and I’m still struggling. Treatment for mental illness is very individualized, where the right combination of medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes will be unique for every person. This is not to say that you shouldn’t share your success stories – just keep in mind that your mentally ill loved one is still fighting to uncover what works for them.

Maybe try: “What have you tried so far and how has it helped?”

Definitely Helpful:

Do something

When someone is hurting, it can be difficult to know what to do to help. We are compelled to say things like, “let me know if there’s anything I can do” because it sounds nice and feels like the right thing to say. A person experiencing mental illness may struggle to recognize what they need, never mind finding the words and the courage to ask for it. My favourite example of this in action was when my best friend recognized that I was paralyzed by everything I needed to do and didn’t have time to clean my untidy apartment. While I was at work, she came by armed with her cleaning supplies and scrubbed the place clean. I hadn’t asked her to do this, but the gesture was so thoughtful and welcome.

Be a generous listener

Being a generous listener means being present and engaged with the conversation, asking thoughtful questions and allowing the person to speak on the subject as long as they want. The greatest gift you can give another person is your time and your undivided attention, so look for those opportunities to entirely focus on your loved one.

“I will be with you”

There are times where I am fearful that the symptoms of mental illness push people away and that the longer my condition doesn’t improve, the more likely my loved ones will pull back from me. The most comforting thing I could hear in those moments of doubt is that you will be there. As a loved one of someone with mental illness, you are essential to creating a safety net in which someone can recover and knowing you will be with me reminds me that I’m not fighting this alone.

 

Living Tired

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Somehow, between pursuing a career and keeping up with our social commitments, being tired has become more than a feeling, but a state of being that our society has submitted to. If you ask anyone how they’re doing, odds are you will hear some variation of “tired”, and how else will you commiserate with them without discussing how your life is tiring too?

Because saying that you’re tired is so commonplace and overused, it can be easy for signs of deteriorating mental health to go unnoticed by loved ones and friends. Mental Health on the Mighty released an article that asks what people with mental illness really mean when they say they are tired, and I thought it was a great exercise to verbalize how my depression feels, and what I mean when I say “I’m tired”.

I feel heavy: This is a commonly used descriptor of depression, where people feel physically and emotionally heavy from their illness that has little to do with body weight. Not only does my body drag, but my face droops with the weight of how I feel. I find myself heavier on my feet, slower to carry out the tasks of living and end up injuring myself if I try to rush something (my hands are constantly covered in nicks and cuts from not being careful with utensils or dishes). My thoughts are heavy and solid somehow, and they seep into my body, burdening my movement.

I feel overcast: If someone (qualified) were to open my cranium and look at my brain, I’m convinced it would appear to be a dull and colourless concrete slab because that’s how it feels sitting in my head. Truth be told, the image of a cartoon person with a storm cloud tracking their every moment is not far off the mark. Sometimes I will have sparks of vitality – I like to call them champagne bubbles – where I feel lucid and remember how being bright feels. Usually I’m with loved ones, or trying something new, or having a really good conversation with someone and I forget that I’m trying to be happy and I just am.

I’m always missing the bus: There is nothing that describes my depression more accurately than the feeling of just missing the bus. In almost all aspects of my life, I feel like I’m chasing something down that is just out of reach, all the while beating myself up for putting myself in a position where I have to run. In my life, depression and anxiety are BFFs, in that when one shows up to the party, it will always extend the invite to the other, so even when I have barely enough energy to shoulder the day, I somehow have enough energy to be panicked about what I’m not doing well or getting done.

Sleep is peace: I’ve been given a lot of suggestions of how to quiet my mind and find peace in the moment, including yoga, meditation, thought-stopping techniques – you name it. It can be difficult to try to learn these strategies when my mental illness is running on a hamster wheel of negativity from which I get little reprieve. So while I’m trying to concentrate on the day, take in information, and be productive, anxious thoughts and self-doubt are on loop in the background. By the end of the day, I’m completely depleted from all the self-management and redirecting it takes to do what I need to do. Sleep is the only time I feel at ease in my mind and so the adorable napping habit that I’m so well-known for comes to serve a much more important purpose.

I’m waiting for my life to start: Perhaps the most painful of all and most uncomfortable to admit, but my illness will sometimes make me feel like I’m waiting for my life to start. My illness tells me I need to wait until I feel better, have a better apartment, have more money, meet someone who changes the game, and then – finally – my real life can start. Until then, I’m not quite enough to attract goodness my way. Now that I know that depression is feeding me false information, I’m learning to challenge my inner critic on this one. Logically, I know that my life is full and rich and worthy of appreciation today, but it takes monumental effort to resist the pull of “someday”.

When anyone tells you they are tired, they could certainly be tired. Or they could be feeling emotionally heavy, overcast, restless, impatient, and yearning for life to start. They could be feeling lost at sea, drowning, or feel nothing at all. Let’s listen generously to our tired friends, and explore what their tired really means. You could be the first person for them who has listened to understand.

What Depression Looks Like on Me

There are days I wish mental illness presented like any other physical illness in that its effects could be seen, validated, and hopefully understood by other people, because living with an invisible illness can be an exhausting experience, particularly for people whose depression and anxiety symptoms fall outside of how we often categorize “mentally ill” people.

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I identify as an extrovert – I receive my energy from interacting with people, being social and connecting with others. More than loving a good party (although I most certainly do) I feel energized, alive and spirited when I am with friends, meeting new people and having good conversation. Having high social needs means that the symptoms of my mental illness don’t often align with traits people normally associate with depression or anxiety. When I share with people that I have clinical depression, they are often surprised: “But you are so outgoing! You don’t seem depressed at all.” Thank…you. Does not displaying the stereotypical depressive characteristics (whatever those are…) make my illness less legitimate?

What does depression look like on this particular extrovert? In an effort to avoid generalizations, I speak only to my experience in describing how I wear my particular illness.

I prioritize my relationships and social life, making sure I am being an attentive friend, remembering important dates in the lives of people I care about, making the long drives to see loved ones and showing up for events and gatherings even when it takes every last ounce of my energy. Perhaps people assume that social events would be the first things to drop during a depressive episode, but that’s not the best thing for me. As an extrovert, I am pulled in two directions, 1) needing to spend energy pulling myself out of my funk, and 2) desperately craving a social energy hit.

In short, you likely won’t see my relationships suffer too much when I am feeling depressed because while my personal internal and external environment may suffer, my remaining energy goes into my friends and family, who will only notice I am not doing well if they know what to look for.

My particular brand of depression looks like:

Unwashed dishes: My friends know that I can laugh at myself about this not-so-cute-at-27 quirk. I am tagged in all the dirty dishes memes and before I invite anyone into my apartment, they should know I’ve likely spent over an hour washing every dish in my house. Why? Because I’ve used every dish in my house. Why? Because I couldn’t be bothered to wash them right away, and they’ve become a pile that will take me an hour to wash, and that’s an hour I could spend sleeping so I have energy later to hang out with friends.

Untidy house: Self-proclaimed “clean freaks” have always fascinated me. Why clean every day when you could, I don’t know, be sleeping. I never understood how people didn’t spend an entire day cleaning their house, until I finally came to the realization that part of my depression means I don’t make time (read: don’t care) to clean a little every day. This leaves me with a 4- hour cleaning frenzy to manage because I agreed to host the girls’ fondue night. I don’t clean for me, I clean for the benefit of other people.

Eating take-out:  Subway, Panera Bread, Pita Pit…you name a sandwich place during a depressive low, and the employees working there know my order. I don’t care enough to cook or prepare something at home because 1) I don’t have the energy to cook for just me 2) there’s no food in the house to prepare and 3) there’s no clean plate to put it on anyway. Logically I know that my health and my wallet would benefit from eating at home, but I can’t be bothered to take care of myself in that way when I’m feeling down.

Three-hour naps on the daily: Another adorable trait that I make jokes about but speaks to how much sleep I require to recover and heal during a low. I also use sleep as an avoidance tool – can’t overthink things while you’re snoozing!

Attention deficits: My friend and I have discussed how nice it would be to sit down with a book and read the whole thing without getting bored or distracted or feeling compelled to check our phones. Imagine being that at peace! My downtime is spent drowning out thoughts that make me feel bad by watching comforting, mind-numbing TV shows that I know every line of dialogue to. My depression looks like distraction so that I don’t have to directly listen my thoughts, and then can run quietly in the background instead.

Self-deprecating humour: Ahhh…the quintessential coping mechanism for so many depressives! Why make other people feel uncomfortable by your illness when you can make light of personality quirks like being sleepy, untidy and hyperactive? Don’t get me wrong – joking about my illness is helpful to me too, but it’s one way I know how to reach out when I need help that makes people feel a little less uneasy.

So, much like online clothes shopping, even depression may look different on you and me than it does on the model. What I hope to work towards in sharing my stories is to help more people feel validated that their feelings are important, they deserve help, and most importantly, they are not alone in this.

 

Choosing Happy

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The season of #BellLetsTalk is a great time to talk about reaching out for help with our mental health struggles, and supporting one another by listening and being a friend.

It’s a mark of great courage to trust someone else enough to be that vulnerable, and I certainly respect that. I have found it’s quite another thing to admit to yourself that you need help and manage the fallout that comes with an evolving identity that suddenly includes mental illness.

In my early 20s, I had some great strategies for dodging my depression and avoiding pesky feelings: overworking at a demanding job, over-committing in my social life, and a weekly alcoholic beverage count that absolutely stunned my pure, wide-eyed, naturopath. These strategies worked for a time – no one guessed I was depressed, and I did not have the time or attention span to confront my deteriorating mental health.

I moved home after leaving my demanding job, and figured I’d begin the quirky rite of passage of moving home as many people do, complete with aggressive resume distribution and calling my parents “my roommates”. Eight months later, I was still a barista, living in my parents’ basement and eating an impressive amount of expired pastries from Starbucks.

I had time on my hands. I didn’t have a team of staff members to focus my energy. I worked weekends and early mornings so margarita weeknights were a thing of the past. There was nothing for my shitty feelings to hide behind: I was not okay.

Admitting that my tried-and-true coping strategies had turned stale quickly was not easy. I kept telling myself, but I’m not the sad girl, I make everyone laugh. I’m not the underachiever, I held a great job for years. I thought I knew myself and my capabilities, and adjusting that perception was a hit to my ego.

I did not want to be on medication. Medication meant admitting to needing extra help that other people didn’t need. It meant that I wasn’t capable of handling the “challenges” of my already privileged life. It was admitting failure. It wasn’t me.

My change of heart came when my family rented a cottage in the late summer of 2013. Being around just my immediate family for a week with limited social stimulation, no cell phone service and poor weather, the last of my well-crafted performance art fell away. My mom said even my face looked different: there was no life there. I didn’t have to pretend in front of my family, so I didn’t.

I agreed to take antidepressants after ruining that family vacation with my piss-poor attitude, although it was certainly no miracle pill initially. My emotions, even positive ones, were dulled, and I was heartbroken when I found myself unable to cry at the funeral of my best friend’s mother. I was groggy in the morning, had wicked indigestion, night terrors, and my all-time favourite, night itches.

So I switched the meds, and tried again. And I found a combination of brand and dosage that works for me. And the best part? The meds allow me to feel as though I can manage the highs and lows of life, without huge blows to my confidence and self-esteem. Negative thoughts are promptly triaged and evaluated logically, and often quieted or released completely.

With this help, I consistently feel like the capable person I am, so why would I deprive myself of something that works for me? To preserve my pride? There are more important things. My ego need not require that much real estate in my life – not when I could be happy instead.