My Work Is My Mental Health

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A couple of weeks ago I started to realize that thanks to a large pile of external stressors, my mental health has been suffering this winter. Pretty normal. Even someone who didn’t have some vulnerabilities would probably be struggling right now. But as someone who does have vulnerabilities it became quite clear to me that for the next month or until things start to feel better, my job needs to be caring for my mental health.

I’ve heard people use that phrase before, but I don’t know that it’s always clear what it means. Particularly when you have an actual, literal job, and responsibilities, what does it mean to make your mental health a priority? Why do people choose the “job” or “work” metaphor when they’re talking about mental health? For people who haven’t been through the process of managing depression or anxiety before, the whole idea can be overwhelming, so I wanted to break down my process a little bit to show others how it can be manageable.

One of the main reasons I like the job metaphor is because it gives me a clear picture of how I can successfully approach being more mentally healthy. It’s easy to just say “I want to take care of myself” or “I want to deal with my depression”, but when you approach it like a job you recognize that you have to set concrete goals, that you have to work with other people to achieve those goals, that you break your goals down into steps, and that you might have to try a variety of different techniques to achieve the results you want.

For me, it helps to have something like a “workplan” so that I can know what concrete actions I’m taking and what I hope to get from those actions. For example I’m currently trying to decrease my stress and anxiety. To break that down, I have brainstormed with my therapist things that have helped in the past (being more social, working less, doing mindfulness exercises, being more physically active) and set goals for each of them (see friends 3x a week, do 10 minutes of mindfulness a day, go climbing 3x a week etc.). In a few weeks I can see how I’m doing at those tasks and if each task is helping.

I also find that when I think of it as a job, it becomes a priority. I write it on my to do list each day (and then I have to do it), which helps me to reprioritize, as well as remember to check in regularly and see what’s working and what isn’t. For me personally, including things on my written to do lists keeps it at the forefront of my mind because I am seeing it regularly. That to me is what it means when my mental health is my job: no matter what else I’m doing, my well being is always in my brain. I’m at work? Cool, I’m also doing deep breathing regularly. Out with friends? Great! Make sure you’re also eating enough and venting when you need to. No matter what else is happening, self care is taking priority. If something isn’t serving your long term well being, stop doing it.

Of course there are times where it becomes difficult to know if it’s helping or not. For example I am stressed due to a bunch of big expenses coming up. I’m worried about money. In order to deal with that stress I have been taking on more freelance work to build up a better savings account. Of course taking on more freelance work means that I have less down time and less time with friends, more work to do, and less flexibility in my life and schedule, leaving me with higher levels of stress. Which is more important right now…the money stress or the immediate scheduling stress? For me it’s easier to think of it as a business trade off: which will earn company Olivia more Joy in the long run? Can we outsource any of this work? In this case, it helped me realize I needed to talk to my fiance and family and see if there were alternatives to Olivia just dealing with it, which it turns out there are.

The metaphor might not work for everyone, and this might not be what everyone thinks of when they say “my mental health is my job right now.” But I find that it’s an appropriate metaphor because it restructures the way I approach things, and it makes me more serious about the real amounts of work it takes to take care of myself.

Do you have a different metaphor that works when you need to prioritize mental health? What helps you kick self care into high gear?

 

Staying Functional

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It’s been a rough week. Many of my friends, fellow bloggers, and role models are starting to show a bit of wear and tear. The whole internet has been buzzing with news about the shooting, with debates, with misogyny, with threats, with victim blaming. I’m tired. My patience is worn out. I’m getting triggered left and right by the smallest, stupidest things, and my coping skills are slowly running out.

Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn’t stop when my spoons run out. I still have to work. My dad’s birthday will still happen this weekend and I’ll have to be social and entertain. I still have to write. I still have to clean my kitchen and cook (somehow) and deal with the sudden heat and plan for my move to Ireland next year. I just have to do it all while also feeling like I’m about to snap or break down and start bawling or just run out, stop moving, fall over and not get up.

I’m sure this is the same quandary that all those with mental illness, or those who engage with difficult topics, or those with chronic illness face: how do I remain functional and keep anything from getting worse when my reserves are almost out? I drag myself into the office, but how do I accomplish anything when my brain power is spent just trying to refocus my mind on something other than sexism and shootings and self hatred?

I’ve been trying to use a few tactics, but I would certainly appreciate any suggestions that you all have. Mostly, I’ve been trying to reorganize my priorities so that I can accomplish some things with minimal brain power. This means that my to do list has shifted away from more writing and into some easier tasks at work (as well as I can). At home, instead of trying to tackle some of the bigger project I’ve limited myself to basic, mindless things that will help me feel accomplished: putting away my clean laundry right away, making a big pot of rice and beans so I don’t have to cook for the rest of the week, paying close attention to my schedule so that I don’t miss anything. It’s hard sometimes to feel like I can do these things, but if I get one or two done each day I can head off a lot of the feelings of uselessness and keep myself from hitting a bigger breakdown later.

This also means that at work I am shying away from things that I might really screw up if I’m not all the way present. I’m doing behind the scenes work and trying to save my energy for the times I’m in meetings or have to be front facing for the company. This is the biggest challenge. Part of me is trying to accept that there are certain tasks I simply can’t do right now, but that isn’t something I like to accept and of course it makes me feel like I cannot do my job. In reality, what it means is that right now I need to focus on something slightly different, make my job something a bit different.

And when I don’t have anything that needs to get done, that means complete and utter self indulgence. It means I get to go home and take a nap, or buy myself ice cream every day if I feel like it, or go running twice, or avoid everyone if I want to, or whatever the hell at that moment sounds like it might break through the hazy fear that’s hampering me right now. I hate feeling that desperate. I hate grabbing on to any impulse that seems like it could be remotely positive, but I know that if I simply won’t get through. I hate listening to my needs. I am demanding it of myself though.

Perhaps the hardest part is being responsible for myself and my emotions. I want to fall apart over everyone, bitch people out, yell and scream and swear and cry. I want to tell everyone to piss the fuck off. I want the people who are nonchalantly commenting on blog posts about misogyny to hurt as badly as I do when I see people talk about how mental illness makes you violent. I want to puke.

But it is no one else’s fault that I feel this way. Even the people who are pushing my buttons in all the wrong ways. I still need to be responsible, and when I do lose it, I have to know to apologize and take responsibility for the ways that I can’t cope. I need to be able to set healthy boundaries: I can’t just avoid people, but I need to actively tell them I need space. It is so hard to find the emotional resources to recognize when you’re being out of line when everything feels raw. But as someone who wants to be a positive ambassador for mental illness, I need to be able to function appropriately in my relationships and with my acquaintances even when my mind is not acting appropriately.

And just for fun, I’ve been trying to take mini breaks at work during which I look at goofy GIFs on Tumblr or watch lindy hop on youtube. Little things are all that get me through. Little things are what distract me and keep my mind from spiraling. Little things are what drag me away from that nasty comment.

I will remain functional.

What’s the Harm in Self Harm?

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MAJOR TRIGGER WARNING: self-harm and suicide

 

My dear friend Elly/Lux/awesomepants mcgee posted a really interesting question on Facebook earlier today, and I was of course compelled to answer and then blog about it. She asked “This might just be due to my fucked up brain, but am I the only one who doesn’t see non-suicidal self-harm as an entirely bad thing?”

 

And oh my do I have Thoughts about this one.  Most people shudder and get extremely freaked out by the thought of self-harm. That’s completely understandable, as it goes against our most basic instincts: stay alive as long as possible and avoid pain. It’s confusing and sick to many people why someone would want to hurt themselves. However there are some good reasons why some people self-harm. Self-harm is a coping device. It can help you to feel in control again when the world feels out of control, it can numb pain or provide the only sensations when you are feeling numb, it can be a form of self-punishment when you’re feeling guilty and assuages those feelings, it can be a release when you’re feeling too much to handle, it can help you feel more clarity, it can relax you and relieve anxiety…there are all sorts of reasons why someone might want to hurt themselves, and the end goal of pain and injury is rarely the root cause.

 

So self-harm serves a purpose. It can be very helpful for people who are struggling. It can be what gets them through the day. If the injury that they cause to themselves isn’t serious, what’s the problem? We wouldn’t be getting this upset if they tripped and scraped themselves up. The person isn’t in danger, they aren’t damaging themselves, most of the time the cuts won’t result in any sort of health risk, they aren’t impacting their own quality of life (in fact they’re likely trying to improve their quality of life), so what’s the downside?

 

Well there are a few things to consider as the downsides of self-harm, and that would impact your health and quality of life.

 

1. It makes relationships hard. People who care about you don’t want to see you hurting. Generally if you’re using cutting or self-harm as a coping strategy, it means there’s something that needs to be coped with, and so the people around you become worried and anxious about how you’re doing. They want to help and solve the problem, but they’re also hurt by the fact that you’re hurting. This generally means that you get secretive about it. It can lead to lying or hiding, and you also tend to isolate when you self-harm because you think you have your problem under control and don’t want anyone to take away your coping mechanism. People can become very defensive when they think someone might take away their ability to self-harm, and they also feel judged. Overall this leads to a loss of communication, a loss of openness, and a loss of relationships.

2. There is ALWAYS the potential to do more damage than you intend. No matter how careful you are, no matter where you cut, there is always the potential that your hand slips or something happens and you land yourself in the hospital. When you self-harm, you are always putting yourself at risk in an extremely direct way. You are literally trying to get as close as possible to serious injury or death without quite moving past the line. Now many things in life involve risk, but generally we see things in a cost/benefit analysis way and weigh the risks with the benefits. It’s very possible that there are less risky ways to get the same benefits.

3. It rarely deals with the root of whatever you’re trying to cope with. It’s more of a band-aid than a fix, because it doesn’t teach you the skills to solve your problems. Whatever situation is making you feel like you need to hurt yourself will not go away because you hurt yourself. In many ways, it might exacerbate the problem because it allows you to tolerate for a longer period of time instead of changing the bad situation that you’re in. It’s a strategy that allows you to handle whatever is going on without working on whatever is going on. If you need a fix to get you through something you can’t change, then it might be very effective, but in the long run it’s not.

4. It usually escalates. Like anything else that gives you a kind of a high, you begin to get numb to it. Whatever adrenaline you might have gotten from a few scratches before dulls as your body gets used to it, and now you need to cut more or deeper in order to get the same relief. And the more you escalate, the higher your risk of serious injury or suicide is. Just like drugs or alcohol or whatever, you go further and further, and I think that for many people it does become addictive or obsessive. I know some people who can’t fathom going a day without cutting. When you can’t live without your coping mechanism, it probably is not actually helping you cope anymore. When it has lost its function, it’s simply unnecessary risk.

 

So there are clear benefits to self-harm. You get calm or relief from it, it helps manage emotions, and it can be a way to get through a difficult situation without breaking down. However there are also a lot of risks and downsides to it, like potential serious injury and lack of long-term effectiveness. Given these pros and cons, I think that each individual should be left to their own devices to decide if the pros outweigh the cons for them (up until the point it becomes seriously dangerous). What doesn’t make entire sense to me is the out of proportion reaction that many people have to self-harm. There are all sorts of hobbies that are risky and dangerous. Take rock climbing for example, which is also something I do and love. It’s probably at least as dangerous as self-harm, and doesn’t directly provide benefits in the same way that self-harm does (I mean it is good exercise and good stress relief, but it’s not nearly as effective as self-harm). There is no logical reason why people should see self-harm as inherently worse than other potentially dangerous hobbies and practices, but there is a huge stigma against it. Despite the fact that there are downsides to self-harm, they don’t warrant the panic that seems to appear at the mere mention of self-harm. It’s not inherently worse than any other injury or risk simply because it’s self-inflicted.