Being a working artist is consuming. Being a woman is scary. Being a decent person is stressful. Being a HUMAN is overwhelming. On top of the “regular” pressures and pains of daily life, those living with mental health issues experience exhausting and sometimes debilitating obstacles. For me, some weeks it seems like I’m fighting dissociation and emptiness in every waking moment. Even on my best days, when not a lick of sadness enters my soul there is still a residual hopelessness that even my favorite activities or self medication can’t thwart. Routines can help, but some of my habits worsen my issues and cutting those out is a battle in itself. Some self sabotaging behaviors are so comfortable because there is no one to blame but oneself and there are no unexpected outcomes. Like smoking cigarettes, sleeping in, scrolling social media, or skipping meals. Cutting out the ugly, and developing healthy routines that optimize mental function and joy is the key to self maintenance for those living unmedicated. But for anyone, making a conscious decision to change your behavior is taxing. Taking the first step in making that good decision or changing that behavior is the hardest part. There is no easy way to do it, there is no instant fix. But there are a few tricks to support and push yourself, and they may not work for everyone but they usually work for me.
When stuck in a depressive cycle it feels impossible to do anything that is uncomfortable. When your mind tells you to stay in bed, smoke, starve or skip tasks, you have to condition yourself to do the exact opposite, to listen to the body and spirit and not the mind. Often times it feels like no one will truly understand what you’re experiencing, so unpack those experiences with yourself. Aloud conversations with yourself about the action you are avoiding, and what reward you will get out of it uses logic and positivity to trigger motivation and reward in the mind. Start small: “Brain, being in bed is comfortable, what is the point of getting out of bed when nothing matters? Well brain, you are still alive. You do deserve to be comfortable- and you know what would make you more comfortable? To stand beneath warm water, the smell of soap, and the feel of clean pajamas. Even if nothing else matters in the world, those small rewards are better than feeling nothing”. Having the conversation out loud helps prevent you from spiraling, and encourages logical thought. In these conversations, try to address yourself the way you would a friend or a loved one. Remind yourself that you deserve love and care even when you feel empty.
Another method I’ve utilized is to make plans and keep them more than half the time. Making plans to do both menial and diverse/stimulating activities serves as distraction and motivation. Breaking plans most often means consequences. So when the brain is set on avoiding the uncomfortable, consequences are a decent motivation tactic. Even setting alarms and asking friends to help hold you accountable can help you achieve those goals.
An example of my plans:
On saturday, call to schedule a hair appointment and place a deposit
Visit mom this week, and TELL her you’re going to visit, so she expects you
Go grocery shopping with a favorite meal in mind, get all of the ingredients you need to make it
They don’t have to be socially demanding or extravagant, just enough to push you a bit. And the consequences don't have to be intimidating, just enough to remind you of the reward and get you moving.
Lastly, it’s no secret that journaling assists in mental health progress. But depression depletes the energy necessary to write or even think. And if you're like me, after a long day of work, the mind and body are spent even when not experiencing an episode. So instead of journaling about your goals and feelings and daily tasks in paragraph format, start by just texting yourself, or making notes on a device or on an open faced notepad. Make a list of absolute necessities for the days when your energy is at bare minimum. Create a manageable list of things you CAN accomplish and at the end of the day list the things you HAVE accomplished. A “To do” list in the morning and a “done” list in the evening. Having a “done” list reminds you that you’re not a failure if things on the “to do” list have not been accomplished. A “to do” list is just a guide and a “done” list, an encouragement. And when the same items appear on every list for days in a row, eventually those items become a part of your routine and a part of your safe space.
Day 1 to do list:
Make the bed
Wash your hair
Walk the dog
Dust the living room
Took a bubble bath
Walked the dog
Did the dishes
Took a nap
For example I personally struggle with making appointments when I’ve never been to the facility before. So I start by picking a day of the week to assign “call doctor” to my to-do list, I always push it a few days out from the day I think of it. When the day arrives, I make it my first task of the morning following self care and hygiene. The entire time I’m washing my face and brushing my teeth, I’m reminding myself that once I do it, it’s over and I can check it off my list. I then make all upcoming appointments at the office for the same time and the same day of the week, making it a part of a regular routine. I don’t let it become something to dread, I try to logically frame it as something to look forward to, and to make me feel accomplished.
If your lists go well, and you have the energy to venture into journaling but don't know where to start, I recommend writing Haikus or bullet notes at the end of the day or the end of the week.
These methods have helped lift me to a better, more manageable space. Self talk, list making, and keeping plans have helped me feel like a normal person for the first time in my life. They’ve given me just enough strength to crawl out of the hole, replace some bad habits with good ones, and find joy. I have more good days now and though the bad ones can still leave me flat on my face, I at least KNOW i have the tools to help myself when others can't. It's now easier to focus on what I love so that I can enjoy the little things and stress about the life I live OUTSIDE of my own head.