Note to Self #2: Starting Small

Good morning dear one,

Let’s pick up where we left off, shall we?

The funny thing about self-care is that you do it all the time even if you don’t call it that. If you’re a living adult not hooked up to life support you’ve been engaging in self-care every day, and like a lot of people you may suck at it.

In your case of course there are considerations beyond being too busy. Having a chronic illness, invisible or otherwise, makes positive self-care way harder just like it makes everything way harder.

Like I said last time, you’re not “normal,” and can’t be. Comparing your own level of self-care to those who are able to function at “normal” levels is not just pointless, it’s toxic; and even if you were of average ability there are always going to be people who can accomplish a thousand things before breakfast and seem to float around the planet in a state of perfect health.

I guarantee those people have problems you can’t see – even the most “together” person gets the shit kicked out of her by life now and then. But you can’t know what other people are dealing with any more than they know what you’re dealing with, so there’s no use in feeling like a failure if your life isn’t an endless Instagram feed of vintage-filtered adventure and kale smoothies that somehow don’t taste like bong water.

You have to pick your battles, especially when things are bad. For a fully able person self-care might include hours of exercise and fresh home-cooked meals every night and weekly mani-pedis. But that’s not you. Besides, you don’t like people touching your feet.

Those Pinterest-friendly lists of “10 ways to practice self-care” aren’t gospel. Fuck spa night! You can barely get out of bed! Again – don’t set yourself up to fail using someone else’s standards.

However, even on bad days, there are ways to do better by yourself.

Start with the absolute basics.

Say you’re lying in bed, paralyzed by the relentless gravity of your own mind, and you know it’s going to be one of those days.

You know what? That’s okay. The world will not end. Forget the rest of the world and focus on keeping your heart beating another day so that when the weight on your chest begins to lighten you’re still here to see the color come back into the world. You don’t have to try and force it – you know that won’t work anyway. All the “positive thinking” in the world won’t turn the planet faster. It’s okay.

It really is okay.

Eventually you’re going to have to pee, though, and that’s a good place to start. After you’re done, wash your hands, then wash your face. Just a bit of water – it’ll help get the sleep gunk and tear residue out of your eyes. That’s it. Just wash your face.

It’s possible this will make you want to brush your teeth. If so, go ahead. If not, that’s fine too, go back to bed. You might not do anything else today, but you did do that.

Next time you get up, eat something. Screw “healthy,” just find something to put in your belly; I’d recommend keeping a stash of something that you know will be there if all else fails. Don’t try to cook – sometimes even the microwave is too much to deal with. On days like this having too many options or too many steps is only going to get you stuck. Find something you can open and eat.

The idea isn’t to try and make yourself feel “better” so much as to make the day a little more bearable.

So don’t choke down a salad or some cardboard-ass tasting protein bar if you don’t enjoy those things. Don’t punish yourself with things you “should” want. Don’t make some “happy thoughts” playlist to force on yourself when you’re drowning. Don’t force yourself to list things you’re grateful for and then feel like a shitty person when you realize you don’t feel grateful for anything right now.

Days like this suck giant hairy goat balls, and you don’t have to feel grateful. Don’t worry about trying to magically shift your mind into a better place. This isn’t a self-help problem. If you had the flu would you consider yourself a failure of a human being? Well, your brain has the flu.

Don’t punish yourself for being ill.

Don’t think “transform” or “fix”.

Think “be gentle.” Think “be kind.”

When you’re feeling better you can work on bigger changes. Like I said, there are things you can do that will help bad days like this come less often, and ways to support your body and mind to give you more resilience when they do come. Wellness is holistic and depends on the interaction of a lot of moving parts, some of which are beyond your control and many of which are not. But those are not concerns for the bad days themselves.

You can be as pissed at yourself as you want for putting off that flu shot, but once you’re actually sick your focus is no longer on prevention, but treatment.

You know those days will happen again – instead of living in constant dread, think of how you can prepare for them better, minimize their disruptive power. You probably can’t stop them, and even predicting them can be a fool’s errand, but you can prepare.

Remember: Kindness. How can you be just a little kinder to yourself on bad days?

Let’s not overcomplicate things – you don’t need some 5-step plan or even a plan, per se, at all; start with just one thing. Think of one thing you could do to make a bad day feel less awful. Wash your face. Put on warmer clothes. Light a stick of incense to make the room smell nicer.

Seem pointless? Look at it this way:

When you’re at your lowest, how do you feel? You feel abandoned, alone. Like the entire world and God above have all left you to bleed to death slowly in the corner of a cold, dark room. Worst of all you feel like you deserve it. Like there’s something so fundamentally broken about you that nothing good or loving should touch you.

Of course none of this is true. But it’s not logical thought that got you here and it’s not logical thought that will get you out. What you need is to feel loved in a way you can accept. We’re not talking hugs and therapy sessions. We’re talking a tiny concrete gesture that tells you, “I love you, and I will not abandon you.” Just a small something to get you through.

Sometimes just that one thing will start a chain reaction that will make a huge difference. Sometimes it won’t and you’ll just go back to bed. But the important thing is that you made it clear to yourself that you were worth caring for, and that you do care.

As they say, if you don’t think tiny things make a difference, try sleeping in a tent with a mosquito.

Buzz buzz buzz…
Love,
Me

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Note to Self #1

Hey sweetheart,

It’s been shitty, hasn’t it?  I mean this whole winter has just kind of eaten itself, shat itself out, and left itself out where you could step in it.  What a bastard.

This one’s been especially bad thanks to the world out there going to hell in a Cheeto-colored handbasket.  People have given themselves permission to be as mean and hateful as they want because why not?  Obviously there are no real consequences, and it can even get them into the White House!  

But that’s not you, and right now you need to pull your head out of Twitter and take a breath.  You’re no good to the world paralyzed by despair, and let’s be honest here, your personality is the kind that runs the edge of empathy-implosion even when things are going great.  You take on too many of the world’s sins as if it’s your job to feel the world’s feels, but you’re still just one girl with a brain full of faulty wiring, and if that wiring burns the house down, there’s nowhere for that compassion to live.  

You’re doing okay, though.  Hey, don’t laugh.  You’re still here, aren’t you?  And yeah, you used up your sick days and got zero work done for over a month, but…so?  In the long term view, what’s the big deal about that?  You didn’t hurt anybody.  You’ve had to deal with far worse consequences from far less intense depression, so, overall I think you’re doing all right.  You’ve reached the point of self-reflection where you’re actually being kind to yourself, so, I take that as a good sign.

Here’s the thing, and it’s a combination of something you don’t want to think about and something really cool, so, let’s just get it out there:  This is going to happen again.  Always.  It’s nice to think about your bipolar going “into remission” or whatever but let’s face it, you’ve spent five years trying a couple dozen different meds and combinations (and that’s after over a decade of doing the same thing when you thought you were “just depressed”) and what have you learned?  Nothing “fixed” you.  There is no “fixing.”  And really, overall, the meds haven’t made that much difference in the way this plays out.  Lithium dulled it all down to where you felt like your heart was wrapped in cotton batting, but everything else just offered variations on the theme, with some working better than others at keeping the lows from going as low, which is important and can definitely keep you alive.  The cycle itself, however, is the same regardless.

You’ll feel all right for a while, maybe even great, but eventually it’s going to slide – maybe not as far, maybe not as long, but you got dealt a pretty gnarly hand by the mental illness gods and basically you’ll be pushing that boulder up the hill until the day you die.  

Yeah. You’re mentally ill for life.  That, as Mark Watney would say, is a real dick punch.  

You could get angry about it, I guess.  The world is full of people who feel nothing deeply enough to be destroyed by it – that’s how we all got in this mess, in my opinion, people thinking everything happens “out there” when the truth is it’s all interdependent and connected and therefore “in here.”  There’s no strand of the Web you can yank on without making the whole thing shake, even just a tiny bit.  But all those folks walking around with the luxury of not having to care, not having to fight just to get up in the morning, not understanding why you can’t just “think positive” and “snap out of it…”  Lucky bastards!  You deserve better!  It’s not fair!

It’s not fair.  Never has been.  It’s awful and hard and it sucks that you have to deal with it – you’ve already dealt with enough just from other people hurting you, you shouldn’t have to protect yourself from your own brain.  It’s shitty, shitty, shitty, and you don’t have to pretend otherwise.  Don’t cheapen the hard work you’ve done by pretending the universe did you a mitzvah here.  Any lesson or gift you get from this is the result of struggle and sweat, of nearly drowning and pulling yourself out over and over again.  

Besides, yelling at the sky will accomplish exactly nothing, whether because nobody’s listening or because it’s nobody else’s job to deal with your shit.  If there’s a God, or a Goddess, or a Whatever, you might get a boost from Her, a door opened, maybe a last-minute save, but it’s your life and your work to live it, not Hers.  She ain’t your fairy godmother, babygirl.  Granted, you figured that out back when you were a kid.     

But there’s a difference between accepting that you’re never going to be “cured” and just giving up altogether.  Because yeah, you’ll always slide, but you’ll also always climb out again.  This too shall pass – like food poisoning or a kidney stone.  Assuming it doesn’t kill you, you’ll see another sunrise.

That’s the cool part…although I understand if you think my definition of “cool” needs some revision.  

Every time, you feel the color draining from the world, and you know you’re sliding down, down.  And every time you claw desperately at those shreds of happiness as if you could bring them with you, but you can’t.  You end up in the pit again, staring up at the night sky wondering why, why, WHY DOES IT HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS?  And every time, you think, “Is this it? Is this the one that kills me?  Is this the one I can’t beat?  Is this going to be the time I can’t climb back up?”

But then you do.

You climb out filthy and battered and exhausted, but you do it.  

Can I just say how badass that is?  

And you’ve learned, over the years, that there are ways to help make that climb a little less arduous, or to make the pit seem a bit shallower.   There are tricks and practices and emergency measures that, when put in place and used properly, really do help.  

The slightly grating yet accurate term for this is “self-care.”

I think it’s time we took a closer look at those ideas and figured out what’s worked and what hasn’t.  You’ve tried so many things in the last 20 years to alleviate the pain, you’ve amassed a gigantic mental library and arsenal of techniques and philosophies ranging from the reasonable to the ridiculous; your application of these things has been a bit slapdash, I’ll admit, but there are plenty of tools in the box.

Time to start going through the box, getting it organized, maybe coming up with a more cohesive and holistic plan – including some measures to put in place for the next time the pit starts beckoning.  I mean sure, often those self-care practices are the first thing to go in hard times – it’s that way for everybody regardless of mental health. In fact entire extremely cynical industries exist to profit on that all too human tendency to fuck up and start over and over and over.  TV ads in January are all the proof of that you need.  

But don’t beat yourself up for being human.  There are definitely worse things to be.

Meet you back here in a bit and we’ll get started.  Sound overwhelming?  Don’t worry…there will be lists.  

Diagrams.  

Possibly stickers.

Knew I’d get you with that one.

Love, always love,
Me.

 

 

 

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In Which Sara Bareilles Tries to Kill Me (or Possibly Save My Life)

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I think I’m in mourning.

First, disclosure:

Long about mid-January, I went off my meds.  This isn’t something I’ve spoken about, because I wasn’t sure how people would react – a deciding factor in the decision was money, but I didn’t want people offering to pay for them because the real motivation was something much harder to articulate.  In the first few weeks I didn’t feel like I had the clarity to defend my decision without sounding like, well, a crazy person.

Because while I am a huge proponent of psych meds when they are a) needed and b) helpful, and you could certainly argue that I still need them and I wouldn’t be able to disagree, it’s “helpful” that is up for debate in my current state.

I’ve been on and off antidepressants since I was 19, but it wasn’t until 2012 that I was diagnosed with Type II Bipolar Disorder. In the time since then I’ve tried, if my count is right, 23 different combinations of meds and dosages – that’s right, I’ve changed the medications keeping my brain chemistry “balanced” an average of five times per year in the last four years.  I don’t know what the average is, but for me that’s an awful lot of adjusting, waiting, watching for side effects, evaluating, tinkering, adjusting, waiting…and almost no living.

Last fall when I stopped taking Ambien (I had been on it since 2007 – that’s right, I took it every day for eight years) what my intuition was really screaming at me was “STOP ALL OF IT. PLEASE JUST STOP. THIS IS NOT HELPING YOU. PLEASE STOP.” But I was too afraid to stop.  I felt like I had already tried so many non-drug things and nothing had given me a moment’s relief, if I stopped the drugs I would certainly end up in crisis or dead.  It took being so broke I couldn’t swing the three-month refill appointment with my shrink to force me to make the call, and I made it.

Luckily the meds I was still on are known for a fairly easy withdrawal.  The issues with cold-turkeying any med are both physical and emotional – even without the miserable side effects like I experienced with Ambien, the emotional fallout could be devastating.  The most common reaction is a violent catapult into depression or mania.  Quitting any long-term med without professional supervision is just a terrible idea. Trust me on that one.

Quitting Ambien was awful.  Just straight up awful. Yet I still miss it – because what I wanted wasn’t sleep as much as it was silence.  During the day, Wellbutrin and Lithium (or Seroquel, or Brintellix, or Lexapro, or Zoloft, Lamictal, Gabapentin, and on, and on) dulled my symptoms (or in the case of Cymbalta, gave me episodes of blind rage), but at night when it was just me and the darkness, I needed Ambien to shut me down so I didn’t have to think.  But eventually I was taking it during the day, knocking myself out every eight hours on the clock so I never had to be awake.

Needless to say that’s an off-label usage.

Quitting the rest, well…it’s a strange contradiction.  I don’t feel worse, as in, not more depressed or more unstable – but I feel more.  You might think this is a good thing – the drugs were absolutely blunting my ability to feel happiness, I can tell you that right now with absolute certainty.  The lithium in particular was meant to stabilize me – to make the shift from hypomania to depression less of a violent slide…but what it did was bring the average down.  Instead of being at, say, a level 7 for a few days and then a 3 for two weeks, I felt like a 4 all the time, just shy of fully functional and never really good, ever.  Sometimes okay.  But over time okay became the new awesome, because my average kept sinking lower and lower.

And while the idea of regaining a capacity for joy sounds amazing, so far I haven’t had a taste of it.  So far it’s been pain.  Just pain.  I feel raw and exposed and bleeding-sensitive over my entire being.  I’m nothing but freshly grown skin over 3rd degree burns, bandages ripped off, stumbling around shrieking every time something touches me.

Except it’s not actually that dramatic.  What I’m doing is crying.  Crying and crying and crying.

I’m not talking about the kind of depression-crying that tells you you need meds – where you find yourself sitting in bed weeping for no reason for the tenth time that week and realize shit, something about this is deeply wrong.  This is different.  This is almost always in response to stimuli, especially music, or anything involving animals that look sad or sick.  But memories trip the switch as well.

I would have expected my childhood to be the number one trigger, but oddly, what I’m seeing over and over are my late 20s, early 30s.  Times I felt something like happiness, or potential, or hope.  The months leading up to Queen of Shadows‘ publication.  The months I was part of a coven.  Planning my self-wedding.  These brief candles of time when anything could happen, when I felt expansive and arms-wide to the world and like only good things were possible…I am, in fact, crying as I type this, thinking of the gradual lowering of expectations that has typified my 30s.  The slow, millimeter by millimeter loss of that optimism and realization that no, life was not awesome, people were terrible, and the Universe or God or whatever owed me nothing and, in the void that followed every prayer, probably didn’t even exist.

But mostly I find myself longing for those times, wondering…just wondering.  There’s no anger, no sense of betrayal or “why me,” just sadness.  Loss.  It’s a private sadness, one I try extra hard not to show because it’s messy and agonizingly intimate, but am trying to give it its own space without getting too much in its way.

I’m actually grieving.  I don’t know if I’ve ever really been able to do that before.  And I could go back to the doctor (assuming I could scrape together the money) and get back on meds, but I won’t.

I refuse.

Maybe eventually.  I’m not denying the real possibility that I need to go back on at least an antidepressant.  But not yet.  Not until I see where this is going.  Because I have this insane (possibly literally) conviction that if I miss this opportunity, all that optimism really will be dead – buried beneath serotonin reuptake inhibitors and mood stabilizers forever, along with any hope of getting them back in some new form that middle-aged me might just be able to love.

I had no way to articulate any of this for weeks – I was in one of the most embarrassing states a writer can find herself in, being lost for words – until I started doing this “30 songs” challenge thing over on Facebook that I’d done a while back and was bored enough to try again.  Browsing YouTube for videos for the particular challenges I happened upon a new Sara Bareilles song written for her new Broadway musical based on the movie Waitress (an old, melancholy favorite of mine).  I think I sobbed from the first line to the end and for about an hour after that, because it suddenly clicked:

I am in mourning for a girl, a me that used to be mine.

And there’s no way out but through it.

Disclaimer: This post is not meant to be medical or mental health advice.  It’s just my experience. If you are experiencing depression PLEASE GET HELP.  You are not condemned to suffer; there is help out there for you.  No two people react to medication or any other therapy in exactly the same way. The human brain is weird.  Just look at Tumblr.

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10 Five-Minute Mood Boosters That Even Work for Me

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Don’t you just want to back over her with your car?

Even if, like me, you have a bona fide mental illness that sets your mood dial at a baseline of “fuck everything,” it is possible to turn that dial up to “meh” or thereabouts at least temporarily.  Over the years I’ve developed a list of boosters – quick actions requiring little effort or commitment but providing a reliable return.

Now, a warning, for other neuroatypical types:  These are not miracle workers.  If you’re already in a really bad place, they might make it worse.  “Not only am I worthless, I can’t even get it up for internet kittens!”

We’re talking about good old fashioned shitty moods here, not intense depressive crashes.  If you are prone to the latter you likely know the difference.  Even if you’re a well-adjusted neurotypical, though, I would wager you can use the occasional smack on the ass from Cheer Bear.

Not all of these will work for you, but they may spark off some ideas for your own list; it’s good to add a handful of these to your self-care arsenal, and to vary them as widely as you can so that no matter what situation you’re in at least a couple will be doable.

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January 2016: State of the Author

I am, at this precise moment, sitting in Starbucks in my Hogwarts t-shirt sipping a half-melted espresso Frappuccino (it’s 66F in January), working on the Magic Words Monthly course/editing Shadowstorm/writing part 5 of Song and Cipher, and trying not to bawl.

Caption:  Portrait of the Author as a Middle-Aged Bipolar.

I’m not actually trying not to cry about anything – Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” was playing and that song always, always makes me tear up, particularly:

You call me up again just to break me like a promise
So casually cruel in the name of being honest
I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lying here
‘Cause I remember it all too well

Hell, just reading the words makes my eyes hurt.  I have no idea why; I guess it just pushes my “Eye Leak” button.  I should probably look deeper at that sometime.

But, alas, I digress.

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