Shoulder Demons

Mental health is something I am very passionate about--as a Clinical Social Work grad student, one would certainly hope I give a hoot about people and our feelings. At the risk of being too flippant with my self-disclosure, I will say that my track record for keeping myself together is a bit spotty.

As I have gotten older, I realized that’s neither a good nor a bad thing: it just is. I have also realized how large a part I play in my mental health–sure, it’s nice to blame social media or the state of the economy on my misplaced anxiety, but in taking ownership over my feelings, I have found some success in dodging or mediating problems. Lately, it seems as though I can’t talk to any of my friends without the words “anxiety” and/or “depression” coming up in conversation. Yes, I realize I am in the mental health field, so I unintentionally end up therapizing those closest to me.

Also, they may be more eager to discuss their hardships with me, because of the rapport we have been establishing for ten-plus years of friendship…but I still find it interesting that everyone I know is either anxious or depressed–self-included. There is so stinkin’ much going on in our society, feelings of dread and hopelessness can become completely overwhelming. By no means is this specific for millennials, but for the sake of keeping this editorial from turning into a manifesto, I will only speak for the population I am a part of.

The Short and Skinny on the Situation

Speaking of speaking, can I just say that all these little naggy voices in my head are getting super annoying? I am not trying to out myself as the next David Berkowitz, but I think we all feel like this sometimes. In fact, in psychology, there is a model called internal family systems theory, which runs on the assumption that people have multiple players/voices in their head at any given time. So, if you ever see me talking to myself, I am not crazy; I am just settling an argument between my cookie-wanting childish side and my you-don’t-need-that authoritative side. No big deal.

On a more serious note, when I do get bogged down in day-to-day shenanigans, I’ve learned that I need to be diligent about checking in on myself to ensure I’m not slipping into berating internal dialogues or letting unhealthy behaviors go unnoticed. As an example, anything that can be seen as a coping behavior, I question my motivations for doing it: Am I drinking with my friends on a Wednesday night because I love my friends, or because I don’t want to deal with my insomnia? Am I skipping a shower today because I want to enjoy being lazy, or because I am too blue and lethargic to walk all the way upstairs?

These regular check-ins have been helpful lately in keeping me mindful and self-aware. If during my introspection, I determine I’m being deflective, avoidant, or showing any medley of depressive symptoms—then it’s time to take off my little ego hat and talk to someone.

Honesty with Self and Others

If only it were that easy to stripe away ego, right? Freud would have had a much more lackluster career. Combating ego is hard–very hard. Like, people literally climb mountains in order to preserve their sense of ego. I’m an internal processor, which means, I normally cannot think through my emotions in the moment of conflict. I need to take a few hours (or days) to figure out what I was really feeling while inside a moment and then determine how I want to move forward. External processors like to get everyone out and in the open at the point of contention. By the by, if you are not sure which you are, and want to learn more about communications techniques for internal vs external processors, there are several quizzes and articles online.

As an internal processor, it can sometimes take me awhile to admit I need help–I have noticed that the larger the problem is, the more likely I am to put off asking for help. To reference Freud again, it seems that the more shame I feel in a situation, the more my ego struggles, and I want to keep all my neurotic little thoughts to myself. With a supportive family and partner, and simple practice, I have learned the pattern: I get anxious/depressive; they ask what’s wrong; I give a half-hearted answer; I wait a few hours; I give a real answer; they shower me with love and support; I feel better.

The conversation is almost never as nerve-racking as I think it’s going to be. Being honest with myself about needing time to think allows me to be more true to my ego and my family. Learning to become more emotionally transparent has also been invaluable to my romantic relationship. But that’s another story…

Tricking My Body and Mind for Their Own Good

Raise your hand if you have a gym membership you pay for, but have not been to the gym in at least two months. Despite all my nighttime fantasies of changing my lifestyle and hitting the gym the next morning, when sunlight breaks, all those hopes and aspirations turn into tubby little swans, content to watch me work from bed or watch YouTube videos. Then, as soon as bedtime hits, the swans suddenly want to do an hour of cardio and flex on the men in the free weight section. I actually like the weights; they make me feel like a modern day Xena. But cardio can kiss my buns. No. Thank. You.

As mentioned, I am currently working from home, so I tend to spend an absolutely embarrassing amount of time sitting in my living room. In addition to this messing with my mental health, it was also taking a massive toll on my tummy, so about a week ago I started trying to trick my body into moving more. If my brain sends the message that we are going to the gym, my body will find a slew of reasons she does not want to leave the house. However, if I tell me that I am going to go to the zoo, or to swim, or to shop, she is perfectly on board.

It seems like minimal movement, and sure, making a few laps in the pool may not be on par with what those protein-shake-chugging-10-mile-running loonies are doing, and that’s just fine. I took myself to the zoo because I needed a pick-me-up, animals are cute, and my local zoo does half-priced tickets on Tuesdays, which made my budget app happy. During my most recent blue streak, I also helped out with my local food bank. Anyone who has ever worked in a food bank knows how much manual labor goes into that gig. Squatting, hauling, lifting, bending, hustling–it’s a lot.

I worked for this food bank for about a year, but had not been there in about two months. As soon as I walked through the doors, I was greeted with smiles, hugs, and words of affirmation. It felt like a family reunion, sans the hoard of canned goods. Then, the next day, I roped my dad into joining me with another food bank project. Though my dad and I did not talk about anything serious, we were able to hang out, while also feeling empowered by doing a good deed. In short, yes, I did go a whole ‘nother week paying for a membership that I did not use, and that’s okay. I finished a work project. I got to see a mighty lioness sleeping like a two-pound kitten (and, y’all, she was the cutest potato of the savanna I have ever seen). I saw old friends, bonded with my dad, and did something good for the community.

It’s easy to think of all the things we did not do this week. But let’s take a moment to appreciate all that we have. Did you call your mom just to chat? Clean without being nagged into it by either your partner or your own brain? Get a task checked off the to-do list? Feed your pet? Eat a proper meal? Take an inventory of all the things you accomplished, and be proud.

Mental illness likes to downplay our accomplishments, and that’s total malarkey. Sometimes, taking baby steps is all we can do, and that’s all we should do. Be your own sunshine.