It’s Mental Health Awareness Month, and so, hello! I have generalized anxiety and panic disorder. It’s been part of my life since college (and probably sooner, but mental health didn’t get much attention in the mid-1990s).
Now, I write and speak about it a lot. I take Lexapro every morning with my coffee. I see a therapist every other week. I am followed by a psychiatrist, whom I check in with every six months or so. I do really well most days, but I have experienced a few episodes in my life, most recently in 2019, where I became exhausted, untethered and needed more intense help. No shame. Just is. I get emails from people quite a bit asking for advice. I’m always happy to talk or email, but I wanted to share a few small life hacks for the down and out today. I’ll write more about it soon. In the meantime, here are some things that helped me when I was at my nadir. No big proclamations, no life makeovers—just small adjustments from someone who’s been there.
Ten little things that helped me when I felt awful:
- Investing in soft, reliable things: This weighted blanket. This brand of sweatpants. L.L. Bean lined slippers. They were little talismans that I kept on hand for familiarity—inanimate hugs.
- Watching, listening to and reading whatever I damn well wanted. When you’re drowning, you don’t need to expand your mind. You don’t need to break out of your comfort zone. You don’t need to culture yourself, enrich yourself or stretch yourself. You need a big fat pop-culture flotation device. You need to retreat into intense warmth and low-maintenance intake. For me, it meant re-watching “The Flu” episode of The Golden Girls (Season 1, streaming on Amazon!) over and over and listening to Steely Dan. You’ll try new things when you feel better.
- Staffing up my friend list. When you’re hurting, be ruthless about your circle. You need to delegate mentally, understanding exactly how your support system functions. Not all friends are suited for all things. Think about it like you’re running a business or strategizing a baseball game, putting people in the positions where they’re strongest. Some friends are great for commiseration. Others are problem-solvers. Others are adept at checking in. Others are better if you give them a task. And, oh yeah, some will ghost you or reveal themselves to be withholding, judgmental or otherwise terrible (at which point you mentally shoo them to the Island of Lost Acquaintances). Just remember: No single friend can fulfill every emotional need, and you will be disappointed if you think they can.
- Remembering that social media is a big fat farce. Even people who are super open, vulnerable and natural on social media are still cultivating an image. It’s not mean. It’s not fake. It just is—there is a natural separation between real life and screen life. Social media in any form inherently demands a degree of forethought and editing. Consider it entertainment and nothing more.
- Sleeping, but not all I want. When you’re in retreat, nothing seems better than taking a brain vacation by curling into bed and sleeping more, more and more. But nothing is worse, too, because you will begin to marinate in your own filth and in your own musty distorted mind, and living within yourself becomes its own fetid trap after a while. Naps can be refreshing but need to be used sparingly, as a welcome treat, not a lifestyle. Set an alarm and stick to it. When you are in crisis, you are the enemy—and do you really want to sleep with the enemy? No, you do not.
- Doing micro-makeovers. You will not will yourself into serenity by color-coding your bookshelves (sorry, The Home Edit) or reorganizing your closets. I mean, maybe you will, but not when you’re in the depths of despair. Now is the time for tiny but impactful changes. Open your windows! Run a load of laundry! Make your bed! Do the dishes! Take a shower! Light a candle! Something, anything, that changes your outlook in a real way. Start small. Really small.
- Screwing productivity. Productivity is not a state of being nor is it something to be rewarded unless you are a robot or a machine. But if you are relentlessly Type A and must frame your downswing that way, consider that lolling, loafing and luxuriating is its own kind of productivity—it is a time of rest and renewal, your body’s way of preparing itself for eventual reemergence, when the time is right.
- Stashing medication-shamers in a pity bucket. They may claim that mental health drugs are a crutch or for the weak. Just listen to yourself and your doctors. Are meds for everyone? No. Are they anyone’s business but your own? Also no! You live in your body, so you get to choose what goes into it. Simple as that. Do your research and make your own decisions. Roll your eyes at any stranger without a medical license who has the gumption to obliviously question your choices. Imagine the awkwardness of barreling through life so boldly arrogant (and nosy!).
- Remembering that bleakness is temporary. I know, I know. Doesn’t seem it. When your best friend is your blanket and you are in a state of perma-scroll on Instagram, feeling the heaviness of inertia and fatigue push you deeper into your mattress, the word “temporary” sounds like a bumper-sticker cliché. Serenity? Peace? Happiness? That’s for other people. But it’s for you, too, really. Feelings do not last. They are fleeting. They are fluid. They are ephemeral. Yes, destructive patterns of thought persist. Psychiatric diagnoses can be forever. But your emotions, thoughts and responses ebb and flow and change over time. Your circumstances are not etched in concrete. Every single person has the capacity to evolve, change and forget. (Do I sound like a motivational speaker yet?) I speak from experience. I speak as someone who once went to the ER in pineapple pajamas begging to be put somewhere, anywhere, just so I could get a release from a three-month-long, insomniac panic attack. My misery did not last. Nothing lasts.
- Being honest with my kids. Just because you’re a parent doesn’t mean you have graduated from the juvenile world of emotion into the grown-up land of steel. You’re allowed to be sad, off, sniffly, whatever. You don’t need to reveal your complicated inner world to your kids, nor should you. But it’s OK to level with them, depending on age, if you’re napping more or crying or being otherwise human in a new way around them.
Oh, and when you do feel better? Thank the people who were there for you, whether that’s your spouse who let you sleep in or a friend who knew just what to say at the right time or a boss who gave you an extension on a project. You’ll pay them back eventually because they’ll need you too someday. I promise.