How I cope with mental illness

tips tricks AND life hacks!!!

Hello friends and chicken heads,

How are you? I hope you’re well and NOT doing an F45 trial. I started today and had to take a fat afternoon nap to curb the nausea and regret. I was pining for a peaceful chaturanga after like, 5 mins of weighted pushups. I nearly choked one of the trainers with a resistance band as he corrected my squat. Can you tell I’ve been feeling venomous? I really miss lockdown— which sounds like something Amanda Hearst would say to the urban guerrilla group that kidnapped and brainwashed her.

But seriously! I miss it. There was something provincial about hunkering down and zooming in on the minutiae. I don’t think I fully understood the pained nostalgia of Carly Simon’s lyric: I had some dreams once / they were clouds in my coffee until I had nothing else to do but examine the coconut milk in my failed attempts at latte art every morning for weeks on end. I felt safe knowing that the rest of the world was (mostly) following suit—the collective pause soothed my comparison anxiety. Social media was kind of fun again, in a morbid way. Full of resource sharing and lockdown life hacks.

When the world eased out of lockdown and into something that looked more normal, I took stock of the things my friends were doing that I couldn’t. Going back to school? Must be nice. Traveling? Couldn’t be me. I’ve been feeling stuck and uninspired since lockdown ended—it’s like I’m at a crosswalk, waiting nervously for the little man to shine green and tell me it’s my turn to keep going. A few months ago, I wrote about a bad spell. It was a bit terrifying to open up about my mental illness online, as I’ve always curated my online persona to be free-wheeling and nonchalant.

But that helps no one, least of all me. I’ve learned some new things about my brain during quarantine, one of those things is that I have CPTSD—which is a smorgasbord of not so great experiences that have impacted my ability to regulate and process emotions. Coupled with a previously diagnosed mood disorder, my brain is a sexy cauldron brewing a particularly volatile potion. I thought I’d share some tricks I’ve learned that make the potion less explosive.

Tend to the senses

I come out of a dissociative episode or anxiety attack much quicker when I stimulate all of the spidey-senses. My first port of call is the shower where I alternate hot and cold rapidly. Focusing on scrubbing my scalp or swiping my skin can jolt me back into my body when it feels far off and not mine. Exfoliating body wash or a thick hair mask is perfect for this occasion. Cold or spicy food is a good shock to the tastebuds, essential oils or a candle for the olfactory, and ASMR (or whatever you find relaxing, could be a podcast or a playlist) for the earbuds. There’s a great DBT tactic of naming colours, shapes, objects, and textiles that are visible in your immediate proximity that I find grounding too. If I’m traveling, I’ll bring a little crystal and a small strip of velcro to clamp onto. Looking into a mirror and physically tracing my face while naming what I’m touching (eyes, nose, mouth etc) can be helpful in a pinch.

Embrace expertise

I take a few medications every single day to manage the biological side of my disorder. I’m diligent and I never miss a dose unless I run out unexpectedly. A strange question I’ve encountered when discussing medication is: aren’t you scared you’ll be dependent on them for the rest of your life? My answer is: not really. I can’t live without them. My life is better with them. Are diabetics asked the same of insulin?

Another query—doesn’t medication change who you are? I wonder about this too, but it’s not worth the risk to stop taking medication and find out. This will vary depending on a diagnosis, but my general rule of thumb is to ignore the armchair psychologists and consult only with my psychiatrist if I have questions about what my medications are doing to my body or mind. Which brings me to another point: health care professionals. My journey to finding a team that works in unison (meaning: where all parties consult each other on a treatment plan) has been rocky.

I’ve cycled through many therapists and psychiatrists and have found that it’s a goldilocks situation. Some are too serious or blasé, some are too expensive, and some are just not people that I ~vibe~ with. That’s okay! Through one bad experience with a psychiatrist that whacked me out on a bunch of medication that I didn’t need (and actually prescribed me something that worsened my condition), I learned that you don’t have to stick with the first doctor or therapist that you find. If it doesn’t feel good, if it’s not the right fit, there are hundreds of others to try. Don’t waste your money on sessions that feel unproductive.

I’ve undergone ALL kinds of therapy. Seriously. CBT, DBT, IPT, and Psychoanalysis. My current psychologist is using a combination of EMDR and schema therapy which feels really good for right now. The operative phrase in that sentence is for right now. Sometimes you reach a roadblock with a technique, or your needs change. A good psychologist will be able to guide you through that process or refer you to someone with specific expertise. I find that asking questions about the treatment helps me to feel more in control of my illness.

Exercise :-(

UGH!!!! It pains me so greatly to say that exercise helps but like, really, it does. I have a sedentary history. I don’t like to move or go outside! I like to be in my bed working on creative stuff. But there can be too much of a good thing. Take it from someone who resisted exercise for most of my adolescence: there is something active that will make you feel good. Personally, I’m not a fan of being yelled at or pressured—so that rules out high intensity workout classes with mean trainers, and loud music too. No wonder F45 is a pain in my ass right now. I’m a big yogi these days, and I’ve forayed into pilates and running as well. I’ve pivoted to power-flow classes that allow me to get a great workout with a relaxing delivery. Exercise is individual for me, I don’t care much for team sports or group settings. Mastering an exercise has given me a sense of agency in my body, which as I mentioned before, sometimes feels out of control. Yoga has been a literal life saver: as important to my mental health as my medication and expert consultation.

Routine, routine, routine

When I’m feeling imbalanced, consistency is key. I have pretty bad insomnia which exacerbates my condition, so I try to go to sleep and wake up at a similar time. My biggest maladaptive coping mode is oversleeping, so waking up in the afternoon is a no-go for me at all times. In the morning, I make my coffee, go to the balcony and meditate for 10 minutes. I’ve found that anything shorter than that is ineffectual and longer is too difficult first thing. I found an app called TappingSolution that incorporates facial tapping into a guided meditation. It’s really helpful, and it complements the EMDR therapy I’m receiving. There’s also Calm and Headspace. Then, I read for a couple of hours and I do not check my phone. Staying offline as much as possible (which is not that much, I am an online person) helps to ground me in reality. I’m more flexible with the rest of the day but I absolutely must exercise and have a #mindful #morning.

Intentional interaction

Social media has been a blessing and a curse for my mental health. To combat the negative side effects, I’ve curated my feed. I regularly prune my following list, making sure to axe accounts that portray an image that is harmful to me. Most often, it’s a celebrity or an influencer—but sometimes it’s a friend or an acquaintance. If I’m not ready to unfollow an account (i.e. it’s a friend who has done nothing wrong but unintentionally made me feel bad) I put their stories and posts on mute. That way, if I want to see what they’re up to I can seek them out, but their content is not in my face randomly. On the flip side—I’m making a conscious effort to find out what content does make me feel good. Less influencers, more writers who share their process and finished projects. I’m intentional socially, too. I’m mindful about what kind of gatherings I attend, because I will abuse substances if they are readily available—especially if I’m uncomfortable with the people I’m with. Removing myself from these situations is easier than fighting the temptation. Substance abuse interacts negatively with my medication and can make the effects of my illness more severe. I’m not a saint, I’ll go to a club every once in a while, but I’m careful not to party on the reg. Saying no is a superpower that I love to use.

ALRIGHT. That is a brief overview of how I cope with mental illness. A key part of this process has been accepting the diagnoses as part of my life. I can make adjustments to make room for them. It has been helpful to view this process as a negotiation instead of a war, I’m not fighting with the parts of myself that I don’t ‘like’ or understand—I’m in conversation with them to see how we can work together. If you’re curious about anything else related to this topic (how mental illness impacts my relationships, family, work, or whatever) lmk. I am finally ready and willing to share.

Xoxo,

Z


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