CW: depression, anxiety
Do you ever get the feeling that when you’re trying to be better and take care of yourself and be happier and positive all the time, you actually just exhaust yourself? Or maybe you find that you’re expected to be happy just because it’s your birthday or… god forbid, christmas? This is what I want to talk about today. The societal expectations behind managing mental illness.
You see, it’s a struggle because if you seem well, or you seem strong, for a day then you must be fixed, and so you have to keep up this appearance of wellness and strength in the days or weeks to come. While our wellness and strength on that particular day may not have been a complete facade, the wellness and strength on the following days almost certainly is (for me, anyway), and there’s only so long a sad or depressed or anxious or terrible thought plagued person can keep up a facade like that. The things we try to do for the sake of other people are ultimately a choice we make, but what you may not realise is that this is also something that is expected of us.
Speaking of what is expected, I have this distinct memory, very early in my treatment program. I had just started a new round of meds and they made me very tired and very unresponsive to stimulus. I was quite depressed, and sleeping until 10 or 11 in the morning. Christmas morning I got up and went to sit with everyone else, struggling to keep my eyes open but wanting to be with the group and someone calls out from across the yard “the least you can do is smile, Amy, it’s christmas!” This person knew very well what I had been through but had clearly never experienced the joys of adjusting to psychiatric medication. This idea that we can pause our mental illness for a family get together or that we should be fine because we were fine yesterday is incredibly damaging.
The general public, and when I say this I mean those who have not had to live with mental illness, often (not always!) expect recovery from mental illness, or trauma, to be a linear process. There’s a beginning, where things might be pretty bad, a middle where things are bad but you’re easier to be around, and an end, where things are good again. But in actual fact, and I’m going to reveal a little math brain here, recovery is more like a sin wave (or for the lucky few, a damped sin wave), oscillatory in nature, and it may not ever reach a happy equilibrium (a damped sin wave does eventually reach equilibrium).
Sometimes I’ll have a really good day. I’ll practise “self-care”, I’ll be productive at work, I’ll organise a bunch of coffee dates with friends and I’ll do a lot of walking and at the end of the day I’ll feel energised. But the next day I might just be … okay. I’ll try to do all the same things I did the day before, like practise self care and talk to people and walk, but what I find is that I simply can’t operate at that level of energy and the energy I do have becomes depleted MUCH faster than the day before. And then of course, there may be days where I’m really not okay, but that’s not the focus here, I want to talk about being okay.
I read an article by Bill Bernat this morning titled “Here’s how you can connect to friends who are depressed” and he wrote something that clicked with me. He said “Yes, we can be sad and OK at the exact same time.” I liked this because you can rephrase it to say “you don’t have to be happy to be okay,” and I think this is a great statement. I think we all have different ideas of what it means to be okay, and that’s okay (pun intended), but let me tell you mine. Okay, for me, means I can function on some level. It does not mean I am happy. It does not mean I am fixed or cured or my old self again. When I am okay I might laugh, I might still cry, but at my very best okay I can simply function.
Okay is a significant drop down from good, however, and when an okay day follows a good day there can be this feeling that you need to continue being good. It’s not because of anything anyone has said, but merely a pressure that we feel from… somewhere. Perhaps you can say it’s society’s fault, I don’t know if that’s true, but the pressure is there nonetheless. Radiate positivity.
Let’s consider an example… One day I might be feeling good and mentally healthy and I’ll post on social media something body positive. I wake up the next morning okay and do I believe the neat little quote I shared? hell no! Do I feel positive about my body? No I don’t! But do I feel the need to continue letting people think that post represents how I feel? I most certainly do. Do I continue scrolling through body positive hashtags to try and get to a point where I believe it again? Yes, but what I find is that’s it’s exhausting.
When you are sad, surrounding yourself with happy does nothing but exhaust you and inevitably make you more sad. Some days you just need to take a day where you aren’t actively trying to be well, and you’re allowing yourself to be sad. Those days can come after really good days, and that is perfectly fine. We need to get out of this bubble where we think we need to project wellness at every waking moment. We need to actually take care of ourselves, rather just show people we are. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that I can’t bullet journal my way to happiness. Happiness comes sporadically, and it doesn’t always stick around, and it’s okay to just feel okay.