Coping Skills

Culpability is something I think about all the time. Despite the gentle message that your mental illness is not your fault, shouldn’t you actively do something about it? There’s got to be something that lies between the harsh drill sergeant “Snap out of it and cheer up,” and a too-lenient “there’s nothing I can do about it” approach.

But it gets so confusing. Sometimes maybe what you really need to do is order a pizza that you eat off a paper plate and lie in bed watching TV. Sometimes you can push yourself too hard and feel worse. I have been guilty of both approaches. Where is that line? Unfortunately, it’s not a bright line and it has no easy answers.

I think a lot of it boils down to what is commonly known in the law as a “balancing test.” The test would be based on too many factors to even name, but some examples might be: Am I learning from my mistakes? Am I actively indulging in and/or avoiding things I know have made me depressed in the past, like sleep, junk food, too much social media, and especially substance abuse? Am I self-aware? Making note of my thoughts and re-directing them, or at least trying to? Am I actively seeking help in friends, family, or therapy?

All of these things must weigh in. But I think number one for me might be: Am I meeting myself at the level I’m at? This involves a balance of not being too hard, or too easy, on yourself. If you know you don’t have the time or energy to cook, can you at least snack on some healthy food like fruit or nuts and keep them around? Can you hire help cleaning if you know you don’t have the time or energy? If it’s not realistic for you to see a counselor or therapist at the moment, can you at least write out your thoughts and challenge them? Can you do something you know would bring you joy for maybe 15-20 mins., like read one chapter of a book, or play with your cats? Sometimes just starting an activity and telling myself, “I’ll just do this for 20 minutes” will get me out of my rut and keep me absorbed.

One thing I do every day now is exercise. As Damon Smith observed in Mental As Everything, it makes no sense to say “I’m so OCD about it” because you’re basically saying “I’m so obsessive-compulsive disorder about it” (not to mention it’s probably trivializing for those who live with OCD). But I would say I’m a little obsessive about it. I use my mini-elliptical every day, and I always use it for the same time, around 40 minutes, even on the days I get home at 9 p.m. (I try to be quiet). That’s my “me” time. I usually play eighties synth pop and work up a sweat and let my mind process what happened to me during the day and, often, what has happened to me in the past. I guess it’s an important mindfulness practice for me. And I think maybe I am a *wee* bit obsessive about it. Sometimes I fear if I let it go for even one day I’ll start to slip (I’ve heard this is not an uncommon feeling among compulsive exercisers). It does feel really good though, and I know it’s good for my brain and my body, so I do it no matter what. It’s one thing I can do.

I try to pick out little things like that. I eat at least a few fresh fruits and vegetables every day. I always read a book for pleasure on the train that’s not a textbook. I’m busy, but I try to do what is realistic here and there to ward off depression.

The days I struggle the most are actually my days off where I have nothing planned. I still exercise and make breakfast, but sometimes I have a hard time giving myself routine and structure, and can fall into a bit of a rut. I live alone, so I try to be my own gentle voice of encouragement all the time. I tell myself study just for an hour, and then take a break. I break up blocks of time for myself like this throughout the day. These are just a few of my coping skills.

I love the gentle, non-judgmental statement that Lindsey Doolittle made about her husband’s suicide: “His life exceeded his coping skills.” Coping skills are so important, and having just small ones, in different areas, can really help. Realistic ones tailored to your level of functionality. At least, that is one thing that’s helped me.

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