Mental Health Awareness

The main mode of work, connection, entertainment, and advocacy for the world at the moment
The main mode of work, connection, entertainment, and advocacy for the world at the moment

Contributing Writer,
Sheridan Smith

Certified Recovery Peer Advocate for the Mental Health Association in Chautauqua County

I have been on Zoom a lot.

We have all been on Zoom a lot.

This one particular day I was on Zoom discussing self-care, and it occurred to me that I was on a medium of self-care. I have had medical appointments on my computer, meetings on my computer, I work through my computer, and I had a family dinner on my computer, seeing family I haven’t seen in weeks.

Sheridan in his workspace at home
Sheridan in his workspace at home

Mental health and self-care require new skills and new paradigms. The old treat yourself paradigm can still apply, but in totally different ways now. However some self-care will look very different.

First, let me make something clear, this won’t be a list of usual self-care suggestions. So many other articles are talking about things that are great to do, like get up, get dressed, eat healthy, etc. Those are great! Read those articles too!

However, I’m here to mention some things I think are going to be strange to some people. Ways self-care can be rough. Ways self-care can look like the opposite. Ways that self-care isn’t being talked about as often.

A good illustration is a story of a conversation I once had. I was speaking with someone about advice they had been given. They were depressed and trying to seek out help. They went to a school counselor and were given self-care things to do.
Of course this was the right thing to do, but it had unintended consequences.

This person said, “I have tried to get enough sleep and eat right. I have tried to take walks and all that. I have done everything they said I should do, but I still feel bad.”

I let her continue.

She looked up, “What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I feel good again?” She was crying.

That hit me. That familiar feeling of, “Why can’t I feel good again?”

You see, the view that, if you do this thing, you will get this other thing can be true about self-care, but if you don’t feel better immediately when you expect to, it can make you feel like it is your fault. Sometimes self-care takes time, and sometimes things are just not going to feel great for a while. It can lead to people feeling bad about feeling bad or giving up all efforts at self-care.

“You aren’t doing anything wrong” I said, “just…sometimes we aren’t able to feel okay right away. Sometimes your brain isn’t there yet. You are doing the best thing you can, and when you’re ready, you’ll be better prepared for feeling better.” She shook her head in agreement, but I wasn’t convinced.

So I continued, “You haven’t failed. You aren’t broken. But I’m so sorry you feel that way.”

Finally it seemed like there was some relief. She was allowed to feel horrible. She was allowed to not be okay without it being wrong.

That is self-care misconception number one: Sometimes self-care isn’t about feeling better, it can be about feeling better about feeling bad.

We are all living through a very rough time. Our lives don’t look like they used to, our plans haven’t worked out in some form or another, and some of our supports have been changed or removed altogether. This sucks. This really sucks. And it makes sense to have a difficult time staying positive or happy.

In other words, give yourself a break. Don’t expect perfection. Don’t fall into the trap of demanding that you are happy and positive and wonderful and energetic and pleasant all the time. The trap of making happiness a burden. Just do your best.

There will be happy times. I promise. So give yourself time, give self-care time, and please remember to be easy on your ability to weather this storm perfectly. You have permission to not feel bad about feeling bad, which drains your energy to actually do the things that could eventually help. Not to mention making you more grumpy than usual.

You haven’t failed. You aren’t broken. And I’m sorry you feel that way.

But when you feel bad, that isn’t the end of the story. Self-care can be recognizing the pain, and then recognizing what else is there too.

The human mind is a wonderful disaster. We are constantly filled with thoughts, desires, sensations, feelings, songs stuck in our head, and we are supposed to use this thing to understand the world and move around in it. This crowded, dusty, frantic thing holds so much!

But it tries to control every last little thing. It makes sense really, because we are animals after all, that needed to avoid dangers. So whenever something feels like a loss of control or like a danger, we almost shrink fully down until that one thing makes up our entire experience of life. We become made up of what’s wrong, and that feels horrible.

Meditation Cushion - Tools of self-care and wellness Sheridan uses at home
Meditation Cushion – Tools of self-care and wellness Sheridan uses at home

The confession I will make right now is that, through my struggles with mental health I have used meditation as a major form of coping and self-care. If I were listing self-care, I would probably list that one almost first! Right after some sort of food probably. 🙂
Still, meditation has taught me a considerable amount in my life.

I learned the second lesson I’ll talk about one day when I was still struggling with my incredibly inconvenient temper. I had become angry over something in a flash, and I felt like I was made up of that burning and righteous anger. What I was angry about wasn’t even important enough for me to still remember…but I was furious! But I had been meditating. I had learned to find my breath moving my abdomen up and down, and to feel my feet touching the ground.

So in the middle of carrying on and making a fool of myself, my mind was caught by my breath. I instinctively felt the rise and fall of my abdomen.

I realized that my breath felt okay, and that my feet were on the ground. I realized that there was a body outside these racing thoughts and the tightness in my chest. I contained anger, yes, but I no longer wanted the indignity of being reduced only to anger.

One of Sheridan's officemates
One of Sheridan’s officemates

I realized I could contain anger, but not be it.

You contain pain. But you can grow beyond that. This has become essential in dealing with my depression. We are miraculous creatures that can contain so many things at once. You can contain anger, but then also contain tenderness. You can contain pain, but then also contain ease. You can contain a thing, but not be it.

But there is another skill you still need to learn. That’s my point three. You’ve always got to have three in a list at least, right? Okay, well I guess now it’ll just get really practical article-y now. But this is important and something I’m not sure we realize yet.

Connection is essential for self-care, even for those who aren’t big “people people”. We connect to find support. And with everything moving increasingly online, we are going to struggle to find our way to connection in this new medium.

Everything requires practice, and this is very true here.

When this quarantine started, the MHA, where I work, responded very quickly. Peer work has always been very face to face work. Our individual work, crisis work, and groups were all in person. We all had interaction all day every day.

Part of the draw of the groups was the ability to speak to people face to face and feel that support! But this couldn’t be how we moved forward. We had to set up a Zoom account and move our groups online. We expanded so we have at least three groups every day of the week at 10, 2, and 7, but it took time to learn.

Now it is second nature. I talk to people online, I connect online, and I find comfort and support online. But it took time.

If you wait until you are in crisis to look for that connection online, you won’t have the skills to connect in that medium. So you have to start now. Reach out to someone and do a video chat with them. It’ll be awkward at first, but you’ll get over that. Then attend a group. It can be a reading club, a peer support group, a church service, or whatever else you can find. But if you attend something, you are building a skill that will help you find your way through this.

Practice new ways of caring for yourself. We all need to adapt, and we can. Again, we are wonderful creatures that can contain so much. When this time has ended we will all have changed, and the world won’t look quite the same. But of course we have to do the work of helping those changes be largely for the better.

We will get through this.

Care for yourself.

But, above all, be kind to yourself.