I actually had a totally different blog post planned for today. It’s about 90% ready and was sitting in my drafts folder with today’s date. But as I kept trying to finish it, I kept struggling. Not with the content, but the resolution of it – the post’s conclusion was about how well I was doing moving forward, and that felt disingenuous, because right now I’m NOT doing well. I promise, there will be a post soon about moving forward from failure, but it seems more poignant and accurate right now to talk about the big elephant in my room, which is my mental illness.
Best laid plans…get steamrolled by bad brain days.
So many of us deal with mental health issues, even as we struggle to create art and run a business. Mental illness and creativity seem to go hand in hand rather often. If you are struggling, I hope this post will help to remind you that you’re not alone.
The truth is, SEPARATE from any outside influence that has also caused emotion and stress lately, my anxiety and depression are completely kicking my ass. And instead of ignoring it, I’m going to confront it head on and talk honestly about it, admitting that I am not always okay.
How did I get here?
For many years, I have struggled with anxiety and depression, though I didn’t receive my actual medical diagnosis until about 7 years ago. Why so late? Because part of my mental illness meant me convincing myself that things weren’t that bad, that I didn’t need help, I wasn’t bad enough to need it. This partially came from growing up in a family where mental health care wasn’t a thing, everything could be solved with positive attitude and prayer. “Counseling” was something that involved a pastor, not a medical professional.
Once I became an adult and got some distance from my upbringing and more understanding of the world, I began to understand that I had a mental illness yet still put off medical help for years, because if I needed outside and medical help, then I had somehow “failed”. It took several more years, and a couple different therapists and doctors before things started turning around.
And we’re turning, and turning…
Let me be clear: when I say “turning around” I’m talking about getting treatment, being on meds, and being more aware of both things that trigger me and more cognizant of when I’m in a bad place. I’m not ever going to tell you there is a cure or that positive thinking can turn everything around. Maybe non-medicinal paths are right for some people, and that’s great! But I am a strong believer in “if meds help, take them” (see also “if you can’t make your own neurotransmitters, store bought is fine”). I’ve improved, yes. For me, meds mean the difference between a constantly blaring red emergency klaxon and…a flashing yellow warning light with an alarm you can hit snooze on. I can function…most days.
High functioning, also known as “less visibly broken”
You see, I have what many call “high-functioning” anxiety and depression. Which is the dumbest phrase I’ve ever heard, no matter how accurate it is. What it basically means is that despite the endless shitstorm happening inside me, I can still fake the appearance of a “normal”, functional member of society. Most days, I still get up (eventually), do what I have to do, plaster on a fake smile as required, etc. I make it to work, I do the errands. My anxiety pushes me into habits instead of away from them. From the outside, I look “okay”. Meanwhile, inside everything looks like a hurricane, earthquake, and flood happened at the same time.
But every so often, if I’ve been playing the “looks okay” game too long, I snap and I CAN’T. Except it feels like “can’t” isn’t an option, like the whole world will somehow collapse if I don’t follow the routine, but *I* will collapse if I do. It’s a catch 22, and the world often wins over my own self-care.
Not an exhaustive list
Often the worst thing is that part of my brain will know my emotions, thoughts, etc are part of my mental illness, and that I’m overreacting. But instead of helping, that just sends me deeper into a spiral of over thinking and judging myself.
My particular brand of anxiety and depression manifests in lots of different behaviors and symptoms
- Constant exhaustion.
- Hyper focus.
- Endless list making.
- Over planning everything.
- Picking at imperfections on my skin.
- Having some days where I talk too much and others where I can barely form a sentence.
- Mindlessly scrolling social media or playing a game on my phone purely because I have to be doing something to distract my brain.
Spoons, Batteries, and Ticking Bombs, oh my!
One thing that can help explain the bad days and struggles to friends and family is the Spoon Theory, though it can also be explained like a cell phone battery, or even a ticking time bomb. Sometimes, sleeping or taking a mental health day will recharge or restock me, but sometimes nothing will help and there will just come a moment where things go “boom”.
That’s where my brain has been lately, I think. It goes from “I can do this!” and hyperfocusing on forward momentum and projects to “It’s all useless” and doing nothing but sleeping. It’s an exhausting roller coaster that also comes with physical symptoms like stomach pains/digestive issues, headaches, and fidgeting. It’s been hanging right at the edge of “boom” for a decent chunk of time.
Just like a roller coaster, I know that I will go uphill again. I may even get a nice period of coasting on a level track before the next drop. But there will be a drop, at some point.
This is part of me, and therefore part of my business.
I’m not sharing any of this to gather sympathy, but to encourage empathy. I’m stating loud that I have a mental illness, it’s part of my life, and it’s hard. Other creatives (like Tara Swiger) have shared their struggle, and I’m sharing mine too in the hopes of removing a little more of the stigma around mental health, and reminding any of you out there that you’re not alone.
I’ll post more in the coming weeks and months about my own struggles, resources that may be helpful, and self care tips especially designed for freelancers and creatives. And I’ll get around to posting that other, almost finished post that was supposed to go up today.
I’m doing my best to keep moving forward, and it’s sometimes very one day at a time. But I am moving. I won’t give up and I hope you won’t either. You’re not alone. We are a community.
Please share and/or comment if you’re comfortable.
I’d love to hear your stories – if you are a creative juggling business and mental illness and are comfortable sharing, please feel free to do so here or on my Facebook page. What works for you? What resources do you use?