Alice Sullivan is a teacher and writer based in Prague. She writes about mental health, intersectional feminism, and travel.
Mental illnesses are invisible. You cannot tell by looking at me that I have any mental health issues. I put so much effort into hiding how much I am struggling to ensure that no one knows.
Lately, it is considered a success if I shower or manage to eat a meal. I am not functioning well anymore, but I have been dragging myself out of this depressive period one step at a time.
A huge task I had to tackle was my room. Your environment has a huge impact on your mental health, and I had been living in filth for over a month. Even when I was able to get out of the house to go for a walk or see a friend, I had to come back to this mess. I will admit that I am embarrassed at how bad it has gotten. I tried to do small tasks when I felt able to, but it was overwhelming.
When my roommate suggested a cleaner because of her work schedule, I jumped at the opportunity and now have a fresh start with a clean room.
When I am struggling, my room can become filthy. The worse my space becomes, the harder it is to summon the motivation to resolve it. It isn't laziness. It is a symptom of my mental illness. A lot of it links closely to executive dysfunction from my ADHD. This affects your ability to plan and organize, but also can affect really simple tasks.
It is more extreme than typical procrastination. It is not just putting something off, it is being unable to do it. The amount of mental energy it takes to convince myself to get up and brush my teeth or shower can be unbearable. With executive dysfunction, it's not necessarily that you don't want to do the task. It is that your brain won't let you.
Seeing friends is important to me and that has been difficult during the lockdown. However, my mental illnesses frequently cause me to cancel plans and struggle to get out to meet friends. Pre-lockdown, I was in a routine where I saw friends on Tuesday and Wednesday nights every week, which helped lessen my anxiety by having a set plans. Losing that made everything harder.
Lately, I have tried to make sure I have a video call with a friend once or twice a week. I also recently met a friend to walk around a park on a nice day. I have a friend who lives nearby which is perfect for movie nights and ordering delivery food. There are ways to enjoy the company of my friends while remaining safe during the pandemic and I am glad that the cases here in Prague are decreasing.
However, preventing the spread of the virus is more important, and if your country restrictions don't allow for meeting your friends in person, then you shouldn't. A lot of people are using mental health as an excuse to break lockdown rules and putting others at risk during a global pandemic. It is selfish and inconsiderate to the many mentally ill people who are struggling.
A trip to a bar with friends isn't going to cure anyone's depression. Put that energy into advocating for better mental health care, both with or without the pandemic, because there are so many of us that need it.
Engaging in Self-Care Activities
The way that my space had deteriorated was also apparent in my own personal care. I wasn't showering very often, due to oversleeping before work and having to rush. I would often teach in my pyjamas (quickly throwing a jumper on over the top so you couldn't tell on camera).
My hair became more difficult to manage, but I haven't let it get knotted this time. During a depressive episode in Vietnam, I had to get two girls who I barely knew to cut a knot out of my hair that had been building for months. I had a whole section of my hair that was significantly shorter.
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I was laying in bed all day and the time was passing, but I was doing nothing except for when I had to work. I had no energy to tidy my room or shower, but the longer I continued without doing these things, the worse I felt.
Taking that step to shower, wash my hair, wash my face, and put on clean clothes did make me feel better. Getting to the point where I was able to motivate myself to do that came from hitting my lowest point. I wrote out all of the negative feelings I was experiencing and on the opposite page, I wrote a list of things I want to do. I started with the easiest things on that list: showering.
Finding a Work-Life Balance
I found that working in a school, they love to hold meetings about maintaining a healthy work-life balance without actually supporting you. I have become adamant that I will not let another workplace take over my life in the same way as previous jobs that made me miserable. My best strategies if you struggle with this include:
- Having set hours where you check/answer work-related messages (including WhatsApp and emails)
- Not taking extra work home with you
- Getting to work earlier so that I can leave promptly and be free without worrying in the evenings
- Having the mindset that "this is just a job" and that they are more important things in my life
During the lockdown, these are harder to maintain. I am working from home, so it is harder than ever to separate the two.
I try to only work at my desk and remove myself from that space during breaks between lessons (often to dance around or even just to walk to the kitchen to refill my water bottle).
I still try to maintain the "no work stuff after 6 pm" rule, but there have been a few occasions where a call from my boss after work has put me on edge for the rest of the evening. I try to go for a walk after work when this happens, as the fresh air can actually really help.
A huge part of my life that has been affected by mental illness is my relationship with food. I am known to forget to eat when I am alone because I lose track of time or get distracted by tasks. It's a wonder I wasn't diagnosed with ADHD sooner, but often women display the more inattentive symptoms that aren't recognised as easily in childhood.
Sometimes it feels as though I cannot balance all of my daily tasks. For example, if I have time to shower and prepare for my lessons, I might not have time to eat. When I am constantly switching between tasks and feel very busy, I may forget to drink water all day.
Now, I set reminders on my phone for eating and drinking water, but I also am trying to fit these into my daily routine. Micro-tasks are small parts of your routine that you try to make into a habit. For example, drinking water when you wake up. I make sure that I always fill my water bottle before I start teaching and when I have a meal. I am getting better.
Living With Mental Illness
Many of us live our daily lives with coping mechanisms for our mental illnesses. It isn't a case of "just being happier". Many people are high-functioning and are able to mask their inner thoughts with a smile even during a difficult period. Medication and therapy aren't always accessible and you have to think of ways to deal with your mental health alone. I've recently been adjusting my understanding of mental health to factor in my ADHD strategies with my existing depression and anxiety coping methods.
Whether that is through journaling, meditation, mood tracker apps, and monitoring your routine. There are so many valid and healthy ways to help yourself and as difficult as it can be, you can pull yourself from a depressive spiral when it seems impossible.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2020 Alice Sullivan