This piece was written as part of the blog series ‘My Mind, My Story’ for Mental Health Month 2021. Reflections are by mindshare writers with lived experience of mental health challenges. Content may contain triggering themes.
Letting Go: How experimentation, negotiation, and sacrifice became crucial tools in my mental health toolkit
I’ll be the first to admit that I can be a little unpredictable. Sometimes I can trace the causal pathways for my thoughts, feelings, and behaviours and decide they are logical, reasonable reactions to some corresponding, identifiable external stimulus. “Sometimes” is the operative word here. The other times are filled with a tangled hodge podge of thoughts and feelings, or just one overwhelming feeling that blots out everything else when it drops by on a whim.
Some external stimuli are a solvable problem, or at least problems I can do something about to make myself feel better. But by and large, the things I can do to make myself feel better in general, or in a Bad moment, tend to be pretty hard to pin down. Frankly, I’ve found life and living and neurodivergence and disability to be too messy – too complex, too chaotic – to respond to neat and tidy, “tab-A-slot-B” orderly solutions to the problems of daily life with disorders.
There are a lot of different tools, tasks, and strategies out there for different challenges in self-care, accessibility, and mental health management. The trouble is actually building a toolkit tailored to my needs is a hefty undertaking in its own right, and it’s one that is still ongoing for me. As a result, I can’t stake a claim in any kind of 12-step programs for self-care success; all I can really do is talk about the thought process and insights that shapes my tailored toolkit. And that starts with experiments.
I used to over-commit myself a lot. I would commit because I misjudged how much fuel I’d have in my tank in 4 weeks’ time. I would say “yes” to a request or opportunity because I felt it was important, or because I felt a sense of obligation, despite knowing I might struggle to follow through. I would push myself to do things “the normal way” because I felt I wasn’t struggling “enough” to warrant considering alternatives; then, when this would inevitably exhaust and overwhelm me and drain my ability to do anything else, I would get frustrated with what I saw as repeated, constant, rolling failures. Everyone else seems to be able to handle this juggling act – what’s wrong with me?
Now, I think about these as the first set of experiments. In the grand scheme of things, every time I “failed” due to over-reaching myself, I did learn something about my capacity to do certain things, take on certain tasks, or bear up under the weight of a certain mental load. Hitting a wall is infuriating and exhausting and frankly inelegant, but it has been useful for mapping out my limits through trial-and-error. Trying to keep that in mind has helped me keep from giving up entirely.
Mind you, knowing my limits is different from actually asserting them. I still find it hard to say no, because often I’m saying no to things that are really important to me. I’ve passed up on or dropped out of countless once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, commitments I was deeply invested in, and goals and activities that were important to my self-esteem and sense of self. While having a script of go-to phrases has helped me skip past a little bit of agonising over how to say “no”, it still feels like I’m sacrificing some potential almost every time.
But knowing and asserting my limits has given me the breathing space to actually expand my limits. I’d been burning myself out trying to fulfil all my “shoulds” by ignoring the “ises” of my conditions; unsurprisingly, this was part of the problem. Being frugal when I budgeted my energy allocations meant I started to have a little bit of fuel in the tank I could use for trying out new self-care tools. Figuring out which ones work for me takes time and effort and sometimes money – all occasional privileges which rarely co-exist. Not all of them work for me, and very few are 100% effective 100% of the time. Still, every test tells me a little more about what I need in order to achieve my goals and look after myself as best I can.
Just like everyone else, I’m constantly changing and growing. As a result, the things I know about myself today have a pretty tenuous permanence. I still misjudge my limits all the time, and sometimes I still say yes when I know I shouldn’t. I still try out tools that end up doing nothing for me or being impossible for me to use. But sometimes I come back and try that tool again, and discover that suddenly, for who I am and what I need here and now, they work. Sometimes I underestimate my limits, rather than over-reaching them.
Figuring out what I have to do to live well, in the most functional, pragmatic sense, has often felt like someone keeps on moving the goalposts – but it does help to notice when it works in my favour.
I know I can’t anticipate who I’ll be or what I’ll need next year, next week, or tomorrow. Accepting the chaos and the lack of control involved in my external world is tough enough; accepting it from within is a whole other level of challenging. So I still try to think of my life as one big experiment, as often as I can. This gives me a way to approach chaos without necessarily feeling powerless; it gives me the option of getting curious.
Risk, failure, sacrifice, and letting go have all been emotionally fraught, ethically challenging, and tough on my self esteem at times – but also, often, necessary. Treating them as “part of the learning process” has made more of a difference than any frustration-fuelled guilt and shame spiral ever did, and I still do my best to think in terms of learning from experiments as often as I can.
But sometimes I do need to take a time-out and have a cookie first.
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