Sometimes things seem so big. Sometimes you hit a wall and that wall continues to grow for weeks, months, or years at a time. It’s even harder because that wall is typically invisible, at least to others. It’s invisible in the sense that physically, you appear to be the same. You are the same. And yet, you’re not.
So many things seem to be off-limits to talk about. Religion, politics, sexuality, mental health, and so many other things that are big things. Sometimes, with all of these topics “off the table,” I wonder what’s left to talk about. Honestly, I despise small talk. Chatting about the weather or having routine, “Good, how are you?” “Good.” conversations are predictable, insincere, and painfully surface level. I understand that small talk is usually necessary to get to the big talk, but then why don’t we go there and actually dive into these bigger issues? Why don’t we discuss them? Why are they taboo?
Maybe that’s why I have always taken to writing. I can talk about some big things, even if it’s just me talking to myself. But I’m doing it. Some things are hard to talk about; I do understand that. The following is definitely not easy for me to discuss, but here we go anyway.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was in high school. I still struggle with bouts of mania (mostly realized in my sleep and spending patterns) and bouts of depression. These each typically last for a few months at a time but it is never predictable. Although mine aren’t as severe as what most people probably think of when they think of bipolar (especially those that jokingly call any person with a mood swing bipolar), they are real and they are there.
I have learned to self-manage it for the most part (therapy was a huge help, I was medicated for a time, and now I rely heavily on books and a good support system), although there are always times when things sneak up on me, when I’m not ready to deal with a time of darkness. I’m hoping that by writing about it, I can help get out of the current one I find myself in. Because what most people don’t see on the outside is that a person’s health affects the rest of their life. Mental health affects every aspect of our worlds, too.
Over the past month or so, I have felt myself changing. My cycle has put me back in a valley, and I don’t want to stay here. The thing is, you can always do things to help your mental state, but you can’t “fix it.” Depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar, OCD … these things don’t just go away. Even on the good days, people who may say they understand forget that it’s still an internal battle, albeit maybe invisible to them.
I’ve been training for my Ironman for years. I don’t miss days, and a lot of times being able to take the time to run, or bike, or swim is it’s own reward, mentally especially. I find peace in the quiet miles outside: training is an active form of meditation for me. The release is healing. But there are also times when fatigue is too heavy, emotion is too heavy, the thoughts are too heavy to think of how to even start, let alone finish, the miles for the day.
Finances can take a toll, too, while struggling with mental health issues. I personally notice it most because my usual schedules and lists which I depend on simply fall away when I find myself in a valley. My brain feels like the beginning of the Alegra commercials, and an avalanche of emotion is always seconds away, so not an awesome time to think about potentially emotionally-charged issues like money. It can also be a time to make rash decisions, which can have serious monetary impacts.
I have stumbled my way into some helpful practices. I’ve tried my best to let go of the “I have to be perfect” mentality and just work to consistently get better at the small things. Here are a few of those small things that have helped me:
- Automate everything you can. I think this is helpful for anyone, but can be especially life-giving if you are a person who struggles with mental health issues. Having one less thing on your mind can be a blessing when your mind cannot handle one more thing. So automate that shit. Savings, expenses, giving, whatever you can.
- Write out an in-case-of-emergency checklist of steps for any task you find yourself battling during certain periods of your struggle. Sort of a “when this happens, do this” checklist. I don’t have this, and really wish I did. So, today, I’m writing out all of the tasks that are the hardest for me right now, so that I can make an I-C-E checklist later on.
- a grocery list of foods that are life-giving and recipes that are good, healthy, easy fall-backs so I don’t have to spin out when I have to think about what to eat for (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack). Food can have a huge impact on mental health, but sometimes I just can’t even get myself to think about it, so I think having a plan would be awesome.
- a way to tell my partner what I’m thinking. I can’t expect anyone to read my mind. Having something that’s understood between us that signals that I’m not myself would be helpful, for both of us. Here’s what I came up with to use when words are hard.
- An answer for my biggest question right now: How do you determine when to take a mental health day, versus when working out would do you good if you can only get yourself to the starting line? — Maybe a step-by-step checklist (including things like food, sleep, etc) with how to get to the start of my training if signs point toward yes? I’m not sure about this one, and would love your input if you have any.
- Work out in the morning. If I put on my running shoes and get out the door before my brain has woken up enough to tell me it is too overwhelmed to do it today, I can usually still get my training in. If I wait, a lot of times that battle is so much harder.
- Type, write, or say what I need to hear. Secret: sometimes I tweet statements that I wish someone would say to me. Sometimes just putting it out there yields the tiniest bit of relief.
- Or, create a list of quotes, a playlist of inspirational music or podcasts or videos that you can read, listen to, or watch when you need a boost.
The goal of this post isn’t to posit answers, because I don’t have many of those right now. I just wanted to type out a bunch of ideas, questions, and other things because sometimes brain dumps are soothing. And maybe you have some insight, and maybe we can build a community of athletes that focus on mental health just as much as physical health. Maybe we can build a community of people who understand that mental health is just as important as financial health. And if you’re going through it now, too, you’re not alone.
National Alliance on Mental Illness: https://nami.org/mhstats
Upcoming Documentary (July 29, 2020): Weight of Gold
Athlete Mental Health: atyourownrisk.org
Suicide Warning Signs: https://www.rd.com/list/suicide-warning-signs/
Suicide Prevention Hotline: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/