Friday, April 3, 2020

Staying Alive

There is a scene from Guy Gavriel Kay's A Song for Arbonne in which the women of Arbonne (and one of Garsenc) await the invasion of an army bent on destroying them all, that resonates with me right now.

Some of the women sit and work on needlepoint, while Signe de Barbentain gives rein to her anxiety, pacing and venting and worrying.  Finally she turns on Rosala, one of the women who has been calmly smiling at her embroidery, and demands to know, "how can you be so calm?  How can you possibly SIT there like that, knowing what's coming, what's happening?"  Rosala stops and holds up the ruined, worthless needlepoint she has been stitching with shaking hands.  She wasn't doing the work because she was calm, she was calm because she was doing the work.

I have struggled with depression and my own mental health for thirty-five years, since I was in middle school.  My particular manifestation of it is to engage in increasingly self-destructive behaviours until I trigger a life crisis and everything crashes.  I've talked about my struggles openly for about the last fifteen years, and it's helped, but the thing I've learned about that is that what helps me is the part where I talk about the things I am doing to keep from dying.

Almost everyone I know is dealing with some combination of depression, anxiety, fear, and isolation right now, and we're all coping or not coping in different ways.  I am seeing an interesting trend, though.  As a coping mechanism, "Today I rolled myself in a blanket, ate an entire pie, and lay on the floor for three hours," gets replies of "That's great!  Do what you need to do!  Your choices are valid!" but people who say "Today I made a list and I did the things and then I checked them off and looked at the check-marks to reassure myself that I will be OK," get bare shrugs and "Well, I'm glad this is going so well for you.  SOME of us are actually struggling." 

Every day of my shelter-in-place I make a list, and this is why:

Today I will get up at a reasonable hour, because if I do not do that consistently, I will begin to sleep longer and longer until my morning meets the night and I just stop getting up.

Today I will shower or at least wash my face, and I will brush my teeth and my hair and use deodorant and moisturizer, because I deserve to be clean and cared for, and because if I don't do it today I may not do it again until I become so disgusted with myself I just stand in the shower and cry.

Today I will drink water and eat food, because Traitor Brain says I don't deserve to have them and I will spite that bitch.

Today I will get at least a little exercise, because if I stop moving I may not start again.

Today I will go outside to feel the sun (or the moon) and the wind, because if I don't keep touching the world I'll let myself shut it out entirely and convince myself it doesn't need me in it.

Today I will set myself a bedtime and obey it, because left to my own devices I'll just stay up indefinitely and destroy my ability to rest and recover.

Today I will accomplish some small task to improve my space, my life, my health, or my relationships with others, because every improvement is another spiderweb-tie I use to bind myself into this world.

Today I will tend or at least visit my garden, because I do not "ruin the life of every living thing I touch."

Today I will talk to my partner or my friends about how I am feeling and where I am emotionally, and ask for support if I need it.

If today is a workday, today I will accomplish one concrete thing that finishes a task, plans for the future, or improves my workflow.

If today is not a workday, I will not do work just because I'm bored, and I will deliberately do things I know relax and recharge me.

This week I will spend one hour of time doing something creative, because if I increase the sum total of beauty, it muffles the voices that tell me I add nothing to the world.

This week I will dedicate one block of at least two hours to a long-term improvement project, because I would like Future Badger to have the same feeling Present Badger gets when she looks at the things Past Badger has done, and doing nice things for Future Badger helps me stick around to become her.

When I start to feel the water closing over my head, I will look at the lists of ticky-marks and I say "See, Self, you're doing the things.  You're all right.  You're in the world and you matter to it."

When my chest gets tight and painful and the voices rise, I will go and stand in my pantry, and look at the physical manifestations of my skills, my resources, and my upbringing, and repeat to myself, "You have what you need, and you are enough to get through this."

This is my list.  It doesn't have to be anyone else's list, and the things on it are the specific areas where my own history tells me I'm vulnerable to my own brain.  I've got no shade for people who are coping by being pie-eating blanket-rolls, because the important thing is just to figure out what you need to survive and DO THAT.

So while it may LOOK like I've 'got my shit together', the reality is that I'm just stitching away as hard as I can on this messy tapestry and holding on to the fact that the work I'm doing, the project I'm completing, isn't a fresh loaf of bread or a tidy office or a new creative accomplishment.  It's something that matters more than any of those:  myself, whole and living, walking out of my house at the end of this crisis.

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