Fighting mental illness isn’t simply taking your medication and going to therapy. That’s maintenance work. Fighting mental illness is in the small tasks that mentally stable people take for granted- making the bed (neatly), writing down an appointment, making a phone call, setting a reminder, wiping up a spill, paying a bill, picking a crumb up off the floor, flossing your teeth.
Each decision to do the thing or not is fighting the fight. There are a lot of little fights. Do I have it in me to fold the laundry? Do I even have it in me to DO the laundry? Maybe someone else will clean up the spill. It’s just a drop. I’ll do it later. You know you have to do it. Everyone else is capable of keeping up. The basics of…existing as a functioning human being and maintaining a healthy environment for yourself. Most don’t think twice.
Wiping a drop of lotion or oil off the counter or picking a crumb up off the floor. Easy enough to do. Easy enough not to.
Before you say it, I know. Who really wants to do that monotonous crap anyway? Sometimes mentally healthy people don’t want to get the groceries or wash the lone fork in the sink either, but they do it. It’s not a defining moment in their day and it doesn’t take much energy away from their daily allotment. It might be a push to take the extra step toward the trash can, but it’s not a leap. Not a grand jeté by any stretch.
Except when you’re sick.
When you’re empty and numb or your chest aches and your muscles feel like sludge, none of it matters. You’re spending all of your time and energy in your head and it is not cute up there. You’re in the thick of it. Crumbs on the floor don’t matter. You don’t want to use that extra second out of bed to floss your teeth. You want to fall back to sleep and escape. You want to run out the door. Scream into the abyss.
How do you find the energy, the will even, to fight back?
I didn’t floss for a long time. Except, you know, those couple of days before and the day of the dentist, right? Then I actually met someone who flossed every day. So, I started flossing every day because I had accountability. The real truth came when I lost that accountability. When we weren’t standing in the hallway across from each other flossing at the same time, and I had finished brushing my teeth late one night. I didn’t want to floss that night. Who would care? Surely, I hadn’t cared enough to build up the habit for my own health. How many times had I been here? Taking care of myself as best I could until no one was looking anymore?
I don’t remember if I had a good mental health day or not that day, but I remember the moment I chose to grab the floss. I recall realizing all of the small, seemingly insignificant decisions I faced daily and how some were far easier, even insignificant on the days where I felt human.
That night I won. Flossing was no longer a task of basic hygiene. It became a check-in.
Can I floss tonight? Meh, I did that other thing today, and I’m really proud of that.
How about tonight? I know it’ll make me feel better about not doing x, y, and z.
I started to show up for myself a little bit more. I progressed to other small, nearly consistent habits. In turn, they give me a little boost back. And on the days where I just don’t have it in me, I’m a little kinder to myself. I don’t ask myself to fight every day. I get up, do the absolutes and the maintenance work and then do what I can with what’s left. Sometimes that’s flossing, and sometimes it’s something else I haven’t managed.
So yeah, sometimes I can tell what kind of day I’m having by whether I want to floss my teeth. No, I never want to floss my teeth. I never enjoy getting saliva all over my fingers, hitting my gums a little too hard or seeing pieces of who knows what on that waxy string. But I’ve come to recognize those moments where I choose to pick up the scrap of paper or whether I put the crumb in the trash when I spot it as accomplishments. Acts of self-care. Those small acts mean I want to live in this space. In this optimal functioning body. I care today.
THAT is fighting mental illness.
The pills and the talking… that will keep you afloat. But to live, you’ve got to swim.
One stroke: The crumbs.
Two strokes: The stack of mail.
Three strokes: Flossing your teeth.
I know it’s hard, but please keep swimming.