I had a fun conversation on a neat podcast recently, and it just came out. You can listen here. We wandered into some stuff about mental health, and it reminded me to try writing some stuff down. I’ve been thinking about writing more about mental health for a while now, even got a book bouncing around in my brain. It’s obviously a real large, charged subject, which is part of the reason I haven't been attempting to talk about it... which is actually pretty meta, as I write those words while thinking about how I get overwhelmed easily and don’t deal with things, because that’s a common perceived obstacle to dealing with my demons effectively. Okay, let’s give it a go:
Early in lockdown, I wasn’t doing well. Lotta TV, lotta sugar, weed creeping in more & more, lotta sitting around, lotta social network consumption, very little exercise. I gained some weight, my back congealed, and my thoughts got steadily more sludgy and heavy too.
I’ve been meditating regularly for the last few years. Twice a day, 20-ish minutes each. I finally found a way that works for me. It’s called TM (Transcendental Meditation), and I talk about it more in the podcast. While I love specific stuff about this style (super-simple, dogma-free, based in curiosity), the more important choice has been prioritizing time to just get quiet. I think of meditation as a fancy nap (and stretching/exercise as playtime). I’m pretty positive that anyone who gives themselves at least 20-30min daily of ANY kind of quiet time without worldly distractions, just letting thoughts bounce around without judgment, maybe drifting off to sleep even, will get real results. Same with 20-30 min daily to move yr body in ways that feel good. Same with more focused mental health help: therapy, 12-step, whatever works.
While the meditation has been life-changing in itself, the COVID era has reminded me that there is no sustainable mental health without physical health, and vice versa. Deciding our bodies and minds were ever different was a big mistake. A friend with more discipline than me asked if I wanted to join them in a 30-day yoga thing, and it was just what I needed (something simple and low impact, and a trusted friend to be accountable to/with). What I usually love most is taking stuff I’ve learned and doing my own thing with it, so after the 30 day thing was done, I kept going in my own way. These days, after my afternoon meditation, I take 20-30min, and either put on an album and move (it’s been a great way to steadily revisit my vinyl collection), or I put on this piece of music I found a while back when I was writing my book. I made an edit that’s 33:33, just to give myself a boundary. It’s attached to this post.
I realized recently that I’ve got 90min-ish dedicated to self-care these days, no matter what. I stretch for about 15min before I meditate in the morning, then the afternoon stretchitation combo adds about an hour. The days I take walks, and/or have to do physical things in the world, are a bonus. As far as I can tell, I need every minute of it to keep my mind/body together. This pandemic has been a time in our lives like no other, and as horrific as the death and physical illness has been, it stands to reason that the emotional and interpersonal impact has been just as extreme, and damaging. I miss the emotional and physical exercise of touring (although I don’t miss the grind of it, and I think this time has been a really nice and needed rest). I miss just being able to go outside and run around without worry. The hum of stress around this wild time is what I think hurts the most. Quietly violent.
I think of mental illness like any physical illness. I have some emotional wounds that are just like lifelong scars or aches. I’m not imagining I’ll ever completely repair them, I just do what I can to keep myself as pain-free as possible. There is so much pain that’s out of my control, like if a car comes out of nowhere and rips my foot up, or the ground gives way and I slip and slice my hand, or the mysterious ways the same parts of my back seize up every once in a while, or if someone treats me terribly, or attacks me online (or in real life), or whatever horrible event happens. My focus isn’t to numb that stuff, as that seems to just make life worse. I want to be as good as I can be at processing the pain that comes at me or lives in me, and then do my best to not add any self-imposed pain, like putting weight on an injury, or pushing myself too hard, or spiraling into shame about some past or present mistake, or making up horrible stories about a future I can never know. If I’m fantasizing about the future, why would I not at least hallucinate something pleasant?
It’s a life work, unlearning patterns, rewriting neural pathways, keeping my body and mind limber and functioning as well as possible. Diet, exercise, remembering to breathe, talking through traumatic memories with trusted people and/or professionals... these are the simplest tools I know of to stay healthy. When I don’t, the inertia of my trauma, all the shitty memories of tough times stored in my body/mind/heart, all the stories I’ve made up about why I deserved it, why I’m no good... all of that is its own creature, like a bacteria that will take me over if I don’t keep an eye on it. When it does take over, I essentially black out, like a freshman after too many beers, or someone feverish and disoriented from illness, except I’m puking feelings and ugly behavior instead of alcohol or whatever other kind of poison that got into me. I see so many trauma blackout zombies in the world, hurting themselves and each other, the trauma being compounded, gaining strength with every blackout. They aren’t bad people, they’re not EVIL, they’re just creatures consumed and controlled by untreated trauma. I’m doing my best not to be another trauma zombie, passing on pain.
Okay, that feels like plenty for now, and I've got mountains of other work to do. Here’s as simple as I can say it: I think of mental/emotional self-care like brushing my teeth. When I don’t do that, my teeth feel fuzzy and disgusting, and I know that if I ignore my teeth, they’ll start to hurt, and eventually fall out. So I make time for it. I keep my teeth clean, and I do the same for my mind. I imagine that carving out chunks of time for self-care might feel impossible for many of the people reading this. Even the people who are great about physical exercise might consider the mental health part some unrealistic add-on. As far as I can tell, if you’re reading this, you’re not in survival mode. You’re not living in the poverty that billions of people suffer daily. You may well be busy, and you live a life of choice. I hope you choose to give yrself the time to properly brush yr teeth, hydrate yrself, get good rest, and care for yrself in all the ways. Daily self-care is the only thing that’s gonna even have a shot at healing what ails you, and therefore the world. I love You.