So yeah. This
is my life right now. (And at other times. But it's worse lately than it's been in a long time.)
Because there is a place beyond tired — bone tired — where you don’t even have the wherewithal to ask for what you need. When you’re in this state of mind, kind humans offer up their time and talent to you, but somehow you can’t receive it. You’re in a fog of exhaustion where you can only see an arms length ahead: reply to this email, return this call, drink this coffee, do this dish, survive, barely.
And it's nice to know I'm not the only person reacting to this stuff in the way that I do.
Then someone stopped offering help and started ordering me around — namely my husband (which, if you know me, is pretty hilarious). “That’s it,” he said. “Get in bed and take a nap.”
Without saying another word, I stripped down, peeled back the clean, white sheets of the hotel bed, set the timer on my iPhone for one hour, and crashed.
If you don't get why somebody would unquestionably take advice like this, be glad you've never been in this state where you're failing so hard at basic stuff like eating or sleeping or relaxing that you're not only bad at them or not doing them, you don't even notice you're not doing them, you don't care you're not doing them, and you don't even think doing them with help you feel any better. Sometimes you get into a state you just can't get out of by yourself; you need someone to tell you how to do it.
I think about this kind of stuff all the time, and I talk about it a fair bit, generally with the few people who kinda provide this for me. diffrentcolours
and I acknowledge this really blatantly; I think it started at Lib Dem Autumn Conference in 2011, the first I went to, and since he remembered what his first Conference was like and since I was staying with him and Eve in a house rather than by myself in a hotel like most people do at conference, he was explicitly kind of looking after me, reminding me to eat and making sure I was reasonably happy. And it worked really well, because I have very fond memories of that week (driving adventure! Akira the Don! Akrams! D pointing out Edgbaston when we drove past because his dad always did that! huddling together for warmth while waiting for a taxi back on like the fifth night in a row when we'd been out from nine in the morning until eleven at night!), without which I probably wouldn't have gone to any subsequent ldconfs.
And that's still a thing he and I do for each other; I go over and cook dinner every now and then, once he ordered me Chinese takeaway because I was in such a state I couldn't even operate Just Eat or have opinions about food, we tell each other to go to bed if we're online too late at night, and if I'm running myself into the ground and never giving myself a break for too long, he'll threaten to chain me to a bed somewhere so I have to relax -- which never fails to cheer me up, and I don't care if that makes me weird.
So anyway, I think and talk about this but I haven't written about it because I have never been able to find a way to address the fact that I really only approve of telling people what to do if it's very specific people and very specific things and very specific situations. And I haven't been able to articulate what those are! I just know them when I see them. Mostly I know them when they happen to me. And as this writer says, when it happens to you you're not in a state to talk about it.
I have had so many moments when I am deep in the fog and I don’t reach out. I don’t know what to say. I don’t have a neat story about my sadness. There are only a few people that I feel comfortable being totally incoherent with, calling and saying, “Hi. I’m going to cry. I’m okay, but I’m just going to cry.” Often I don’t call, not just in order to spare someone my blubbering, but to spare them my confusion over what they can do to soothe me. It’s so much responsibility, isn’t it? It feels like we are expected to be simultaneously devastated and proactive in our culture.
I do a lot of apologizing for myself and my existence, and my friends think that's unnecessary -- because of course they do, they're cool people who don't think anybody needs to justify their existence like this -- and it's because I do feel like this pressure to have a neat story about my sadness and to be proactive rather than blubbery and to tell people what they can do to soothe me.
I spend a lot of time making decisions and looking after people. Buying the house, much as I like it as a place to live, has given me a pretty near constant state of decision fatigue. Andrew's been unwell in recent months in ways that I'm really good at helping with, which is awesome because I'm glad I can do that, but it also means that I'm doing all the executive function for two people, it sometimes feels like, and that is difficult in itself. It's not just that doing the chores and remembering the appointments and running the errands is difficult (though sometimes it is, because it makes demands on your willpower and stress levels just like something like poverty does
), it's that having to organize the to-do lists and the meta-to-do lists can be mentally and emotionally tiring...something I learned from a post in the wonderful Blue Milk blog
which I'm still grateful to haggis
for pointing me at because it's been very useful to me ever since to be able to keep this in mind:
Walking someone through all the steps in preparing a meal, making sure you haven’t run out of laundry powder for when it’s their turn to do the laundry, writing the shopping list for them and describing where on the aisles they will find the items they need to buy.. all draining work.
Making sure the family meets its social obligations and remains connected to its community is work – were birthday presents bought for children’s parties, did the mother-in-law get a phone call to wish her well in surgery tomorrow? Who is keeping an eye on how well the children are adjusting to the new school? Who went to the parent-teacher interviews? Who worries about whether it is time to see the pediatrician about the younger child’s night terrors?
Just articulating that social and psychological chores exist
has been hugely helpful to me. Because part of my problem was that I was feeling exhausted despite not being able to point to anything that explained it, and this is where the possibly most evil word in the English language comes in: should
. I shouldn't be having so much trouble doing simple things. I should be better at looking after myself/my house/my husband/my job/everything. I shouldn't be such a drag or a bore or even a slight inconvenience to anybody. I know these thoughts are ridiculous but, if we could extinguish thoughts merely by wanting to
...I don't think mental illness would be such a big problem for humanity.
The only really effective way I know of to beat those "should"s is to cut myself some slack, and that's easier to do when I can convince myself that there are actually a lot of real obstacles and energy-sapping things in my life. That seems like it'd be a depressing realization, but actually it's kind of awesome because it means me feeling shitty is not, as I tend to assume, a sign of weakness or failings on my part, but a totally reasonable reaction to difficult shit going on.
And one way to remind myself of this is to listen to the people saying "Go to sleep. Come out for a drink. Eat something. Do you want to come over and hang out? You can do the chores later. Looking after you is more important right now. You are important."
Okay, they might not think that's what they're saying! But I think it is. I absolutely love Captain Awkward's answer to "how can I help people with depression?"
, which I think goes back to "don't stop at 'is there anything I can do to help?' "
Making suggestions can seem presumptuous, and generally sensible people expect their loved ones to be the best judge of what they need. My first link addresses that as well:
In part, people resist doing things — bringing soup, making an acupuncture appointment, taking the kids for the day — for friends in need, because we wisely understand that not everyone is built the same, particularly in their darker moments. Some of us genuinely want to be left alone; we need the salve of silence. Some of us feel comforted by a body right up next to us — the isolation shattered by the warm breath of another human. Some of us need sleep. Some of us need to be dragged out of the house.
After a while you'll get to know what your important people are likely to need. And you can always ask them. I make a point of trying to ask "would you like advice or sympathy?" when people tell me their problems, because I know sometimes I want pragmatic solutions and sometimes I just want someone to make sympathetic noises or give me a sandwich/whisky/fun excuse to get out of the house.