When Staying Busy Is How You Cope With Mental Illness

I don’t have the best or healthiest coping skills in my emotional toolkit. In the past few years, I engaged in a variety of self-destructive behaviors, including cutting and picking at my skin. Those are the obvious ones, because not only do they function as an avoidance strategy, but they also leave physical scars.

Recently though, I realized that even though I’m in recovery, I still manage to avoid my emotions using a more subtle, more socially acceptable strategy. That’s right, I’m referring to the idea of always being on the go, or keeping yourself “crazy busy.”

Brené Brown, one of my favorite authors, sums it up perfectly: “One of the most universal numbing strategies is what I call ‘crazy busy;’ I often say that when they start having 12-step meetings for ‘busy-aholics,’ they’ll need to rent out football stadiums. We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”

This resonates with me, because I am also guilty of “wearing busyness as a badge of honor.” In fact, I started using busyness as a coping strategy when I was 14 years old and going through my first mood episode. I convinced myself that as long as there was another test to write, another event to plan, or another task to be completed, I’d be OK. In reality, I began running away from my problems, shutting down my emotions, and used busyness to numb the pain I was experiencing at the time.

For the next six years, I did not allow myself to stop. I kept moving forward and refused to look back, despite the fact that I needed a break. In order to put as much distance between me and the trauma, I focused on external achievements instead of internal fulfillment. I wanted to forget, deny and avoid. Even during my first hospital stay, I found myself working on my academic papers in the patients’ lounge while wearing a hospital gown, when I clearly should have been resting. The rationale for my behavior was this: I feared that if I allowed myself to pause, I would be overwhelmed by reality and consumed with sadness, anger and shame.

Like Dr. Brown states, “’crazy-busy’ is a great armor.” It also doesn’t help that our society often perceives “exhaustion as a status symbol” and validates productivity by tying it to our self-worth. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to distinguish healthy distraction versus avoidance as coping mechanisms. Distraction, in the short-term, can be adaptive and helpful. But when we constantly distract ourselves in order to run away from our story, or because we fear vulnerability, it can become an avoidance strategy.

For instance, this past year I returned to school after a year of psychiatric hospitalizations. Even though going back to school part time in and of itself was a huge accomplishment, in my eyes, it wasn’t enough. On top of attending class, I just had to work 10 hours a week, volunteer with kids, be a peer facilitator, go to therapy, see my friends and keep in touch with my family. On top of that, I was expected to exercise, sleep eight hours a night despite chronic nightmares, and eat healthy. Despite my best attempts, I couldn’t maintain such a balanced routine. Looking back, I don’t know how I managed to get through the year without burning out.

After my classes ended, I made a vow to spend the summer relaxing and “chilling the fuck out.” After all, I had not had a summer off since the eighth grade. Every summer onward had brought more stressful life changes or transition stages. I explained to my friends that I deserved a summer “off” to focus on my healing. So my plan was to work part time to stay financially afloat, go to my volunteering and support group, as well as continue dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Of course, in the eyes of others, this already sounded like a busy summer. But to my standards, this was the definition of a “chill” summer.

I didn’t keep my word for long. A few weeks into the beginning of my summer vacation and I already found myself working two jobs, volunteering with kids, peer facilitating and writing a column for my school’s newspaper. On top of that, I still had to attend DBT twice a week, and insisted on making it to spin class. All of that while maintaining good relationships and figuring out what to do with my degree.

Everything happened so fast, although looking back, it’s easy to understand what happened. It’s like Newton’s third law of motion: things in motion, stay in motion. When you’ve been using the “crazy-busy” strategy compulsively at the expense of other pursuits, it becomes a habit. After a while, when you’ve done it for so long, you often find it impossible to stop. And when you do stop, things get quiet and silence envelops you, and you eventually realize how fucking loud you’ve been screaming from the inside this whole time. Or, if you’re like me, you’re fucking angry and so done with being a chronic overachiever.

The silver lining is that I am now ready to make some changes in my life. In the past, I would become aware of my issues, then promptly resume by ignoring all the warning signs my body sent me. But I’m tired of this cycle. I’m tired of making too many commitments, getting stressed out and risking burning myself out.

This summer, I want to do things differently. I’m currently having an existential crisis, which I blame entirely on DBT, but I think it’s a good thing that my beliefs are being challenged. Therapy can be painful, because all the shit you’ve been running away from suddenly comes back up. Nevertheless, I plan on spending the next few months focusing on myself, my health and my happiness.

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