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How to Make the Healthy Days Count

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Some days, I feel like my checking in on the status of my physical and mental health is endless. Feeling depressed? I ask myself. I wait for my internal assessment, a sort of personal systems diagnostic, and find out, no, today is OK. Today seems clear on that front. All feedback loops reporting normally.

Migraine? Not today. Any fibro flare-ups? Back, knees, neck, wrists, all check out for the moment. Energy levels could be better, but it’s bearable. How about endometriosis symptoms? Today is a little uncomfortable, but could be worse. Anxiety? This morning was rough, but all is calm now. This kind of mental checklist is tiring but necessary. I can gauge what kind of day I’m going to have, what adjustments I might need to make and most importantly, if I’m feeling well enough to take advantage of the time in a way that will make me feel more prepared on a day when I’m struggling.

The healthy days, what is as close to “normal” as normal gets for me, often feel hard won. Other times, they feel like a gift. Either way, that time is precious.

Having good days means I can engage in my life more fully. It’s easier to leave my house, go to meetings at work, participate in conversations, write. It also means I can set some ground work for those days when I know it will be easier to check out completely, whether that means something like not feeling like getting out of bed or something more extreme like feeling the urge to end my life.

1. Lists

Lists are life. Lists are how I make sense out of an otherwise overwhelming and chaotic list of things to do. I make lists for everything because it helps me feel more in control over parts of my life, and I’ve made lists that look like last night’s, which said, “make lunch for tomorrow, put away laundry, take a shower.” Was I going to forget to take a shower? Was it important if my clothes ever made it out of my laundry basket? Probably not, but it made me feel better having a plan.

These kinds of lists are crucial for my less-than-good days, because I know that drowning in laundry isn’t going to do my depression or anxiety any favors. A list I try to work on during my better days is one I keep in my phone just called “Happiness.” It’s a short-but-growing list I started several months ago of things, mostly small, that bring me a measure of comfort or pleasure. It includes things like cacti, whales, cats and how soft they are, good beer, sparkling water, road trips and tattoos. It’s a reminder, especially on the bad days, of the things I know I want to experience again. It’s a list of things that keep me loosely tethered to life on days when I can’t imagine a light at the end of the tunnel.

2. Reconnect

I try to use some of the time from my higher-functioning days to reconnect with my tribe. The people who love and support me in all parts of my life at all stages are the most valuable and beautiful parts of my life and I want them to feel appreciated, important, special. Sometimes, these connections go unmaintained or under-appreciated on days I struggle. On better, brighter days, I try to take some time to text someone I haven’t reached out to in a while, mail greeting cards to my favorite people or buy something for someone because I know it will make them feel cared for.

3. Self-care

Self-care is often touted as a way to help you work through a depressive or painful episode and that’s often true. Self-care looks like a lot of different things for a lot of different people, and sometimes noticing you’re anxious and deciding to say “no” to any more asks or activities for the day is the best way to keep your anxiety from getting worse. That is self-care in the moment and it is incredibly valuable.

I have, in my own life, found that when I’m depressed or struggling with pain, self-care is really hard. Too hard. I can’t do anything beyond the basics of getting myself dressed and fed, and sometimes that’s even too much. Naps and snuggling whatever pet is closest become the only version of self-care I can manage. So I try to use the gentler, quieter days to work on my self-care, to either help destress and prevent a possible episode or give myself more gratifying experiences that I can add to my “I like this, maybe this is worth sticking around for” list. On those days, I try to make it to a yoga class, bake a banana bread, buy some new candles, make sure my bills are paid, scroll through Groupon for a new restaurant to try.

sun shining through weeds

Not every day will be a good day. Living with mental illness and chronic pain means taking it a day at a time. But the good days give us the time and the space needed to engage more fully in our lives. Some days will look like Netflix binges or hitting up the driving range or making a gratitude list. But those good days, whatever they look like, are worth hanging on for.

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Originally published: October 6, 2017
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