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What Building Ikea Furniture Taught Me About My Mental Health

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It’s been a few years since I first was given a name for what I thought was just a general personality trait. I felt like my diagnosis, “dysthymia” was the medical equivalent of the Ikea FÄRLÖV: a fancy name for a thing with which you’re already familiar. FÄRLÖV is a couch, and dysthymia is a type of depression that is more prolonged but less severe than major depression. I’ve been dealing with it since high school, and had resigned myself to thinking I was just a “depressive person.” Dysthymia is a low, white noise fan hum in my mind most of the time, but it usually doesn’t become too overwhelming as long as I keep it under control. A doctor told me it’s sort like “minor major depression,” an oxymoron almost as outlandish as “easy-to-build Ikea furniture.” Mental health is like Ikea furniture in a lot of ways — you might feel like you are the only one with your dresser or bed frame, only to find out most the 20-somethings in your area have a similar one in their house too, and it’s OK to talk about how we all have variations of the same things. When putting together my furniture in my hot L.A. apartment, I realized those confusing Swedish pieces offered a lot of insight about mental health.

1. You’ll feel better if you tackle it right away.

I had an Ikea bookshelf in my room for almost two months before I finally got around to building it. Every morning I would sidestep the box while I picked out my clothes for the day. Once the shelf was built, my room instantly looked brighter and cleaner. I could display the array of books that were previously piled up in the corner, and there was no unsightly cardboard to trip over. I wished I had just put the shelf together when I first had it, much like I wish I had done something about my mental health before I slipped into particular bad bouts. Dysthymia can turn into deeper depression if left unmanaged, just like my unbuilt bookshelf can lead to a messier room. But when I actively take steps to improve my mental health when I feel myself slipping, I am able to prevent getting worse and sometimes even start to feel better.

2. Take a break.

The day I spent building my bed, it was probably 90 degrees and I was determined to build my bed without any help. I kept screwing pieces in backwards and having to start over. My back ached and my stomach hurt, but I was laser-focused on getting the bed frame made. Eventually I had to take a break to go to an improv class and grab dinner. When I came back, the bed frame that had evaded me all day seemed so simple now. What was once a herculean task was really only a few remaining screws. When it feels like my mental health issues are unbearable, I force myself to take a break. I do something distracting, anything to get my mind off what’s bothering me. If I feel myself cycling through Facebook photos from four years ago or am feeling down, imagining myself at loved ones’ funeral, I go for a walk. I watch an episode of my favorite TV show. I cook a delicious dinner. By the time I sit back down to whatever is upsetting me, I feel rested and ready to tackle the next step.

3. If you can’t figure it out, change your perspective.

I’m left handed, so I often have a particularly hard time with Ikea directions because I often do steps backwards or hold pieces the wrong way. I’ve spend so long trying to figure out why parts don’t fit together, only to find that all I need to do is rotate the piece. Similarly, sometimes mental health can be improved by a change of perspective. One effect of my dysthymia is my penchant for worst-case scenario thinking. But when I am able to get myself out of negative “what ifs” and look at my problems from a new angle, I find they really aren’t so daunting.

4. It’s easier when you have the right tools.

Sure, it’s possible to assemble Ikea furniture with just the little hand wrenches they give you, but the job goes a lot faster when you have power tools. I built my desk with only the provided tools, but was able to use a cordless drill on my other furniture. While I often think I can handle my dysthymia on my own, it is certainly easier when I have the right tools at my disposal. A therapist once tasked me with coming up with a list of coping strategies I could use to lift me out of bad places. With this “mental health tool box,” I find that living with my issues is easier. There is no shame in using a cordless drill, just like there is no shame in seeking therapy, medication or any other variety of coping methods to make the task at hand easier.

5. It’s OK to ask for help.

Speaking of those little hand wrenches that come with nearly every piece of Ikea furniture, I had no idea how those things worked. When I was finally frustrated enough after struggling to wield one, I FaceTimed my dad and asking him how to use it. Turns out, it was a pretty simple fix, but I didn’t know how to do it on my own. It’s OK to ask for help when you need it. I have a hard time asking for help from my friends, family or even mental health professions, but when I do, they are always willing to lend a hand, or teach me how to use a hand wrench.

6. You have to be prepared for it to happen again.

I’m already dreading moving and having to disassemble all my furniture, just to spend another week putting it back together. Unfortunately, that’s a fact of my life now that I have furniture. My dysthymia feels less omnipresent now, but I have to be prepared for if it comes back again, or if it turns into a full depressive episode. It’s a part of me. However, just because I am afraid of putting my bed back together or one day not being able to get out bed, it doesn’t mean I am not enjoying life (and my bed frame) for the now.

Fiona Merullo is an aspiring comedian living in Los Angeles. Every career aptitude test she’s ever taken has told her to become a mortician. You can follow her on twitter at @fionaderulo.

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Thinkstock photo via Highwaystarz-Photography.

Originally published: June 14, 2017
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