Episode 34: The things you should never say to someone who’s struggling
In which our protagonist reads a self-help book that really doesn’t help anyone
Dear reader, please never give a person going through burnout or a breakdown advice like:
Being positive is a choice and you can choose to make that choice
All you need to do is go to the gym to get the endorphins flowing
A trip to a spa or maybe a massage will help
A better sleep routine is the key
You should avoid coffee and processed sugars
You need to rethink your life values and goals
These may be true (in some cases), but I can guarantee they are really, really, really not what the burned-out, chronically depressed human needs to hear right now. They just want to know you’re there, that you’re listening, that they can lean on you.
(At least, that’s what I want. I don’t want solutions - I know the solutions; I’m just struggling to do them.)
So can you imagine my, ahem, surprise when I picked up a book this week that claimed to be a “practical guide for reclaiming your life after burnout”, only to find it was a tiny tome - a glorified blog post - that contained all of the above advice. Yes, a book told burned-out and broken people to “rethink values and goals” as a way to recover - because that’s so darn easy, innit?
Let me tell you this much: chronic depression is not a phase. And yes, I know people have it much worse than I do. The world is righteously f*cked up; of course my first world problems are not the worst that humanity has ever seen.
I know all of that.
And it’s still not that easy.
The road is long, with many a winding turn
If I could change the way I think at the flick of a switch, do you not realise I would jump at it? This isn’t a choice - to live as a husk, a shell of what I could be, and not be able to move myself forward. It’s not a choice to be frozen. My choice is to live, but my instincts are in protection mode and I can’t reason with them right now.
This is a long road, this road to recovery, to being more self(ish). Some days - today being one of them, and there’s been a lot of them lately - I’m not sure I can make it. I’m not sure I’ll ever get there. That maybe I’m not meant to get there, maybe this is just me and I should accept it and get on with things. But I deserve better, and I will make it happen.
I’m back to having some tough conversations and reassessing where I’m putting my energy. I spoke months ago about the energy exchange, and how it’s important for me right now to spend my time and energy in places and with people who fill the well. I’m placing my emphasis back on those places; things had slipped in, and things were snowballing, and I need to extricate myself from some of the well-sucking stuff again, replace it with the well-replenishing stuff. I’m back to having afternoon naps. I’m back to my journaling. I’m backing out of commitments that didn’t live up to their end of the bargain. I’m saying “No!”, loud and clear.
I just need some time, ok? Just a little time, and a lot of patience. Patience for myself, and patience from others. If I say I’ll do something and it takes a while, I’m sorry. I’ll get there, I will, but I might need some prompting. I’ve slipped back - hurtled backwards, quite a bit - and the progress I’ve been making feels like a dream.
These things are never easy. So please be kind to each other. You never know what the person in front of you is hiding behind that mask of serenity, or that veneer of competence, that calm knowing. Their worlds may just be crumbling, and they might be struggling to hold it all together in public. Behind closed doors, they might be in pieces. They might be unable to move off the couch. They might be in extreme hermit mode.
Being self(ish) is a tough road, but I’ll get there. As will you, dear reader. We’ll get there. Together. Take my hand, and we’ll make it I swear.
The week ahead 🗓
Writing: It’s the Three Day Novel this weekend, and I really need to start figuring out what I’m writing 20-30,000 words about in a three-day window.
Work: I have officially entered the coaching arena! Thanks to my first practice client for trusting me with your dreams. Do you have something you need to focus on / figure out / talk through? Fancy being a practice client? Respond to this missive and let’s chat about what that would mean.
Health: In the greatest tradition of procrastination, I’ve decided there’s no point in really starting to get back into this until I’m back from the holiday I take mid-September. Makes sense, right?
Routine: Self-care in the morning; work and study in the afternoon. Plus,join me and hundreds of others at the LWS Writers’ Hour every weekday: 8am London, New York, California and NZ.
On the stereo 🎧
Screen Violence, by CHVRCHES
New CHVRCHES album klaxon. Thou must listen for it is MIGHTY. That is all.
Off the shelf 📚
Ghost Species, by James Bradley
I took a break from fiction for a few weeks. I don’t know why; I just couldn’t concentrate on tales untrue for some reason. I went hard into the study materials and got bogged down in impenetrable academic writing. This book is my way back into the world of fiction. It’s a speculative tale set some time in the near future, when the climate crisis has become irreversible and humanity is on its way out. In the wilds of Tasmania, a billionaire has a plan to reinvigorate the planet - but is it ethical, and should we really do it? It’s a fascinating take, and so beautifully written to boot.
Some nights, when the wind is up and the power flickers and fails, she tells the child stories, as if this thread of words might be enough to bind them together, to bear them through all that is to come, like a boat, or a leviathan. She knows she is not alone in despairing for what the future holds, in wanting to find ways to hold it back for as long as possible. But no matter how hard she tries she cannot keep it at bay forever. For a time is coming – soon, sooner than she wants it to be, sooner than either of them will be ready – when the child will have to venture forth into the world we have made and find a way to survive. The onrush of that time, the feeling that their years together are already falling away, shadows her life, a drumbeat of loss behind the moments of joy, a reminder every instant is precious. But when they are here, isolated by the power or the wind, it is not time’s flight that frightens her; instead it is the knowledge that the child is alone, and that one day soon she will understand that. And so she does what mothers have done since the beginning of time, since before we were human: she draws filaments from the darkness and weaves them together to create meaning, purpose, shape, arranging the elements to reveal the world, or perhaps to make a new one.
Visual confirmation 📷
The shortish version of a long story: I grew up with dogs and cats in the house and it just doesn’t feel like a home to me if there’s no animals. When we bought our house, it was the first time I’d been legally able to have an animal in the house (rental agreements all forbade it), but me and him were both working full time in offices and it wouldn’t be fair to introduce a new friend to the house only to leave them alone all day.
Then, one day, I was driving past a pet store and instinctively pulled in. I thought the other half wouldn’t mind if maybe I brought home a small thing, like a chinchilla or a mouse - something to sit with me as I watched the TV, or for me to watch mindlessly as it played and frolicked. I spent forever looking at little furry ones trying to get the courage to just do it. In the end, I called him, confessed my sins, and he convinced me to come home and we’d go back together the next day.
The next day, we came home with a pair of rabbits. We couldn’t get a cat as he’s allergic, and there was the home-alone issue with a dog. The lovely pet store people said that rabbits keep each other company, don’t make noise (no angry neighbours), and are generally clean and keep to themselves. We adopted a bonded pair, sisters, who were a year old but had never left the store. We named them French & Saunders in honour of comedy heroes. They were so used to being cramped up in a cage that the first time we let them roam loose, they didn’t know what to do. Gradually, they got used to being in a home with lots of space to run and jump around… until the smaller one, little Frenchie, crossed the rainbow bridge far too young. It turns out rabbits are prone to neurological parasites. It wasn’t pleasant.
They say rabbits need to be in pairs, that it’s cruel to keep them solo, but the honest truth is that this little monster is such a dominating diva that she can’t bond with anyone else. She rules this house. We are mere slaves to her, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. This is my heart, my soul, and sitting with her, stroking her impossibly soft fur, listening to her purr away, helps to calm me like you wouldn’t believe. There is a reason they say animals are good for mental health and wellbeing; this monster is my meditation and my self-care.