The Shape of a Bad Day
A lot of bloggers and internet personalities make a point of talking about mental illness nowadays. This is a wonderful step that we’re all taking together to try and give mental illnesses visibility and remove some of the stigma surrounding. We need that. Society needs that. It needs to be shouted from the rooftops until no person, young or old, feels like they should suffer in silence out of fear.
What many of us are guilty of, however, is only writing about our victory laps. We mention the darkness, we say how difficult it can get, but rarely do we go into the deep, poisonous detail of that. We stand on top of the hill and tell you how it’s worth it to get there, that you’ll never regret the climb when you get out of the mud. That perseverance is the sweetest victory one can know.
That’s all true. It’s one hundred percent true that you will never regret getting through the uphill slog to reach the top. What I want to talk about today, however, are the bottoms. The lows that inevitably happen. Because mental illness isn’t scaling a single mountain and then living out your days in peace with a bunch of monks who teach you rad karate skills and give you magical dragons. Mental illness is a constant up and down. You reach the top of one mountain, you feel glorious and triumphant, and then you have to get yourself back down and deal with the lows and work your way up to another peak again. On an on, until nature decides otherwise.
When we talk about our triumphs, when we promise that it’s worth it, I think some of the time that can feel like we’re shouting down from the mountaintops at those still struggling in the pit. And when you’re in the pit, you look up at these shining examples of heroes, and yes it’s inspirational, but also, maybe just a little bit, you kind of want to say, “Sure that’s easy for you to say, when you’re already up there.”
So, what I want to talk about today is more granular. It’s what I go through when I’m down there in the trenches, slogging through the nitty gritty bullshit that is my own mental illness triad (Anxiety, Depression, and PTSD, the unholy trinity). I think we don’t share the stupid bullshit often enough. We don’t share the boring, day to day steps that get us from point garbage to point victory. I want to go through what it is that happens to me on my worst days, on the days where I’m struggling the most. I want to go through it with as much detail as possible, because I want to show you that it happens, and it doesn’t mean you’re failing and it doesn’t mean you’re regressing forever. It just means your living.
This, my friends, is the shape of a bad day.
My alarm goes off and I reach for my phone. I’m tired. The first thing that pops into my head is that I’m very sleepy, and I resent the song blaring from the shitty speakers on my iPhone. I wish it were the weekend. (My bad days, almost universally, occur on a workday. I think this has to do with the fact that repetition can trigger my mental illness, and what’s more repetitive than going to the same place and doing the same thing five days a week? It’s much rarer for me to have a bad day on the weekend because I sleep in, I have free time to do what I want, and do not have to time things out in such a strict structure.)
On a bad day, I’ve immediately gravitated to negativity. I’m tired, I wish things were different, I resent the thing I use to wake myself. I open my eyes and squint at the numbers on the screen, wondering how it got to be so late so quickly. I usually lay in bed and stare at the ceiling. Sometimes I’ll pretend to go back to sleep, but most of the time I just end up wasting time wishing that time weren’t passing and dreading the fact that it’s going to anyways.
I spend a lot of time longing for differences at this juncture. That I had a different job, that I didn’t have to work at all, that I lived closer, that it was warmer, that it was colder. That my cats weren’t so heavy, that my cats were still there to snuggle. That I didn’t have to shower. That I had time to shower. It will not matter one bit what the circumstances are. On a bad day, I want whatever it is I don’t have. I want to do whatever it is I can’t do. Negativity begins to flip around my brain because I can’t have my way. It’s a nasty little seed that will sprout into noxious weeds, but for now it’s still small, still unnoticed. That’s how it gets room to grow.
When I finally get out of bed I’m running late. It doesn’t matter how quickly I get ready, I’ll still be late, but I cut out steps anyways. It stresses me out to be late, and I will usually have at least one train of thought berating me for being stupid enough to get myself into this situation. I put on minimal makeup even though I don’t really like the way it looks when I do it like that. Sometimes, if this happens on a shower day, I’ll skip the shower, and my hair will feel gross to me all day. I know all this, but now I’m running late, so skipping these steps is a kind of unconscious punishment. I don’t deserve to feel nice because I was lazy and made myself late.
These thoughts start spinning around in the back of my head as I drag myself out to the car. By this point, I’ve also probably packed a not-so-great lunch and skipped breakfast. No time, I tell myself. I don’t deserve the time, is what I mean.
I drive to work glancing at the clock over and over again, speeding more than I should, wishing I weren’t so late because it’s too stressful. As I speed I look around nervously, paranoid of getting a ticket. Every minute feels against me, and every car feels like it wants to get in my way. In reality, I’m the one building up the stress over being late and rushing myself for no reason. I’ve never been more than 15 minutes late, but every time I’m out the door even slightly off time, I begin this exciting beratement that sours my morning.
Sometimes messages will pop up on my phone while I commute. On a good day, or a normal day, I glance at these and smile. It makes me happy to see my friends saying things, regardless of the content. On a bad day, though, they make me flinch. I know that I can’t respond right away. What if the conversation moves on without me? What if they think I’m mad at them for not responding? What if they get mad at me for not responding?
Or, perhaps worse than any of the above, what if they don’t even notice that I haven’t replied?
I get to work and rush getting my coffee, hurrying through so that I can open my computer and check on the messages. Sometimes they are a decent distraction, other times they send me deeper into negativity. Now, to be absolutely clear, the content of the messages has no bearing on how I react to them. To any friends who may be reading this, it’s never anything you say or do. It’s all the mental illness, all the driving force of a bad day, that dictates what happens next. I can take two people making a joke with each other and turn it into a clear sign that they want to exclude me. I’ll tell myself this is unreasonable. That this isn’t true.
But in that moment, it feels true, and you can’t shake that with a bit of logic and vigor. Not on a bad day.
I will get through the first half of my workday to varying success. Usually I will try to get some writing in, procrastinating on my actual work. I will then resent my work for interrupting my writing while simultaneously shaming myself for falling behind in my work. It is a lose-lose situation, and on a bad day I don’t notice I’m digging that hole until I’m already in it. The shovels often look like ropes when you first pick them up, especially on bad days. Then you just make those holes much deeper, all the while reaching out and grabbing more things that you hope like heck are ropes. On a bad day, they aren’t.
I will reach my lunch hour feeling like I’ve spent a thousand years trapped at my desk. By this point I’m usually on the verge of tears. In my mind, everything I’ve done for the first half of the day is futile, amounting to nothing. Even if I had gotten more writing done, it would probably be bad. Even if I had focused on my work, it would have been a waste of time. I know I’ll have to do it all again tomorrow or the next day or the week after, and that feels like a lead pipe stuck in my throat.
I grab my poorly conceived lunch and go to the car. If I have money, I will usually ignore what I’ve packed and go spend more than I should on fast food. I eat more than is necessary – usually to the point of feeling sick. For a few moments I’ll feel better, salt and sugar have that momentary effect, but then all afternoon I feel swollen and uncomfortable.
On the worst of my days I will listen to sad songs and cry in the car. I look in the mirror and see my skin all blotchy and red, my makeup poorly done, and I think that I am unlovable. Who could look at me and love me? Sometimes I’ll fight this. I’ll narrow my eyes and say, “Fuck that, I’m badass. I’m beautiful. The only reason I doubt that is because the mental illness is talking.” But on a bad day, it doesn’t matter what I say. Surely the tears are proof that the negativity is right. The weight on my shoulders, the tension in my chest, that’s me feeling reality.
Lunch will be over all too soon, and I return to my work. The second half of my day is much shorter, but on a bad day it feels longer. It feels like every minute is drawn out to span a full week, and every task I have to do seems to be working against me. Minor inconveniences feel like the Universe telling me that I suck. I don’t even know how that one makes sense, but it always feels true. Program loading slow? Punishment for my sins. File won’t open? A sign that I am worthless. Sure, right now it sounds ludicrous. But on a bad day, that logic checks out.
After work I head home, crying during the commute, like you do. Songs on the radio will feel like “signs” to me, and they will invariably be negative on bad days. The Universe, through its infinite powers and mysteries, is telling me how terrible my life is going to be via the randomization of Spotify shuffle. You might think putting happier songs on my playlists would mitigate this, and sometimes it does. Sometimes an upbeat song comes on and turns my whole damn day around, but on my worst days it just feels like the Universe is making fun of me.
I get home and usually try to sneak back to my room with minimal conversation with anybody else in the house. Once back in my room, I get into pajamas, flop on the bed, and proceed to mope. If I try to do any activity, my mind will wander. Messages from friends seem hostile, and I begin to resent the fact that they haven’t noticed I feel terrible. It must be because they don’t like me very much, that I’m invisible to them. (Which is perhaps my most implausible negative thought of them all. They don’t notice because you’re on the internet, you lizard, and nobody is psychically connected to your negative thoughts. Nobody has Zom is Depressed Spidey Sense, simmer down, you absolute puffin.)
By this point I’m most assuredly crying. I can do nothing productive, so I sit and listen to music and wallow in my misery. I don’t reach out for help because I’m supposed to be strong, and if anyone knows that I have bad days then all my opinions and positivity will be invalidated. I must be happy and well ALWAYS, or no one will trust me. Negativity for me almost always takes up one of these all or nothing stances. If A is true sometimes then it must be true always, and there is no room for other logic. That’s how it keeps you locked in the spiral, honestly, but on a bad day I just don’t have the energy to pull out of it on my own.
I usually do not eat dinner. I might eat, but it’s something wholly inappropriate, like an entire tube of cookie dough. Now, at this point I want to derail things for a second and say that I’m not trying to shame my fellow cookie dough munchers. There isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with eating a bunch of cookie dough if that’s your jam for the day. The problem lies in the fact that it’s ALL that I ate. I didn’t give myself nutrients, I didn’t consider that protein or fiber might help cheer me up because my body would feel better. If you want to eat a whole tube of cookie dough, you have at it and get down with your bad self, but if that’s ALL your eating then it’s not taking care of your basic biological needs, and that’s a form of self-harm. But if you ate a full, balanced meal and then roll back to your room and you’re like “yeah boy, this cookie dough is my bitch” and you down the whole thing, then who the fuck cares? You ate what you needed and then ate what you wanted, and that’s win-fucking-win in my book.
Now, after my nutritionally deficient dinner of cookie dough, I will usually start feeling a sickening sense of desperation. My thinking has become chaotic, and I’m having loud, invasive thoughts of suicide. When I say that, though, I don’t mean that I’m suicidal, because that’s different. What happens is that I get so despondent that my brain will say that it would be better if a disappeared, that the world would be happier if I didn’t exist, and I will meekly deny it.
“You are nothing and no one loves you. Take every pill in the house.”
No, I don’t want to die.
“Your writing is crap and that’s why nobody reads it. Get in your car and drive it off a bridge.”
No, I really don’t want to die. Also, that would be very expensive.
“Everyone will exclude you sooner or later. Bash your head against the wall until you stop thinking about it.”
No, and also wow, that’s like the worst suggestion yet. You’re not very convincing.
On and on it goes. When I have suicidal thoughts, I know that they’re bad, I know that they’re wrong. I have no intention, nor will, to act on them. I am arguing with them, albeit in a whisper to their full brass band parade. Even when my brain is mapping out plans and suggesting things I can do to prepare, I know full well I’m not going to do one bit of it. Still, these thoughts, this negativity: it’s exhausting. There’s only so much that someone can put up with.
That’s usually when I turn to self-medication. This is what I do in my lowest moments. It’s an old habit, from before I’d been to therapy and before I had proper medication to control things, and boy does it ever die hard. Sometimes this is alcohol, though not as often. Drinking to numb my feelings seems too overtly bad. Even in my lowest states, I recognize that as a bad trap to fall into, and so I avoid it. (Perks of growing up with alcoholic parents, I suppose.)
If I’ve had a night of drinking any time in the past two weeks, I won’t repeat it. It’s like it’s only okay to do the bad thing intermittently, because at least then I’m not “abusing” it. (Spoilers: if you are using any substance to try and numb your feelings out of desperation, you are abusing it. That’s not what those things are for, unless literally prescribed as such by a medical professional, and even then, those can be abused too. You should never seek to numb yourself. It’s a shortcut and doesn’t solve the problem. Always seek to feel things until you figure out why you are feeling them. Trust me, as illustrated in this post, I know that’s hard. Sometimes impossible. But know that numbing yourself is only ever a bandage on a bullet hole.)
My go-to self-medication tends to be sleeping pills or Benadryl. It always starts with one, earlier in the week. Usually my inability to sleep is a harbinger of an oncoming bad day, though I rarely notice. That kind of thing creeps up on you, and there are always a thousand possible reasons for restlessness, so it’s hard to pinpoint it as an omen after just one night.
On the worst days I’ve almost always had at least one night of insomnia within the prior three nights. Because of that, I tell myself that I need to take a higher dose to make the pills work. So, I take more than I’m supposed to. If that doesn’t work, I take more in an hour, just to be sure.
They don’t help. I get numb and I stay sad, I just can’t feel it as sharply. I still cry myself to sleep.
And that’s a bad day.
Sometimes when I get up the next day it magically washes away, and I feel better. Other times I push myself to get to work and I journal until I figure out what tipped the scales. Sometimes I’m still in a bad place, and the bad days string together into a bad week.
I always push through. I grit my teeth and remind myself, over all the other noise that my brain is making, that this will pass. It will pass, and I’ll reach the top of another hill, and I’ll get to breathe in relief for a while. Over time the trenches will get shallower, the lows not quite so deep, or the periods of time you spend in those pits grow shorter. I repeat these things to myself when I’m well because they’re like breadcrumbs to follow when I’m not. I have learned, through the years, how to follow my own light back out of the darkness, and I know that it’s hard, but not impossible.
You can learn to do it to. And that’s encouragement that doesn’t come down from on high, from a shining person standing on the top of a blissful peak. That’s from someone who’s half covered in mud from the hill, who’s got bruises from that time I got lost in the symbolic trees and had to fight a metaphorical bear. It’s coming from someone who stands up and climbs every single day, knowing full well that I’m going to fall again and again.
It’s never not worth the climb.