When I discuss my mental illness with people, they often ask if I’m “better now.” We see mental illness as temporary, while for people like me, with a personality disorder, it’s something that I’ll always carry.
I’ve struggled with my mental health since the age of fifteen, and I’ve come a long way. I’m no longer the scared, alone girl I was. While my mental illness is still a daily battle, it’s one that I’m equipped to tackle. I have the weapons that I need, and so it’s a matter of recognising my enemy.
Through many years, mental breakdowns, and therapy sessions, I’ve come to know the warning signs ahead of time. The red flags that act like a blinking light in your car, telling you to pull over to a garage and desperately point at it. While there is no garage for my mental illness, there are selected habits to help, and the most simple cure of all: rest. It’s about learning to treat mental illness like a physical illness, these signs are the equivalent to a runny nose or fever.
These are the nine signs that my mental health is getting bad again, which urge me to slow down and take stock of the situation.
I’ve always been a morning person. I’m just useless in the evenings, so I know that I’m better off waking up early to get stuff done. I exercise in the morning, I do my hardest tasks in the morning, I just function better. That doesn’t mean I’m a member of the 5 AM club, definitely not. But I try to always get up at a certain time and use my mornings.
I can always tell things aren’t going well when I start getting more lax about that wake-up time. I’ll either delay my alarm by a little bit each day, or become way too comfortable with the snooze button. I lose that drive to get out of bed and tackle things, and I begin seeing my bed as this safe place I don’t want to leave.
I lose my mornings, slowly and steadily, and with it, I lose my last chances of productivity.
I’ve found that the best thing I can do in these moments is to get up, even if I don’t have the willpower to exercise or tick things off my to-do list. I just need to get out of bed, even if it’s just to walk to a coffee shop for some ridiculously priced drink, or to read my book on the sofa.
Like I said, I’m not a night owl, and yet when my depression creeps in, I find myself delaying going to sleep. Often, I’ll get into bed, but I just won’t go to sleep. It’s a strange thing, as I’m definitely tired enough, but I just dread sleeping, or want to punish myself by staying up.
I usually have a firm rule about watching shows in bed, which is that I don’t do it. Trust me, I watch plenty of TV shows; I’m no saint. But I always do it on the sofa. I try to reserve my bed as a place for reading and sleeping.
But when I’m entering the bad place, I find myself opting to watch TV shows in bed rather than read. It feels like less effort. Then I’ll watch another episode, not even because I truly want to, but just because it feels easier in that moment.
Or I’ll scroll aimlessly on my phone for an hour or more, watching TikToks that I can’t remember mere minutes later.
Food has always been a struggle for me. I can’t name a time when I felt comfortable in my body and didn’t see food as both reward and punishment. My eating disorder was always about more than how I looked; it was about what I thought I deserved, and namely, what I didn’t.
So, entering a period of poor mental health for me revolves largely around food and my body. I begin to feel uncomfortable in my body, hiding it under baggy clothes and feeling constantly aware of each roll and crease. I either begin to emotionally eat, and buy lots of snacks and treat foods to try and chase a serotonin boost. Or I begin to avoid food, and yearn to be thin, to express my pain on the outside.
I always think of this like an injured animal, that hides somewhere when sick. It isolates itself from the rest of its herd/pack/i don’t know what you call them. I’m no David Attenborough, but I think this is a form of group mentality, trying to protect them all from its weakness so the herd survives. At least, that’s how it feels for me.
By avoiding messages and requests to meet up, it feels like I’m protecting the people I care about, as if I’m a contagious illness to be inflicted upon them. I don’t want to drag them down to the depths of my despair.
Even now, I’m afraid of scaring the people in my life. I don’t want them to be concerned about me, even if maybe they should be. I also still doubt myself, worry that they won’t believe me, that I still need that damn reason to be depressed.
So I let the unread messages pile up, and I don’t make plans; and just like that, I create the perfect environment for my mental illness to take root.
Depression can easily be mistaken for laziness. But the difference is that it isn’t a desire to sit around and do nothing, it’s a need. It’s not about wanting to do nothing, but rather being forced to, as you don’t have any energy to give.
I once read about the Spoon Theory, where we have a certain amount of spoons of energy, and we only have so much of it in a day. Getting out of bed and taking medication was a spoon each. Showering and cooking for yourself was two spoons a piece. And so on, it demonstrated how finite energy can be when struggling with mental illness or chronic illness.
No matter how much I sleep, I will wake up exhausted. I will carry a weariness that feeds all the way down into my bones. I know that going for a run or meeting up with people is good for me, but I just don’t have it in me.
This constant exhaustion always acts as a red traffic light, urging me to stop and give in to the exhaustion.
I’m a freelancer who works from home, so it’s safe to say that I don’t spend too much time on my appearance each day. I save that effort for when I’m meeting up with friends or have a rare Zoom call.
But when my mental health is worsening, this lack of effort is exacerbated. I struggle to do my skincare routine, which may be lengthy but has become like second nature by now. I don’t bother with my hair and allow it to get greasy. Makeup seems like as much effort as running a marathon. I wear the same clothes just to avoid having to decide what to wear. I’ll gravitate towards large, baggy clothing to hide in.
My outside soon reflects my inside, and it only makes me feel worse.
It feels embarrassing to admit the uglier sides of my depression. But I think it’s important to discuss them and normalise these issues. Films and TV shows have convinced us that mental illness is something glamorous: a beautiful and tragic heroine. But depression can be disgusting, and that’s okay. This is as valid a symptom as any other.
When my mental health is doing poorly, especially when it’s been going on for a while, I find myself avoiding showering. It just feels like too much effort, like energy I literally don’t have to offer. It’s not that I’d choose to be unhygienic; it’s that I cannot imagine undressing and standing under a stream of water for several minutes and scrubbing myself. So I’ll put it off until the next morning, and then until the evening, making it a chore I wait to tackle.
I admit this because I know I’m not the only one, and it’s not our fault. When personal hygiene feels too difficult, it’s a sign that you need some help from others in your life. Don’t be embarrassed by this valid symptom.
I wouldn’t say that I’m a clean freak, but I like to keep my environment tidy. I do my best, and I actually find pleasure in vacuuming or washing dishes. There’s nothing more satisfying than a scrubbed bathroom.
But that all changes when my mental health gets worse. Suddenly, I don’t see the point in cleaning, as things will only get messy again. So I stop bothering with it all. I do the bare minimum, like cleaning up food-related things, and allow my workspace and bedroom to become messier and messier.
It got to a point where my previous housemate offered to help tidy my room with me. I immediately felt embarrassed and said I’d handle it. But she told me that it was okay, this was how she could help me, so I could start with a clean slate again. I don’t think she’ll ever know how much that meant to me, and how even writing about it brings tears to my eyes.
Once again, it comes back to that currency of energy, and not having enough of it to offer. It becomes a vicious cycle, as the messier environment only worsens what’s going on in my mind.
Things that usually wouldn’t phase me too much (I mean, I am a high maintenance anxious girlie), suddenly become the biggest issue ever. I’ll constantly make mountains out of molehills, and then feel unable to trek this Everest of my own doing.
I’ll quickly feel overwhelmed by messages from friends, and feel like it’s too large a task to begin responding to them all. It isn’t that I don’t want to talk to them or don’t appreciate their message; it’s just that the number of unread messages has gotten too big and is now its own task.
Even having three items on my to-do list will suddenly feel like an impossible amount. Before, I’d vacuum, empty the dishwasher and take out the trash before breakfast, and now it’s an unrealistic amount to achieve in a day. Anything added to my mental to-do list, even seeing a friend or making a doctor’s appointment, will cause me such stress.
I’ve found the best thing to do in these moments is to put everything down on a physical to-do list, even seemingly insignificant things. I also plan the order of tasks, making sure to include breaks and realistic goals.
Alternatively, I use the ‘Scary Hour’ method I first saw on TikTok. I dedicate one hour to doing all of the tasks I’ve been putting off. If I don’t finish within that time, I stop anyway.
Or, on a smaller scale, I’ll put on one song and see how much laundry I can handle in that time, or how far I get with cleaning the kitchen. It makes everything feel more manageable to know there’s an endpoint.
I know this list was a lot of red flags and not many solutions, but I think looking to recognise when things aren’t good is half the battle. You need to learn to spot when things are going downhill, so you can take action before it gets much worse. You need to observe when rest and space are needed, or when you need to use the ‘Call a Friend’ option.
For many of us, there is no finite cure for depression. A good dose of SSRIs is helping me, but it’s not a magic fix for my mental illness. So we need to learn to live with this illness, something that was once a very scary thought for me. But the more we get to know ourselves, the easier it becomes to see our warning signs, and to recognise what is needed in those moments. Find your own red flags and react to them with the compassion you deserve.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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