“What is wrong with you?” I hear in my head, that vinegary voice needling into my brain, like words slithering out between the yellow teeth of an aging school teacher from elementary. She leans down with a face wrinkled up like a prune. “You can’t even get out of bed and go to work,” she says with foul breath, crooked finger shaking in my face. “You don’t deserve to be happy.”
This self-deprecation is not an uncommon experience for those struggling with mental illness, as we tend to be really hard on ourselves for not getting better. Maybe it all started with a sour school teacher who made you stay inside during recess to work on your botched math homework.
There you are, sitting alone in a classroom illuminated only by a few bright beams of sunlight filtering in through the windows. The distant laughter of your friends playing on the swing-set lingers in the background, and you feel like you’re the only kid on the entire planet who doesn’t get math.
The teacher doesn’t know you stayed up the night before trying to work through those math problems, but the vexing numbers just didn’t make sense to you. Now you’re hunched over your desk, pencil scraping frantically against the paper as the acidic words of the teacher bore holes into your brain.
“You don’t deserve recess,” continues that mindless mantra years later, except this time I’m trying to work through vexing depression problems while adulting. Similar to all that math homework, it just doesn’t make much sense to me.
I heard about compassion fatigue when I started working in the mental health industry. Practitioners are aware that if you don’t take time to take care of yourself while you’re working to take care of someone else, you’ll quickly burn out.
Therapists and psychiatrists don’t wait until their patients are completely better before taking care of themselves. But if we know that taking care of someone else can lead to compassion fatigue, why is it so difficult to take this perfectly sensible precaution when trying to take care of ourselves?
All those visits to the therapist’s office, sitting in those eerily quiet rooms while sharing traumatic experiences, trying to dig to the root of all this depression and anxiety before it chokes out the sunlight completely.
All those medications I’ve tossed into my mouth, pills tumbling down my esophagus as I hope for a miracle to dissolve in my stomach and give me some sort of tactical advantage over the battle in my head while dealing with the side-effects. Recovery can be hard work, and you need time to heal.
If you were to show up to work with a broken rib sticking out of your chest, limping around the office and bleeding all over the TPS reports, your boss and co-workers would (hopefully) tell you to go to the hospital, then get some rest and take care of yourself while you heal.
But of course, no one can see the broken bones and bleeding going on in your head. No one reacts to the macabre scene that makes you feel dead inside. It’s invisible to everyone but yourself.
Part of my own recovery has been giving myself permission to take a recess break (and tell that bitter teacher to bite me). I work not to punish myself for all my failures in attempting to work through my depression and anxiety, but to just put the pencil down and leave that lonely classroom.
I work to carve out time for recess, even as an adult. Especially as an adult.