I will freely admit that I’m a bit of an organization nut. It’s a trait that has served me very well in terms of maintaining functioning while bogged down in an episode of depression. I’ve been doing this depression thing long enough that I know what my deficits tend to be when I’m unwell, and I draw on that knack for organization to create a sort of safety net for myself.
Mental illness can wreak havoc on memory. When I’m ill, my brain feels like a strange hybrid of Swiss cheese and mashed potatoes. Since I am aware of this, I can try to plan ahead for it. I do this by setting up an organizational system that can compensate for some of my deficits. When it comes to important things, my backup plan needs its own backup plan, since I know that I might not always remember to put things in my calendar, for instance. This has come to the rescue a few times, including saving me from being a no-show for visits I’d booked with my patients for my home care nursing job.
I rely heavily on my Google calendar. Everything goes in there as soon as it’s arranged (unless I’m really scattered and forget this crucial part of my system). I use colour-coding to separate work and personal, and have recurring reminders set up for things like bill payments. I’m also a great lover of lists, and use Google Keep along with Apple Notes. I’ve got checklists breaking more complex tasks into individual components for those days when I’m feeling too overwhelmed to know how to do anything. The goal is to rely as little as possible on my brain to remember things. Working on getting/staying well is hard enough, and any brainpower I can free up is a good thing.
When depression muddles my thinking, making simple decisions can seem overwhelming and impossible. If I haven’t decided ahead of time what kind of yogurt I’m going to buy, I might stand in front of the yogurt section at the grocery store for 10 minutes with a blank stare on my face and absolutely no idea how to make a decision about what to buy. It’s not a matter of anxiety over what the right decision is, but more like that part of the brain that knows how to make decisions has decided to close up shop and take a siesta. There has been many a time that I have simply left a store empty-handed, because the default decision is do/buy nothing. I’ve learned that when I’m feeling like this, I need to decide exactly what I’m going to get ahead of time, when I’m not faced with an array of options. It feels a bit silly to be so rigid, but it’s a lot less silly than staring stupidly at a sea of yogurt containers.
Mental illness can warp how we see the present in relation to both past and future. It can be very hard to see a pattern in our symptoms and what might be triggering them. Technology can be a powerful tool to gain insight into what is happening both inside and outside the mind and body. I use apps to track almost everything I do: sleep, mood, diet, activity, menstrual cycle, medication changes, alcohol, stressful events, work, etc, etc. Again, it feels kind of silly to be this rigid, but it helps me understand how I’m doing, and makes it a lot easier to answer questions that my health care providers might ask. When my depression leaves me feeling totally powerless, tracking things on my apps can help me feel a little bit more in control.
Having a routine is very important to me, especially when I’m not well. It gives me a sense of peace, and makes it easier to turn down the volume on my thoughts. Most important is my morning routine. I drink tea, tea, and more tea, read the discussion forums on a mental health app I use, meditate, and do crossword puzzles. Even my pet guinea pigs support me in sticking to the ritual – they know that their veggies come at the same time as mama’s first and second cups of tea, and if I happen to forget, they will give me loud squeaky reminders.
We all have our little tricks to help us cope with the day to day experience of mental illness. These are some things that have worked for me, but it’s always great to learn new strategies from other people who are dealing with the same sorts of issues. Together we can be stronger, and our bags of tricks can help us make it through.