I was listening to NPR or MPR yesterday on my way to taiji, and the topic was mental health. Funnily enough, when I talked about it with my taiji teacher, I called it ‘mental hellness’, which I think is often apt. Anyway, the topic more specifically was how can we talk about mental health and being proactive about it in the same way we now talk about, say, how to prevent a heart attack (the example given by the host). One of the guests was a psychiatrist, and he said there was one thing that was most important above all else. I immediately shouted, “Sleep!” I knew one-hundred percent that was what he was going to say, and I was right. He went on to say that after thirty years of practicing psychiatry, he had three linchpins of good mental health. Sleep was one of them, followed by self-compassion and a deep connection with someone else.
There was also another guest who was the director of a cultural wellness center (I gathered it was a mental health center for minorities, specifically black people), and she said it was important to tell the truth to yourself, especially right before you go to bed. If someone wrongs you, you acknowledge it and ask what you’re going to do about it. If you did something wrong, you acknowledge it, too.
I think all this is important, but I immediately thought of a few questions. With the latter woman, I wondered if this worked for people who continually blame themselves for everything, anyway. Like me. What I actually had to do was learn how to NOT blame myself for things that I didn’t actually do wrong. I will admit there was a side helping of resistance when someone else pointed out I did something wrong because I was already so self-critical, and it miffed me that I had to think of something else that I might be doing wrong. However, I also have to admit that part of the reason I blamed myself for everything was the ‘do it to myself before someone else does it to me’ mentality. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. If I was already being hard on myself, then other people weren’t as apt to come down on me. Then, I didn’t really have to do anything because, hey, I acknowledged I did something wrong! That’s enough, right?
My other question was for both guests. How do you help people get to the point where they can do these things? People are notoriously bad about recognizing their own flaws (and strong points much of the time), and we are not known for our self-reflection. So, yes, it’s good to tell the truth, but what if you don’t know what the truth is? I see many people walking around in denial, and it’s exceedingly difficult to get someone to see something they can’t–or won’t–see. In addition, what if someone is in a position where doing something about the truth is extremely difficult? Say, for example, an abusive relationship. I’ve learned that the time someone tries to leave is the time when an abusive partner is most likely to be deadly. So, it’s not as easy as, “I’m being abused. I must leave.” You have to plan it out very carefully and still recognize that it’s going to be hard. On the other hand, though, maybe just being able to acknowledge the truth of the abusive relationship and have others validate what you’re saying may be empowering in and of itself. I don’t know, and I would not dare profess that I have any kind of expert knowledge.
Let’s talk sleep. Oh, sleep. You magnificent bastard, you. As longtime readers know, I have had a hate-hate relationship with sleep ever since I could remember. When I was a little girl, I would stuff a towel in the crack of the door so I could read well past my bedtime. In college, I got three-and-a-half hours of sleep a night in my first semester. Through my twenties, I slept four to four-and-a-half hours a night. Some of this was by choice, but a lot of it was out of my control. It’s not that I wanted to sleep so little, but that I simply could not sleep. With the help of therapy and taiji, I now sleep about six hours a night. If I’m sick (which I think I still have a lingering something. Or, god, forbid, an incipient something), I sleep more. I don’t know why this is, but it’s as if my body says, “OK, you can sleep now.” It’s the one thing I like about being sick, but it’s not enough to offset the negatives.
I mentioned that I think I’m still sick to some extent because my sleep is all over the map. When I was sick, I could only stay awake roughly fourteen hours before being exhausted. I would end up going to bed anywhere between eight and midnight and getting up between four and eight. I feel as if I’m mostly recovered, but I’m still going to bed mostly before midnight, which is unheard of. It’s actually messing with my head that I’ve become a morning person to some extent. I loved being up at four in the morning with everything quiet and dark. It felt as if I were the only person awake, and it’s also when I was at my most creative.
The reason I bring up sleep is because scientists are proclaiming loudly that sleep is so important. I’m not disagreeing; I know it is because of my lack of sleep. One scientist who is a well-known sleep guy (yes, that’s the scientific term. Sleep guy) was adamant that eight hours a night was critical for good health. Again, I’m not arguing. I know sleep is very important, mostly because of the lack of sleep I’ve gotten in my life. The thing is, it’s not as easy as saying, “Get eight hours of sleep a night.” I know there are a lot of people who feel they can’t get eight hours because they are too busy rather than they literally can’t, and for them, it’s a fairly simple solution (once they get past the block that they can’t allow themselves to get eight hours), but there are also a lot of people who have insomnia problems such as I do. It’s infuriating to be so tired, lie down to sleep, and then stare at the ceiling (metaphorically, as it’s dark and I sleep with an eye mask) for hours.
It’s frustrating to hear that sleep is so important to good mental health because I fucking know that already! I’ve been fighting this issue all my damn life, and I don’t know what else to do about it. Well, OK, I do. I need to do a sleep study, but the problem with that is sleeping in front of people I don’t know. I have a friend who has thoughtfully offered to accompany me to the sleep clinic, but I just can’t do it. The thought of someone watching me as I sleep horrifies me on so many levels, and, yes, I realize it’s something I have to get over.
In the meantime, however, it’s difficult not to get slightly panicky at my lack of sleep healthiness. As with anything else, being told repeatedly that something is good for you doesn’t make it any easier to do that thing. For example, most people know that it’s beneficial to exercise thirty minutes a day. This has been part of our vernacular for quite some time, but I’ll wager a bet that most people don’t do it. I know I don’t, although I do my taiji regiment every morning.
As for self-compassion, it’s a good tip, but it’s so hard to do. I’ve become much nicer to myself over the years, but there’s still an ever-present, lowkey self-negging present in the back of my brain. I hate to proselytize, but it’s taiji and therapy that has gotten me this far. I haven’t been in therapy for a few years, but it gave me a foundation for thinking about things more critically without being overly self-critical. As for taiji, I’m in it for the long game. It’s not something that immediately made me feel better about myself, but nine years later, I can see the many positive benefits it’s given to me.
Speaking briefly about a deep connection, it’s hard to feel that when you’re depressed. I have really good friends whom I love and whom I know love me. This is not just an intellectual, “Oh, they must care about me somewhat because they have stuck around for so long.” I know it in my heart and in my bones. However, when I’m depressed, it’s as if there’s a thick cloudy fog wrapped around my heart (and bones), buffering me from what it’s feeling. That’s when I slip back to the intellectual, “I know my friends love me”, but I don’t feel it the way I do otherwise. So, yes, a deep connection is crucial, but what to do when you don’t feel it?
I don’t have answers, obviously. I think I’ll look up the program and listen to the whole thing because I only heard fifteen or twenty minutes. I’ll also continue doing taiji, obviously, as it’s the single best thing I’ve done for my mental health in the past decade. Other than that, I’ll muddle along best I can–like most people do.