“Living with mental illness is like working over an open toilet bowl; self-care is like closing the lid, so your duties don’t fall in. Plus, it helps you cope when your hand hits the poop water.” – Critter, on self-care for depression and anxiety.
I just dropped a spoon into the toilet.
“Mother fucker!” I hiss.
A fat droplet of water leaps straight up. It hangs above the ivory rim, then swan-dives back to the surface, where it crashes with a “Splip!” and explodes into a firework of pale fecal mist.
I’m pretty sure it has aerosoled my jeans. I might as well have kneeled in the bowl. My throat clenches with disgust.
The fallen spoon slides down the toilet wall and settles at the bottom. Soggy chunks of bloated cereal swirl above it.
“GodDAMN it!” I shout. I set down my daughter’s rejected breakfast bowl and reach up to rub my forehead.
But my hand freezes mid-reach. Suddenly, I am hyper-aware of the sensations on my hands, arms and face. It’s probably just tiny beads of sweat and oil, and air currents disturbing little hairs on my skin. But it feels like a full-body mask of coliform microbes.
I don’t want to smear MORE invisible shit onto my face
I stare at my contaminated palm.
I reach toward the sink, desperate to wash the creepiness off, but then I freeze again.
Wait, I think. I shouldn’t wash yet. I should grab the spoon first. If I wash now, I’ll have to wash again after I grab the spoon. Three times, at least. And then my hands will get so dry…
Then my cuticles will crack! And that’s where necrotizing fasciitis gets in. Nothing good can come from this.
I know I need to rescue that bloody spoon and get on with my fucking day, but I can’t make myself do it. My hand hovers over the bowl where my family backs the big brown motorhome out of the garage on a daily basis.
This is ridiculous, a nasty voice hisses in my head. YOU are ridiculous! No wonder you can’t meet your deadlines and keep your kids in clean clothes. You’re absurd. Neurotic. Useless.
Tears slide down the valleys on either side of my nose, and a droplet of snot dangles at the tip. My face screams with irritation, but I don’t dare wipe it. Not with these poop water hands.
I lose time.
“Laurie… Hey! Laurie!”
A high-pitched voice hacks into the panic that has solidified around me.
There is movement near my feet. At the bottom edge of my vision, I catch a furry shape climbing onto the counter. It’s Critter, my imaginary raccoon. She’s come to save me.
I want to focus my eyes and look at her, but I can’t. My brain ping-pongs between a multitude of intentions—wash my hands—retrieve the spoon—call out to my friend—scream!
I can’t choose one. Can’t do any.
Another tear falls. So does the nose drop.
“Oh, Honey,” Critter whispers. “You’ve seized up like an open tube of toothpaste, haven’t you?”
Her voice is warm in my ears. My paralysis melts.
I take a huge, whooping inhale. My lungs feel like a sticky, shrivelled balloon. I exhale and breathe again. My chest and throat expand and burn with the stretch.
“It’s alright,” Critter whispers. “I’m right here.”
Finally, I can move. I turn my neck a few degrees and look into her furry face. She smiles.
“There you are!” she says.
I sniffle loudly and open my mouth.
“Yes?” she prompts.
I take another breath.
“I dropped my spoon,” I say.
Critter raises an eyebrow. I gesture with my head toward the toilet. She cranes her neck to look. Then she looks back at me with a chuckle.
“That’s it?” she asks.
I cross my arms and huff.
“Oh, fuck off,” I grumble. “I know it’s stupid.”
Critter looks at the spoon again and frowns.
“I get it,” she says.
“Huh?” I grunt.
“I said, ‘I get it’,” she repeats. “Sometimes, it’s really hard to pick up your spoon.”
“This isn’t about the spoon,” I say. “It’s the filthy-disgusting toilet water! And the horror of watching a supervillain bacteria eat me alive!”
“It is, and it isn’t,” she says. Then she smiles at me with an all-knowing expression that makes me want to shake her.
I clench my jaw and speak through my teeth.
“Can you PLEASE just tell me what the fuck you’re talking about, rodent? I’m not in the mood for riddles,” I say.
Critter looks at me and frowns again. Then she takes a big breath of her own.
“I don’t know if I can make you understand this,” she says. “You’re cranky, and your ears are closed.”
I scowl at her, but my cheeks are red. She’s not wrong.
Critter’s gaze doesn’t waver.
“But I love you, so I’ll try to get this across. It might help you get unstuck.
“First of all, you need to recognise that a spoon isn’t just a spoon. It’s a metaphor for the physical and emotional energy you need to take care of your responsibilities: your relationships, your work, and yourself. Spoon theory is a reminder that your energy is finite.”
“Oh, I KNOW my energy is finite, Critter!” I say. “I’m so fucking exhausted, I wish I could give up. All the things I have to do in the next week, month, year… I have no idea how I’ll accomplish them, or how many I’ll let fall. I just want to curl up on my bedroom floor and lock the door. How is this supposed to help me? This spoon talk is stressing me out!”
Critter rolls her eyes.
“People with chronic illness have embraced ‘Spoon Theory’ as a way to help their healthy friends understand why they have to decline invitations sometimes to come out, join in, or contribute. It’s not a rejection; it’s a concrete limit.
“But YOU,” Critter says, tapping a tiny finger on my sternum, “need to digest spoon theory to understand what is happening to you right now. You can’t even do a simple, albeit disgusting task, because your last spoon has literally fallen into the toilet. You’re out of spoons.”
My eyes widen as the realisation settles over. Critter’s right. I’m up the creek without a spoon.
It’s been a very long couple of months. While I’ve been flailing at my writing deadlines and struggling to ride my winter funk, my family has been passing around a nasty chest cold like a pestilential hot potato.
Now, colds are not earth-shattering; I know this. I’m ashamed to admit that these simple problems have overcome me. It’s all small stuff— wiping my kids’ leaky noses, scraping their crusty eyeballs, begging them and my husband to drink more fluids and use the motherfucking saline nose spray…
And clinging to the dim, desperate hope that my miserable invalids will get some relief, and I won’t have to keep getting up every SINGLE hour to rub their backs, or bring them warm drinks, or steam up the bathroom to settle their coughs and help them take a few breaths in peace.
These demands are small, but they’ve added up to something greater than the sum of their annoying parts.
And that’s not even counting the trips to the clinic, pharmacy, and emergency room…
I’m beyond burnt out. I’m cremated.
My eyebrows tent as I consider Critter’s message.
“I don’t understand,” I say. “How am I supposed to find time and energy for self-care when I’m drowning in urgencies? This feels like a no-win.”
Critter takes my hand.
“You’re trapped in a cycle of overwhelm and exhaustion,” she says. “The longer you stay here, the weaker you’ll get. Eventually, you won’t be able to handle those urgent responsibilities, or ANYTHING ELSE. If you want to come back to life, you HAVE to get more spoons.”
I look into Critter’s eyes; she’s begging me, just like I begged my family to do the things they needed to get better. Because we were all suffering.
I notice the knot of worry in her brow and realise she must be suffering, too.
Then I think back to the number of times this spring that I have lost my shit and yelled at my kids, ranted at my husband, and told them I couldn’t spend time with them because I needed every last breath to chase fruitlessly after my deadlines or the forgotten concept of sleep. It’s too many to count.
My heart aches.
“Talk about letting the shit flow downhill,” I mutter to myself.
“Ha!” Critter laughs. “And you thought a little splash of toilet water was the problem.”
I roll my eyes. Then I sigh.
“You’re obnoxious,” I say, “But you’re right. Everything rides on my ability to take care of myself. I HAVE to find a way to make this work. I just don’t know how.”
“There’s always a way, remember?” she says, winking. “You say that to your daughters all the time; now it’s time to prove it.
“And remember your friend, Sue? She got this same message in a situation that was immeasurably more dire. Remember how she found a way to save her own mind?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Sue has a clear eye and monster-sized cojones. I’ve always admired how she sees the heart of the matter and finds the strength to do what needs doing.”
Critter tilts her head.
“I’ve never noticed her testicles,” she says. “But I’m sure they’re very nice.”
I almost slap my forehead.
“Not literal cojones, you numbskull,” I say. “She’s a woman.”
“Then she’s got señora cojones,” Critter smirks.
“Whatever, wiseass!” I say. “I’m inspired, but still confused. I’m not half as smart or strong as Sue. I’m waving the white flag at these motherfucking colds! What miracle is going to get me out of this rut?”
Critter narrows her eyes.
“We’ll just have to work with your teeny brain and tiny ovaries,” she says. “We’re going to start small.”
“Try this,” she says:
- Recognise that you are not in control of the outside world. You only control you.
- Remind yourself that There is Always a Way to make things better.
- Get support to lighten your load (like babysitting, house cleaning, help at work, friends who listen, counselling, or medication).
- Do the smallest things you can to scoop up some joy.
- Listen to music, audiobooks, or meditations while you rest or do chores.
- Go outside for however long you can manage.
- Use the great-smelling stuff in your shower, drinks, and cooking.
- Curl up with your family, pets, or favourite books.
- Get your body moving in any way you can.
- Address the bullshit voice that says you don’t deserve to get better.
- Consider the consequences if you keep waiting for the outside world to get better before you take care of yourself.
- Pick one thing that feels right and try it.
- If your energy rises, try something a little bigger.
- If your energy falls, try something a little smaller.
- Pick small tasks with big rewards and build momentum.
- Allow yourself to feel a little uncomfortable, and listen when your body says, “Stop”.
- Give yourself credit for your effort. It matters. It’s EVERYTHING.
When Critter finishes, my frown softens.
“That list makes me feel a little better,” I admit. “I forgot how much I love peppermint oil in the shower and listening to meditations on YouTube while I fall asleep.”
“That’s the way!” she says. “Start with little things that feel good, and go from there. You will really notice a difference when you start exercising again. Keep working toward that.”
Critter tilts her head again.
“You look different,” she says. “Lighter, like a shadow has passed.”
I smile. I feel different, too. Like I’ve shed a too-tight skin. It’s easier to breathe.
“Keep thinking about that aromatic shower,” Critter winks. “You’re going to need one after you retrieve that filthy toilet spoon.”
I grab my furry little wise guy and pretend to stuff her into the bowl. Her eyes bulge, and she clings to my arm. I laugh, give her a hug, and set her down on the floor.
Then I stare at the sunken spoon. The waterlogged corn flakes have drifted to the edges, leaving a clear path for my nauseating act of determination.
I slip off my watch, suck in a breath, and take the plunge.
Before I know it, it’s over. Cool water drips off my arm with fat, crystalline notes. My fist grips the lost utensil.
“You gonna throw it in the dishwasher?” Critter asks.
I reach beside the toilet with my foot and press the pedal to open the garbage can. The spoon clangs as I drop it in.
“Nope!” I answer. “Gonna get some new spoons.”
Here’s what this little adventure taught me:
As a person with mental health issues, I can’t let myself get too depleted. Even though I have friends who aren’t active, get minimal sleep, or go long stretches without breaks from their work or kids, that’s not me. I need to remember that coping is taxing, and stay on top of my spoon budget.
To function with ADHD, depression, and anxiety, I NEED to take care of my body. That is how I get more “spoons” to handle the work I need to do. This can be empowering knowledge; I can build up my resilience, even if I can’t cure my unstable constitution. When things are going badly, I know I need to come back to self-care.
When my energy falls in the toilet, I need to take action. I can’t wait for a period of craziness with my family or work to let up before I do something that nourishes me. There are no rules about shitty times; a cold can last two months, and a butterfingers moment can devour a whole day. It’s up to me to learn little ways to catch my breath and ask for help to make things doable.
It’s okay to start small. If I stop telling myself that only a marathon will do, and just allow myself to take a five-minute walk to grab a tea, I’ll feel better. And then I can decide whether I want to get back into running or just start a new, pleasant snack routine.
“Living with mental illness is like working over an open toilet bowl,” she says. “Self-care is like closing the lid, so your duties don’t fall in. Plus, it helps you cope when your hand hits the poop water.”
“Haha! Doodies,” I snicker.
Critter chuckles and trots away.
How do YOU keep your spoons out of the bowl? Connect with Critter and me on Facebook or Twitter, and let us know. We’d love to chat and share your solutions.