Early in my association with the Canadian Mental Health Association, my case worker and I prepared a simple Self-Care Plan. It provides a step-by-step protocol for me to follow BEFORE I reach the point where I contact a crisis line. These steps are various distractions that I use during my recovery.
I mention this plan primarily because it’s less common than I thought it was. Mine was created so early in my recovery that I assumed it was a normal part of the process. Sadly, I’ve come to learn that this isn’t the case. I believe that if everyone had such a plan, they’d be better able to manage their distress because they’d regain an element of control. That’s what my step-by-step protocol does – it gives me control where I might not see it, in a time of distress.
Speaking only of myself, I know that it’s because I have this plan in place that I turn first to distractions and then to a crisis line. Further, in case I give up too easily, or find a distraction isn’t working, I have a multiplicity of them to call upon.
While I’ve previously blogged about my self-care plan, recent events have caused me to revisit it. The first of these events was the unexpected return of suicidal ideations. The second event was the struggle being experienced by various friends, both on and off-line. The third event was my mum’s sudden illness.
Each event brought an increased level of stress that saw me turn to my plan to manage. This brought to mind how uncommon having such a plan really is and, more importantly, how beneficial the plan is to my mental health.
In this post, I’ll retrict my comment to Steps 3 and 4 of my plan each of which compel me to try various distractions.
Within Step 3, I initially use passive distractions like watching television or reading (my plan also includes listening to music but that’s proved to be unexpectedly difficult). Of the two or three, reading is the harder because it requires a higher level of concentration than simply viewing or listening. But whether it’s mindless viewing or more involved reading, each can distract me from my racing or darker thoughts, even if only for a short while. That small pause might be all I need to break the cycle of distress.
There are also active distractions. My case worker and I quickly noticed that the negative bias of depressive episodes caused me to ignore what I’d accomplished during my recovery. To counter this, we added a step to my plan that had me review my list of successes. By review I don’t mean merely look. I mean remembering the state I was in at the time, the effort it took to accomplish that success and the effect that success had on my overall well-being.
For example, one of my first successes was calling the CMHA. This was two days after my attempt. The initial number I had proved to be wrong. But I went online, found the correct number and called. Once connected, I begged for help. CMHA has helped me find one-on-one counselling, group counselling, an initial psychiatric assessment, applying for public assistance and finding my own apartment. I continue to have a strong relationship with the CMHA to this day. All because I didn’t give up when I had a wrong telephone number. That phone call is listed in my list of successes.
Other active distractions are colouring and painting. I was reintroduced to colouring during a group session and found great pleasure in the memories of childhood it raised. I found that I was concentrating so much on the colouring that time became inconsequential. During the group session the room was silent, yet I could feel warmth as each member of the group smiled and coloured away. Much later, I was introduced to painting. It had the same effect as colouring in helping me lose myself in the art. I spend so much time concentrating on what I’m doing that there’s no room for the thoughts of doom and gloom I’m escaping from. Additionally, both activities use colour, and colour is known to effect mood. I often wonder what colours would be present if I coloured something early in my recovery compared to the colours I use today.
It was when I stopped painting that I took heed of the recent dip in my mental health that I was experiencing. When the painting stopped I took action, seeing my psychiatrist and having my medications adjusted. These adjustments have begun to rebalance me.
Writing is a distraction. When I write, I tend to get into a zone where the words flow seemingly without effort. My attention is focused solely on the task of writing. So much so that I lose myself in the act, becoming oblivious to everything around me. In this environment, the dark thoughts simply cease to be, even if only for a time. Again, it may be enough time to break the cycle of distress.
These distractions are simple acts within my control. They give lie to the aura of helplessness that depressive episodes foster. But, the’re not always enough. There are times when the dark thoughts just won’t be silenced. In those times, I turn to Step 4 of my plan.
The first distraction in Step 4 is to open my CALMtainer(s). This tool is both physical and virtual. Together it includes documents, photos, business cards, apps on my phone and audiobooks and meditations. It’s designed to engage all of the senses in an effort to distract. Studies have shown that the more senses you engage in distracting, the more successful you’ll be. The intent is not just to passively view but to try and invoke a deeper response. For example, my CALMtainer has a photo of my grandfather. I not only remember the vacation during which the photo was taken, but remember so much more about times with my granda. I remember his laugh, the scent of his aftershave and moments we spent together. This act of deep remembrance shuts out the chatter of the dark thoughts.
Another distraction is the notes I have from my day program at Lakeridge Health. Again, it isn’t just the notes, but the memories they invoke that are so important. I remember moments of sadness and moments of laughter. I remember seeing people grow as they progressed through the program. I remember seeing people heal themselves. All this, and more, is recaptured when I review my notes from these daily sessions.
There are other distractions that I employ. Mindful walking, research, my morning coffee ritual, mindful meditation and more. Each, in its own way, allows me a respite from the noise of The Black. Each, in its own way, gives me a path out of darkness. Each played a role in my recovery and each plays a role when I have a mis-step.
My distractions aren’t overly complicated. They’re all manageable. They all work and they follow a step-by-step plan. They help me know when I’m truly in a crisis, when I’ve reached a point when I’m no longer able to help myself. And I know, because it’s in my plan, that I’ll then reach out to a crisis line.
I encourage you to develop your own plan. It might make all the difference.