Time and again, online friends have contacted distress lines only to be told to use their distractions. I admit, on first hearing this I thought it was incredibly insensitive. But, through writing on this blog, guest writing for Healthy Minds Canada, and from responses I’ve received through social media, I’ve come to understand that this advice isn’t as insensitive as it first appears.
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. For the most part, these steps are various distractions that I used during my recovery. The thinking was, if they worked once, they will work again.
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 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 to mind how uncommon having such a plan really is and, more importantly, how beneficial the plan is to my mental health.
I’ll comment on Steps 3 and 4 of my plan each of which compel me to try various distractors.
Within Step 3, I initially use passive distractors like watching television or reading (my plan also includes listening to music but that has 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 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 distractors. My case worker and I quickly noticed that the negative bias of depressive episodes caused me to discount what I had 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, my first success 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 helped me with 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.
Other active distractors 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 is no room for the thoughts of doom and gloom I’m escaping from. Additionally, both activities use colour, and colour is known to affect 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 rebalanced me.
Writing is a distractor. 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.
These distractors are simple acts within my control. They give lie to the aura of helplessness that depressive episodes foster. But, they are 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 distractor in Step 4 is to open my Wellness Toolbox. This tool includes documents, photos, business cards, apps on my phone and audiobooks and meditations on my computer. It is 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 will be. The intent is not just to passively view but to try and invoke a deeper response. For example, my Toolbox 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 distractor 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 distractors 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 distractors 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.