Enjoy the privilege of good mental health while it lasts
I realized I’m doing quite well mentally. What should I do with this extra capacity?
“How’s the therapy going?” my friend asked while walking me to the tram stop after we’d been to see the Barbie movie and gone for a coffee. “It’s going well, although we’re on summer break now, which is kind of a relief, because I do get quite nervous about going there, ” I responded.
“But have you found it useful?” She was probably reflecting back on my several weeks long decision-making process (committing to weekly group therapy sessions for 12 months hadn’t been an obvious choice for me).
“Uhmm, I mean it’s hard to say how useful it’s been. But one thing I know: I’m doing a lot better than most of the people in our group. Like, I have the least mental health issues. Not that you can compare these things.”
My friend burst into surprised laughter, “Isn’t that a good thing?”
“It is! It’s amazing. 95 % of the time I’m doing great, and then there’s the 5 % when I’m completely panicking — like when I went on a date last week. I was like ‘I’m never going on a date again. I can’t do this. I don’t need a relationship.’ You know how I can get. But I think I’ll just to need to learn how to live with those things.” My friend nodded consolingly.
It’s been weird to realize that I’m actually doing quite well mental-health wise, that I’ve gone from 30 % bad to 5 % bad. Because over the years of suffering from an anxiety disorder, I grew accustomed to never feeling at ease.
I never grew accustomed to my panic reaction (it’s still as scary as ever), but I grew accustomed to being afraid of the most mundane things: going to the grocery store, sitting in a lecture hall, hanging out with friends, attending a meeting at work. I grew accustomed to doing extensive mental arithmetics on potential escape routes and pre-scripting explanations for leaving a situation if I started to feel too overwhelmed. Most of all, I got used to missing things, skipping them due anxiety.
Today, many of the things I used to fear feel as mundane as they are. I go grocery shopping, I hang out with friends, I attend a meeting at work. And I do them without having a panic attack.
It’s not that my panic reactions have disappeared completely. Dates — or any situations that I frame as romantic or intimate — still get me, big time. So do formal situations in which I’m in a quiet room with other people and any situations in which I feel like it would be against the etiquette to leave abruptly or move my body as I please. (These triggers may sound random and odd, but they’re the ones that can provoke a panic reaction in me).
“Life feels almost too easy without mental health issues. Like you just effin’ do things.”
But more often than not, I catch myself thinking “Wait, I haven’t thought about my body for an hour” or telling myself “We’re doing good, no need to freak out.” (Being overly aware of my bodily reactions, interpreting them negatively, and then spiraling into panic has been the main manifestation of my main mental health issues — although I’m conflicted about calling them “mental” since they’re so body-focused.) Sometimes, when I notice my sense of ease, I get a glimmer of panic (why am I not panicking?), but it tends to dissipate quite quickly.
So. . . Life feels kinda easy now. Life feels almost too easy without mental health issues. Like you just effin’ do things.
I’ve come to see good mental health as a privilege. It’s a privilege like being white, able-bodied, and economically secure (yes, I just listed some of my own privileges).
“I’ve begun to wonder what people with no or little mental health issues do with all that extra capacity. Master chess? Go on MasterChef? Crochet tops? Brew beer from fresh hops?”
I’ve begun to wonder what people with no or little mental health issues do with all that extra capacity. Master chess? Go on MasterChef? Crochet tops? Brew beer from fresh hops? Plan a trip to Mars (although I do think Elon Musk could use a little psychoanalysis)?
And since I now belong to the camp of the mentally well (about 95 % of the time), I’ve had to ask myself the same question: What’s next?
Then, one day, I caught myself wishing for something hard. It’s not that I wished for bad luck or ill health or financial troubles. No, no, not at all. I wished for something that could help me evolve as a person. A quest of some sort. Like gimme a goddamn challenge, universe.
“The privilege of mental health should be used for doing hard things. Hard things you’ve intentionally selected now that you’ve dealt with the blues, the mean reds, or the crippling greens passed on to you by your mother or your father.”
And there I had it, I’d answered my question on using that extra capacity: The privilege of mental health should be used for doing hard things. Hard things you’ve intentionally selected now that you’ve dealt with the blues, the mean reds, or the crippling greens passed on to you by your mother or your father.
A hard thing could be making time to visit your grandmother every other week. It could be learning how to knit socks. Or it could be taking a course on statistics.
So I knew I wanted to take on something hard, but for a while, I didn’t know what that hard thing would be for me.
“What brave thing would you like to do next?” I asked my friend over coffee (or mint tea in my case) after seeing the Barbie movie. First she couldn’t think of anything; she claimed not to have any brave plans. But when I refused to believe her, she went on to talk about wanting to study art history to understand more about the over 200 paintings her family had inherited from her grandma and to learn how to take better photos with a DSLR camera.
When she was finished, she asked me the same question. “I want to get my ears pierced,” I replied with a smirk, referring to my desire to get a second pair of earrings, “and then. . . Do you remember the person I was dating earlier this year? Well, it ended, and now I’ve been flooded with ideas for a story. Like I’ll be riding my bike, but have to pull off to the side to write down memories. But the thing is, my scribbles don’t feel like poems, they feel like something longer. I think I want to try write a short story — or a couple.”
I’ve never written a short story. In fact, I’ve never written fiction of any sort (if the stories written in elementary school don’t count). And while I have the craziest dreams, I suck at imagining things while awake. But I could see myself doing some kind of autofictional patchwork. Then again, me? Writing a short story? No way.
While I was sharing all of this to my friend, she started smiling, “Do you remember how you felt before starting a blog? You were freaking out. And then I told you to just try it out, even if only for yourself.” I could barely remember, but yes, at the time, blogging had been my hard thing. It wasn’t anymore — it was challenging, but safe and familiar.
So I guess the universe had heard my wish. Because I felt scared again.
I wrote the above text when I was still happily unemployed (are you even allowed to say so?) and had complete autonomy over my schedule. For almost six months, I filled my days with writing, dancing, going to social dance parties, bouldering, running, reading, seeing friends, meditating, spending time outdoors, going on day trips, visiting museums, and, of course, looking for a job. (I funded all of these with my savings and an unemployment allowance that can be fairly generous in Finland if you’ve joined an unemployment fund when first entering the workforce.)
I hadn’t been as happy and mentally healthy as I was during that period since. . . I don’t know when.
But as of today, I have two days left before starting a new job. I hadn’t stressed out about it until last night. I struggled to fall asleep, because I was worrying about needing to spend 40–45 hours a week on working and commuting again.
How will I have time for all my hobbies? I’ll probably need to give something up, won’t I? How will I fit in some writing time in the mornings when I have to leave home around 7:30 a.m.? How will my back handle so many hours of sitting (I get lower back pain if I sit more than 5 hours a day)? Will I at least be able to sneak in a short run during lunch break on remote days? What about my eyes? They’ll be ruined from staring at screens all day. And when will I have time for the friends I don’t meet at dance class or the bouldering gym? Because exercise is something I won’t be giving up anytime soon — it has way too many benefits for my physical and mental health. . .
These were the thoughts and questions racing through my mind at night. So when I opened this text in the morning, I felt like a hypocrite.
Who wouldn’t be happy and healthy when they have complete autonomy over their schedule and are able to build a life they enjoy? You’re a privileged idiot, Riikka.
All of this made me think of an old Finnish saying: “Don’t lick before it drops.” (Älä nuolaise ennen kuin tipahtaa.) The meaning is similar to “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”
Was I getting ahead of myself by claiming to feel well? Maybe. But then again, I did feel really good for a few months.
When I think of the saying, I often think of ice cream melting in the summer sun. But it doesn’t make any sense with ice cream. Wouldn’t you want to do the exact opposite? You would want to lick before it drops.
That’s exactly what I did during my six months of unemployment. I made sure no single drop of ice cream hit the pavement. And if I’m ever given another cone, I’ll do it all over again.