This tweet came across my feed yesterday, and I barked a rueful chuckle. It rather epitomizes what I call “the threshold”. It’s a movable barrier, a transient limit that a lot of people will recognise. Parents know it, especially parents of new babes and toddlers (I’m going to go ahead and say moms here, especially breastfeeding moms, because that happens to be my especial purview) . My husband, who works in IT and interfaces regularly with users who don’t know much about the technology they use daily, knows it…and I know many, MANY other people in the workforce know it. Scads of drivers on our congested roads know it. And so on. It’s that point where you’re just bebopping along just as fine as can be and then that one thing comes along, or that one thing happens and then suddenly your patience tank is empty and you’re red-lining it wondering how you got to the point where steam is coming out of your ears and you are chewing off your own tongue, trying to press your left eyeball back into it’s socket.
But the threshold of mentally ill folks is different. It’s a weird sort of thing, as the tweeter above says. Because sometimes, a lot of times, there seems to be no outside influence that suddenly and inexplicably sends us over that threshold. And the threshold MOVES. It wiggles. It’s subtle and slimy and it takes a lot of work to figure out exactly *what* the threshold precisely is. There are multiple thresholds. There is the anxiety threshold. The depression threshold. The trauma threshold. The eating disorder threshold. The anger threshold. Oh, just pick one and we have a threshold for it. In psychiatric terms a lot of them can be covered under “anxiety disorders” or “depression” or “mania” or “this is related to your borderline personality disorder” but we know it’s a much finer distinction, and our therapists help us understand that. Psychiatry gives us our diagnosis and our medication to help us manage that diagnosis, but our therapists…those saintly beings that sit with us for hours and hours year after year peeling back layer after layer of THINGS that brought us to these messed-up snarls of human balls of knotted yarn, they help us fine-tune the points of our illnesses so we can fix them. It’s not a perfect fix, mind you. The mentally ill are never going to be “normal”. We will never return to that state of being we were before the trauma. We will never have a brain chemistry that a person without bipolar disorder has. We will never *not* have an anxiety disorder. But with serious, constant, diligent self-work, we can mitigate those things inside our minds that have somehow derailed the thought process enough to create constant pitfalls for our well-being. And by extension, the well-being of those around us.
The threshold is the most common pitfall of life as a mentally ill person. Because even with regular self-work, it’s still there. Lurking. It will always be there, waiting, like Shepherd Book’s hair.
On any given day, circumstances could arise where you could be faced with having to deal with stresses that put your skills to the test. Influences can force you into using your tools to avoid falling into a string of panic attacks (or coping with a series of panic attacks): life is hard, after all, and shit happens. You can’t avoid the onerous details of adulting, and there are shit people out there who do shit things sometimes. Sometimes we see accidents on the road. For the sake of all that’s holy, you have to pick up the phone and make phone calls to wrestle with mistakes in billing. *You have to go to the dentist*. And then there is the DMV. Right? People with anxiety disorders and trauma have a very hard time dealing with stuff like this. For example, when I have to make phone calls, I have a very specific ritual I do to prepare me so my anxiety is lessened: I make a pot of tea (usually one of my two favourites, Earl Grey or Constant Comment) in my blue and white pot, set it on my coffee table on a pretty blue cloth, use my favourite cup at the time, with cream and agave in appropriate blue servers, with the attendant appropriate papers all ready to go; I have paper that is pleasing to touch for notes, and special pens in blue or black ink that I find extremely pleasing to write with to use. These details calm my senses. I make sure my self-care arsenal is right next to me also. This is something I learned to make in outpatient therapy, and this sucker travels with me everywhere I go. It’s a little bag filled with small items that target each of the senses (my worry stone, essential oil, small tin of mints, a Ganesha to look at and focus on, a snappy band I like the sound of, etc); sometimes I add or take things away…but having it to hand gives me something to distract me if I feel a bit twitchy. But sometimes, even after a day of facing all the crap with flying colours, there will be something that comes along and WHAM, it’s like your dog just DIED instead of pooped on the floor. Tears come welling up out of a hollow pit in your chest and you spend an hour clutching your depression bear and use half a box of tissues while you sob in the corner of your bed because YOU JUST HAVE NOTHING LEFT.
The threshold has been crossed. You didn’t even know it was approaching, that it was close, but suddenly it was behind you. Last week you handled a day full of the same rough spots and when the toddler broke your favourite coffee mug it was chill, but today it was dog poop that made you a wreck. But then the next week you couldn’t even make it through a tv show without sobbing at a toilet paper commercial because the cable company double billed you for the box rental AGAIN and the slimy neighbor cat-called you right in front of your husband. That threshold is going to be all over the map.
But let me tell you, sobbing in the corner of your bed clutching your depression bear is a much better alternative than self harm. Or deciding you failed and deserve to punish yourself by not eating dinner. Sob until you’re done, and then take a bath. Put in some epsom salts to ease muscles tensed while you cried. Light a candle and softly gaze into it while you soak. Acknowledging that the threshold is just going to be there, and that it’s ok you lost your biscuit over the broken mug as long as you hugged your baby and didn’t lash out physically is a win. Sit down and colour with that kid; children are resilient and after long years of living with a mom who did things just like that my kids all grown up say that me doing things just like that was the best thing I ever did while I wrestled with my inner head monsters.
Above all, don’t be afraid to be weird. I like the tweeter’s casual acceptance of their weirdness in being mentally ill. I myself am strange and unusual. But only because I am not afraid to try what works. To accept what must be changed to heal the hurts within, and be a different and passionate person, loosed from the constriction of what I was told I MUST be. Mental illness is not necessarily a curse. It can lead us into a greater healing of ourselves, greater growth. We can model that for the others around us. And then maybe they can face the stresses and anxieties they face with less fear.