As we near the end of the official run of Shattering Stigmas 2020, I’m hoping the last few posts will help give you, the readers, some practical and emotional tools to tackle the rest of 2020 and beyond. Struggling sucks and it’s hard, but I marvel at how people, myself included, can use their resilience and strength to pave new paths forward together, yet apart. Today I’m so excited to bring Rebecca Mahoney, author of The Valley and the Flood (out February 23, 2021) to the blog with a post about the organizational systems that she used during a rough time in her life that later became handy when the pandemic hit this year. You can find Rebecca online on Twitter and her website. She also co-hosts The Bridge podcast.
I was never so organized as when I was falling apart.
Actually, up until that point, I actively resisted it. I was an admin in my day job: lists and schedules were things I made for other people, between the hours of 9:00am and 5:30pm. I had enough trouble as it was keeping my work stress from bleeding into my downtime, and worse, my writing time. I knew it wasn’t totally rational. But the last thing I wanted was to be my own personal assistant.
Then I was 25, fresh off the worst year of my life and a cross-country move. And something in my head shifted. I already knew that something was different about my behavior since graduating college: I suddenly couldn’t send e-mails without checking them five, six, seven times, and I could look directly at an unlit stove and still feel in my chest that maybe I’d somehow turned it on. Panic felt like a switch I kept brushing by accident. But at 25, that switch got stuck.
On one hand, the sharp nosedive into full-time panic was a good thing, in the end. It made therapy a priority rather than a thing I kept putting off. And as I had started to suspect in the days before my first appointment, anxiety was no longer my only problem. My symptoms were consistent with posttraumatic stress disorder.
A brain stuck in threat assessment is basically flypaper. There were no shortage of things, in those first few months, I could make myself afraid of: that it would never end, that I would never be functional again, that if I told anyone they’d think I was overdramatic or they’d be scared for me and that I wouldn’t survive either reaction. My own fear essentially became the scariest part of it for me. And my own head, which had always been a refuge, became a never-ending parade of threats.
So the first thing that helped, in the end, was looking at my own thought process objectively. It was much harder for me to make an existential threat out of simple equation. And I learned that my inability to remember my coping mechanisms in the grip of panic wasn’t some flaw on my part – it was a function of the fear itself. Eating, drinking water, stepping away from the problem for a few minutes to go for a walk, these are all signals to the brain that you’re safe. And when you’re feeling emphatically unsafe, your pool of possible actions tends to narrow to three. Fight, flight, or freeze.
I realized that if I couldn’t remember what to do, I would need some way to remind myself. So unfortunately, it was time to make a list.
Over the next year, those lists became habit. I started taking meds, I became more open to talking to people, and my own mind steadily got clearer. If I felt the beginnings of a spiral, I knew what to do with it. I kept the reminders I’d put on my phone for a while – it was nice, feeling like my past self was still looking out for me – but eventually, those went too. I left my apps, my playlists, and my journals alone. And I did what I worried was no longer possible: I got better.
So when I found myself in the middle of our pandemic year six years later, my old system was not the first thing I thought of. Actual threats everywhere, as it turns out, felt a little different to me than that year of total panic. I felt more sluggish than afraid. Anxiety did show up in little bursts, but rarely about anything important. Writing felt like pushing through a molasses flood. And even though the release of my debut YA was months away, it was hard to get excited. Everything felt too tenuous to put real faith in. Rather than fight, flight, or freeze, it felt like my reaction was just exhaustion. Like I wanted to crawl under my weighted blanket and wake up in 2022.
But the core of it, it turns out, isn’t that different from the wild reel of panic from back then. My life, once again, lost most of its structure. And without the usual markers in my day that told me when to eat, when to get water, when to get some fresh air, I needed to build a new system.
So I decided to use the same starting points. And for this post, I wanted to share a few of those points with you.
Your mileage may vary, of course. This isn’t a guidebook so much as a recipe book: maybe you’ll use it as-is, maybe you’ll change a few ingredients, or maybe it won’t work for you at all. (It doesn’t even work for me all the time – ironically, I’ve been terrible about it this week!) But here are a few of the things that have helped me, then and now. I hope they help you too. And if not, I hope they help you narrow down what does.
The To-Do List
You can’t log into Twitter lately without seeing a handful of friends (and probably a few bots) reminding the TL to drink water. And it’s for good reason: hunger, dehydration, and lack of sleep can make your symptoms stronger, and stopping to eat or drink something sends signals to your body that you’re not in imminent danger.
For my own system, I set up two phone reminders, limited to two things I was particularly struggling with – I didn’t want to overwhelm myself or risk getting numb to the notifications. For years, I had an 11:00am reminder to eat breakfast if I hadn’t already, and a 1:30 reminder to get up and leave my building for at least ten minutes, and both helped break the cycles I tended to fall into.
For broader self-care, there’s a variety of apps to try out – the one I use, Sanvello, is free, with some paid features if guided meditations are your thing. The ‘health’ section has an entire list of categories you can log your progress in: food, water, hours of sleep, hours of exercise, servings of alcohol, time spent outside, and several more. There’s also a ‘goals’ section of the app where you can chart your progress in areas more specific to you. I’ve had particular problems with procrastination during lockdown, so my ‘Do One Thing You’ve Been Putting Off’ daily goal has been responsible for a whole lot of progress this past month.
The Two-Minute Rule
If you’ve ever gotten those ‘there’s a tab slowing down your browser’ notifications, that’s what my anxiety feels like some days: like it’s eating up all my processing power, and probably playing some kind of ad I can’t seem to stop. And the consequence of having a lot of brainpower diverted elsewhere is that you have less mental energy for seemingly basic tasks, like sorting mail, doing dishes, or choosing what you’re going to make for dinner.
My therapist gave me the best tip for dealing with this symptom, commonly called executive dysfunction: if a task feels insurmountable, I should give it two minutes. If by the end of the two minutes I’m still struggling just as much, I can skip the afternoon walk, or order takeout rather than cook. But generally that initial burst to get started is the hardest part. Once you’ve invested some energy in the task, you’re more likely to see it through. And I find that once I successfully make dinner or reorganize my room, I feel dramatically clearer-headed afterwards.
I’ve journaled in stops and starts for most of my life. I don’t remember exactly how I came to the decision that I should start trying again after my PTSD diagnosis, but it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I started off simple: charting my daily anxiety highs and lows (which I counted on a scale of 1 to 100) and writing and rewriting reminders from therapy, hoping that it would help them stick. There’s a gulf of difference between what you know to be true intellectually and what you believe. And sometimes the difference is repetition.
I kept doing those two things. But slowly, it expanded. It can be hard to hear how you talk to yourself, when it’s all in your head. But on paper, you can see the patterns of your thoughts, the places you’re impatient or intolerant or even scared of yourself. And you can try writing something a little different. What started off as record-keeping became an ongoing conversation with myself, and over time, it became a way to show myself the gentleness and compassion I was afraid to ask for from other people.
There was another way those journals would help me, too: I ended up writing the concept of extended ‘notes to self’ into the manuscript that would become my debut novel, The Valley and the Flood. The final passage of the book was something I used to say to myself on particularly bad nights. I haven’t needed to recite it for a long time. But every time I open my ARC to those final pages, it feels a little like getting those phone reminders after I stopped needing them: like my past self is still looking out for me.
And finally, a reminder:
Thoughts are tricky things, and redirecting them isn’t a linear process. The system you need now may look a little different than the one you needed before or the one you’ll need six years from now. And it can be frustrating, feeling as if you’re cycling through the process over and over. Be patient with yourself when you can, and the days that you’re impatient, that’s okay, too. The care and keeping of a brain is hard work. And you’re worth that work.
Rebecca Mahoney writes young adult and middle grade fiction, and spins oceanic folklore with co-creator Alex Brown on The Bridge Podcast. Her debut novel, The Valley and the Flood, is forthcoming from Razorbill Books on February 23rd, 2021. Rebecca is a strong believer in the cathartic power of all things fantastical and creepy in children’s literature – and she knows firsthand that ghosts, monsters, and the unknown can give you the language you need to understand yourself.
She studied Creative Writing at Brandeis University alongside Japanese language and literature, and spent three years in the world of US-Japan relations in Washington DC. She’s particularly inspired by classical Japanese ghost stories and their influence on the modern horror genre.
She currently works in academia, and spends her spare time
cursing sailors at sea.