A conversation about positive mental hygiene
Clearly, I write an awful lot about mental health and parenting — that’s how I got a ‘top writer’ status in both categories here on Medium in less than two weeks of writing. I write constantly. But I don’t write about these things because I’m such an amazing or enlightened person.
On the contrary, I’m very messy and broken.
My purpose in writing — and my belief that I can help other people by doing so — lies within my struggles and pain rather than any success or expertise. Because I haven’t been an outrageously successful person or even a very happy one. Not consistently. Not yet.
But that’s how I know the value of writing so openly about parenting, mental health, and how these two things intertwine.
I come from an incredibly dysfunctional family rife with mental illness. We’re talking manic depression, Munchausen syndrome, schizophrenia, frequent estrangement and multiple forms of abuse mixed with a very strict and rigid Christianity.
My older sister coped with all of this through drug addiction, which eventually led to her going to prison when I was eighteen. There are many things I still don’t know about her years on drugs or her experiences in prison, but I do know the most devastating blow was losing custody of her four kids.
She has recovered brilliantly from her drug addiction and turned her whole life around, but it hasn’t been without a great deal of suffering. She’s still separated from her children who are now in high school and I don’t really know my nieces or nephew.
My sister and I didn’t even know each other for most of our lives and rarely had contact with one another. For the longest time, I didn’t even feel like I had a sister.
These days, she and I are Facebook friends and we joke about how it’s a miracle that we can uphold jobs and “adult” at all because our parents taught us nothing about the real world or how to function in it.
They never taught us healthy habits.
Although I never turned to drugs to cope, I’ve had other demons. I’ve spent my adulthood running away, changing course, and yearning for the roots I never planted. I’ve been so lost that I let myself be swept up in the currents. As a result, I rarely took charge of my own life.
Throughout these struggles, I’ve learned a great deal about the need to speak openly about our darkest periods. Because there have been so many moments when I needed someone to tell me I wasn’t alone — and actually mean it.
Sadly, it’s not something our culture openly talks about: growing up in mental illness, dysfunction, or abuse. How it twists you up inside and impacts your future path.
And do you know what we talk about even less?
Positive mental hygiene.
When we do talk about mental health, positive mental hygiene is the key piece that’s typically missing from most conversations.
If you’ve grown up in a family where mental illness and toxic habits were the norm, you’re already at a disadvantage when it comes to your mental health. Because you weren’t raised to love what’s healthy, safe, or positive.
You only have these toxic patterns that feel normal — even if you know they’re not.
But suppose you were lucky enough to enjoy a healthy childhood and entered adulthood relatively unscathed, you still need to practice good mental hygiene. It only takes a little bit of stress or anxiety to let yourself slide into unhealthy habits that snowball into much deeper problems.
When I talk about positive mental hygiene, I like to quote something Bella’s dad tells her in New Moon (That’s right, we’re talking book two of The Twilight Saga. Suck it up, peeps):
Sometimes you have to learn to love what’s good for you.
That’s positive mental hygiene in a nutshell. It’s precisely as simple and as complicated as that. Sometimes the things we love, or the habits we’ve come to rely on are terrible for our mental health. But learning a new way is hard.
Just like any bit of self-care, it’s also highly individual.
These days, I’m a single mom who earns her living by writing online. Ever since I quit my job in social media marketing, I have struggled to balance writing, parenting, housework, and me.
Oh right, me. I exist and have my own set of needs.
Regardless of the day of the week and whether or not I’m getting an occasional “break” from being a mom, there are simply too few hours in each day and not enough me to get everything done.
My knee-jerk response is always to get through it any way I can. Which means putting myself last on every list.
But that’s terrible for anyone’s mental health.
Self-care… what’s that again? You see, I’m still learning how to love what’s good for me. Because I’m prone to some really bad habits that don’t do any favors for my mental health.
I’ve spent plenty of time in dark alleys of depression where I’ve been afraid to leave the house because I didn’t want anyone to see me at my worst. At other times, I’ve been a social butterfly after triple-digit weight loss, believing I’m just rounding a new corner.
The specifics of positive mental hygiene mean different things for me at different times, depending upon where I’m at. Often, it’s pretty basic:
- Kicking negative self-talk to the curb (because insulting myself does nothing good).
- Taking a shower more days than not (even if I’m only staying home that day).
- Making myself get off of Facebook when I feel sucked into arguments about gun control, healthy parenting or body positivity (it only makes me frustrated and angry).
- Writing daily about the topics I actually want to write about (investing in myself and my future).
- Sticking to a budget to avoid unnecessary stress (I have a tendency to shop as a coping mechanism).
- Saying yes when I feel like saying no out of fear (accepting invitations to get out of the house even when I’m feeling like holing up at home).
- Allowing myself a little me-time without guilt (like today — admitting that some cleaning and work can wait).
My life currently revolves around being a working (from home) single mom. My four year old has never been in daycare because I made a choice to do whatever I could to create a strong bond with her early on. But it took many sacrifices to make it happen, and balance is still not my strength.
She’ll begin kindergarten in 2020, and I want her to see me practice better self-care by then.
Positive mental health starts with small steps. One after the other. I know this from experience because I’ve gotten off track and rebuilt my life so many times before. Some days, I can only manage a few small steps.
As I get stronger, those habits above will be too easy. So I’ll take on greater ones then.
I have many hopes for rebuilding my life. To show my daughter how to be your own hero rather than just waiting for someone to come and rescue you. And to quit letting life push or pull you without taking charge of your own life.
To help other people who’ve been through similar struggles feel less alone and even encouraged to persevere through their tough times.
To simply get people talking openly about mental health. And how to parent with positive mental hygiene habits.
I’m not there yet. Not exactly where I want to be. But I’m so happy to be farther along than where I was just a year or three ago.
At the end of the day, what matters most is that we’re learning to love what’s good for us. That we’re creating a lifestyle which supports our greater wellness. Things like:
- healthy boundaries
- positive self-talk
- good nutrition
- managing toxic relationships.
Whether or not you deal with mental illness, you owe it to yourself — and those you love — to take good care of your mental health.
But here’s the rough reality of positive mental hygiene: healthy habits don’t happen overnight. You don’t spend years calling yourself an idiot any time you make a mistake and then immediately jump into healthy self-talk.
In fact, healthy self-talk is going to feel very weird for a while.
It all takes practice.
Unfortunately, they don’t teach positive mental hygiene in school. If you haven’t had healthy role models and mentors, you’ve got to figure it all out along the way.
It’s more than okay to start small, and it’s fine to start from wherever you’re at. Just start where you can. Let one healthy habit build upon another.
What habits can you work on to foster your own better mental health?