Life in slow motion
Living with long term mental illness is hard. It can feel as if chunks of your life have been stolen. In today’s fast-pace, “live your best life” culture, it can feel as though you are being left behind. However, embracing life in slow motion has its benefits.
Slowness is a symptom of clinical depression. Moving or speaking more slowly than normal is one of the illness’s physical signs, as is lethargy. The psychological symptoms include a lack of motivation, disinterest and feeling helpless. These can combine to create the impression that your body and mind are working against you to slow down your life.
On a micro level, each day can feel painfully long. Doing anything takes a lot of effort, especially on bad days, so simple tasks such as preparing meals, basic hygiene and walking the dog use up a lot of energy. When having a shower feels like an expedition, working towards greater goals seems impossible.
This everyday slowness can make it difficult to change your life in big, meaningful ways. Even when you are working towards an important goal, progress feels slow and hard won. You feel left behind compared to your friends, watching them reach and surpass various life milestones while you are stuck on the first steps.
Everyone experiences these feelings to some degree, but when you have a chronic mental illness –– especially clinical depression –– the sense of being left behind is pervasive and relentless.
I’m not sure a lot of people truly appreciate how mental health problems can feel like your life is stuck on pause, sometimes for months or years at a time. In the past, I have been patronised by people telling me I should be grateful for achieving any of my goals, as though I have no right to expect the things most people take for granted: earning a living, having a partner, living independently. Alternatively, people imply that I could easily achieve all of those things –– and more –– within a short time, if I only try. The problem is, trying often makes my symptoms worse.
Experience has taught me that fighting against the feeling of living in slow motion doesn’t lead to progress. Instead, it’s a surefire way to burning out within a few months and I end up feeling worse. When I try to act like a person who doesn’t have mental health issues, I put too much pressure on myself and sink into despair when I fail to match my expectations.
Acceptance is the only viable strategy: accepting that I might always struggle with my mental health means I need to find ways to work with it, working towards my goals alongside managing my mental illnesses (as well as I can, anyway). And when I take this approach, sometimes it feels as if my life has been unpaused.
I’m human, so I don’t practice this strategy perfectly. When things start going well, I have a tendency to think I need to make up for lost time and try to speed ahead, which means that sooner or later, relapse is inevitable. I also find it difficult to cope with unanticipated setbacks, so tend to react by fighting back and then falling into despair (again). However, the more I practice acceptance, the better I cope.
As my last counsellor told me, accepting your situation doesn’t mean you have to like it; you’re simply acknowledging what has happened/is happening.
Accepting life in slow motion isn’t easy, but it does teach me a lot about my values and priorities. I’m getting better at deciding how to spend my time, choosing tasks and activities which are important to me and enjoyable, rather than what I think other people think I should do. I’m forced to think deeply about what might make my life more meaningful and fulfilling.
I have also realised there’s no rush.
Everyone seems to be in a hurry nowadays. The media and social media idolise millionaires in their twenties, numerous prizes and accolades are given to people under X age (often 30, 35 or 40), actors and athletes are considered veterans once they reach 30… It’s easy to feel as though you are a failure if you reach 35 without the conventional markers of success (career, own home, marriage, kids), regardless of whether you actually want all of those things. Yet a lot gets lost in the messages telling you to “live your best life” and “seize the day”.
Some days just can’t be seized. When you are overwhelmed by stress, anxiety and/or depression, pressuring yourself to take a leap is likely to leave you feeling like a failure. Your mental health has to take priority most days because if it gets worse, it can prevent you from dealing with your other priorities and could literally shorten your life.
I have been trying to prioritise my mental health more, especially since it has gotten worse this year, which means embracing life in slow motion and trying not to worry about goals which are not top priorities right now. As autumn shifts to winter, I’m reassessing the year and celebrating what little progress I have made. I have failed to meet most of my goals for 2019, but I’m still here –– and there have been many times when I wished that wasn’t the case.
My goals for 2020 will be different. I will continue to prioritise my health, because that affects every other aspect of my life, and I will choose to focus on one or two other priorities instead of making a long list of goals.
I might always have to live my life in slow motion, but I’m determined to make it worth living at any pace.