I have an ambivalent relationship to the concept of ‘wellbeing’ and the connected advice and recommendations that go along. On the one hand, I recognise there are some compelling results from scientific studies that support the suggestion that taking time to engage in mindfulness exercises, or sport, or creative hobbies can have a significant impact on the maintenance of good mental health. On the other hand, I hear ‘mindfulness’ and I shut down, the working class chip on my shoulder grows so heavy it topples me over, and I snort at the suggestion I stop working and do that ‘pile of wank’.
The idea of taking time for yourself in order to ‘nurture’ yourself (I can’t even write that without scare quotes, this is how deep it goes!) and place your emotional, intangible needs above, say, doing some hard work, is one I am ill at ease with. I’ve blamed this reluctance to acknowledge there may be something useful in all this “new age, wishy washy, hippy nonsense” on my working class upbringing. But perhaps that’s not all there is too it.
On the one hand, I come from a family who – rightly – value hard work. I was brought up to believe that you will find pride in yourself and your life if you work hard, and believe in what you’re doing. It’s an idea that’s guided me well, these 32 years. I’ve pushed on and always sought out something to work on, and work for, in my life. It has rewarded me with pride in my accomplishments, and a sense of purpose in a range of different jobs – regardless of how they are regarded by others.
The trouble is, this isn’t enough. You also need a sense of yourself which expands beyond your work, and which can’t be utterly destroyed if you fail, or lose your job, or can’t pull off the task you set yourself this time. It’s also not enough if working is the thing that’s made you exhausted and low.
Perhaps this is why it’s so hard for me to talk about my mental health, and my ‘wellbeing’.
Right now I’m on fixed term contracts, working two jobs, and staring down the barrel of unemployment/uncertain employment in September. I’m also riding out a low. After a farcically bad Friday where I tried to socialise with friends and colleagues, and only succeeded in making a lot of people worry about me, I found I needed to confront ‘wellbeing’.
Friday night’s disaster was predictable. I’ve worked flat out for 10 weeks without a break – yes, I’ve even been working weekends. I was exhausted. What I needed on Friday was not socialising, it was time. I needed time before I put on my ‘nice’ clothes (somewhere in the classification of clothes above ‘clean’ but below ‘wedding guest’) and headed out the door. I needed time before I had a rushed dinner and sent a message to say I was on my way to the pub. I needed time before I confirmed the time and place and invited more people to join us. And yet I still did all those things. Still pushed forward and pushed myself to do the thing I knew I didn’t want to, and perhaps couldn’t. Because I most often view socialising as another job. Something you do almost mechanically, by numbers. And when I ‘tick off’ whatever it is, I trust I’ll get the reward of pride, or personal value, or wellbeing.
But cyclothymia doesn’t work like that.
On Friday night I couldn’t speak. And everything everyone said hurt. Being there didn’t work. Working hard at going through the motions, didn’t work.
Saturday, I slept. Then I walked. For three hours I walked. And on Sunday I slept. And then I swam. I need to do that more this week, I can feel that already. I need to not work – both ‘traditional’ work and my self-designated social-stuff work. This is wellbeing. Getting head space, disconnecting from the internet, from friends, from work, from responsibilities and deadlines, and from pressures and insecurities of life. Taking time to feel my body do good things, taking time to notice spring exploding from the gardens and parks, taking time to feel something outside of my mind.
I need that space, the time, the not working. But I’m afraid to take it and admit I need it. Because if that works – if not working works – then where does my self-worth come from? Because if I can be emotionally ‘rewarded’ by not working, then will that make the value of work less? And if I lose that route to value, will I ever be able to find a way to gain a sense of worth again?
Wellbeing is, then, a terrifying spin of the wheel for me. A fear that gaining anything positive from not working will be cancelled out by undermining the positive things I gain from half-killing myself to work and socialise. I wish I could say that realising this has revolutionised my relationship to taking time for self-care activities like walking, exercising, and spending time in nature, but it hasn’t. Next week I’ll start working on articles and funding bids and job applications again. And I’ll likely reassure myself that this is the best place to get my sense of worth from, and Saturday’s long walk was just a blip, a one-off alternative.
Besides, I’m cured/never needed self-care/just got lazy.