That is the question.
When I went for the follow-up for my head, the doctor basically offered to give me brain meds if I wanted them and my therapist agreed I needed them. I’ve been vacillating, and I feel like I’m doing a lot better than I was, so I haven’t brought it up with my therapist yet. I’m also not sure which I would be medicating. Anxiety? Depression? Both?
I’ve spent the past few years trying to get a better handle on managing my symptoms. I know I have insomnia, and that makes everything worse when it’s bad, so I’ve done my best to limit the number of mornings I have to set an alarm. Some weeks, like this past one, I accidentally over-schedule myself. But naps help a lot. Especially when you’re an insomniac who needs 9-10 hours of sleep. If I’m tired, I’m much more likely to slip into depression or a panic attack, depending which way my brain is leaning that week.
I’ve been trying to do better with self-care, too. And I’ve started exercising, though since it’s summer I have to also make sure that getting up to do it before the real heat starts to set in doesn’t trigger my insomnia, since I also try to clean in the mornings.
I’ve figured out that working more than 4 days a week makes things difficult for me to manage. I can do it sometimes, but not every week. Back when I was working 6 days a week or sometimes 10 days in a row my anxiety was through the roof or almost there. I feel fortunate I’ve been able to finagle enough cleaning appointments to make working 25-30 hours a week (counting freelance writing and blogging) possible these last few months.
There’s this nagging voice in the back of my head that asks, if I cannot work full time hours and still manage my symptoms effectively, am I really functional? But then there’s another voice that says Americans are workaholics. There are start-ups who have shown the 32 hour work week to lead to better productivity and work/life balance amongst their employees. Studies have shown that mental/creative productivity caps out at about 6hrs a day while manual labor is what the 8hr/day system was based upon. And the French riot if anyone tries to make them work more than 35 hours a week, so maybe I’m just normal? Maybe it’s actually abnormal to be able to function working 60 hours a week?
Our culture seems to be based on a 16hr day. Sleep 8 hours, work 8 hours, have 8 hours for other things. But if I’m in bed for 9 1/2 hours at night on a good day (that’s the goal) and I also take a 90 minute nap (which has been happening a lot, first as I was hurt and still now that it’s so hot), that’s 11 hours. So I’m running on a 13hr day. Which means not working more than 6 hours a day if I spend half my time awake working, which feels about right to me. I can do four 6-7 hour days or three 9-10 hour days in a week.
It feels like I’ve made the right choices quitting jobs which were bad for my mental health instead of medicating myself to endure them. I realize others are not fortunate enough to have the choice. Right now, I do work that requires leaving the house 3-4 days a week and spend time a couple days a week writing, reading, and keeping up around the house. It takes time to cook healthy meals and clean and if I’m caught up on laundry and the floor is swept my anxiety is lower.
Sometimes I still feel guilty for working significantly less than a lot of people I know. But my life feels more sustainable now than it has in a long time. I’m trying to be more careful to not overwork myself. I wasn’t built for the 8hr work day. Not everyone is. Not everyone who isn’t can escape it, but if I can, isn’t that for the best? I realized that I was better off in college and graduate school than when I had a “real” job. I do better working in small chunks – two hours here, a break, 3 hours there, another break, maybe a few more hours.
And I’m sure I could work closer to 35 hours a week if the work I was doing was work I could be passionate about. I’m trying to make that possible, too. But even in graduate school, when I was working significantly more, I gave myself a day mid-week to stay at home. Yes, I was reading or writing still that day, but even then I knew having to leave the house for work only four days a week was better for me. It makes it easier to run errands and do chores and cook meals. It isn’t possible to remove all stress from my life. I know that. I will still react to surprising or unplanned events badly at times. But if I’m calm to start with instead of amped up, I can stop the panic attack from coming on a lot of the time. If I can reduce the number of stressors in my life, is that a cop out or is that actually dealing well with my mental health?
I wanted to give things a few weeks to see if I would start getting better on my own, or if I needed a push. But I think I’m dealing. I have to keep an eye on my hydration, my food intake, my sleep, and my self care more than some people. But I’m getting better at doing those things. There’s some part of me which feels like if I have the opportunity to have health insurance and get meds I should take it because some people don’t. But there’s another part which feels like if I have the opportunity to manage my symptoms without meds I should do that because some people don’t.
Part of what brought this on is that when I got my SNAP approval letter there was a work agreement included which wants me to agree to take any job I’m offered in order to receive benefits. And I don’t know that I can sign it. Because I won’t do that. Not because I think I’m too good to work X job or Y, but because I know my mental health will suffer severely if I take certain kinds of jobs or have to work certain kinds of hours or shifts. And I don’t think I’m willing to give up the progress I’ve made. It was such a relief to be able to go to the grocery store earlier this week and not spend all the rest of my money on food. And I am excited to think I can get $40 of vegetables at the farmer’s market next weekend for $20.
But food stress I can deal with better than lack of sleep stress. Or no time for self-care stress. If I have to choose, I’d rather spend all the money I don’t spend on bills on food rather than destroy my mental health for $78/month. It’s fucked up I have to choose. It’s fucked up also because I have a job. I have multiple jobs. I’m working as much as I can. I’m sure I don’t qualify for disability, either, but I know myself and I know I can’t work full time hours and sustain it.
The work agreement didn’t have a notice saying to return it by a certain date, so right now I’m biding my time. If they call or I get a letter saying they’re cancelling my benefits unless I send it in, then I guess they will be cancelled. And at least I will have had one month where I can have a gloriously full fridge and pantry. Where I’m not mixing together random pantry ingredients to make a meal because I’m making do until I get some more money in. Rent increase plus utilities increase is making the beginning of the month really difficult right now. After I pay my bills, I’m lucky if there’s anything left over for food or gas until the middle of the month, or I just put a couple things on my credit card and pay them off as soon as I can.
But starting in October (when it’s cooler) I can find one week a month to volunteer at Johnson’s Backyard Garden again, and my electricity bill will go down again. Maybe I’ll get lucky and still have some government help next month to get me through until then. Or maybe I’ll find another cleaning client. Or get some breakthrough pitch idea. I don’t know what will happen. And maybe at some point I won’t be able to scrape by working part-time as Austin continues to gentrify. And maybe I will think about meds then. For now, I’m doing okay. As long as I have enough time to rest, relax, and rejuvenate. As long as I don’t push myself to work as much as I think I should. For now, I hope the worst of my summer stress is over. And I’m biding my time until fall.