Friday, February 18, 2011

The Checklist

Life rarely spirals out of control at a break-neck pace. Instead it's a slow, gradual evolution of despair. And if you look closely you can sometimes see the cracks in corners of the life of someone that is appearing to hold it together.

During my depression outward appearance was very important to me. I carefully chose nice clothing, added accessories, applied make-up and tried to look nice for the world. Back home I had another big secret that I would be embarrassed for anyone to discover.

After I found myself facing time off work with only therapy appointments in sight, I knew that I needed to have a plan. Somehow getting up, showering and putting on clothes didn't seem like enough even though it really was all that I had the energy to handle. The sad thing was that I knew one of the big things that needed to be done, I just couldn't figure out how to start. That journey of a thousand miles might start with a single step but I didn't know what direction to even face.

So, that morning after I'd been granted one of the greatest gifts ever given me - time to repair myself - the three weeks loomed large. I'd been so focused on just getting through the hours and days that three weeks might as well have been an eternity. And yet, it really wasn't much time at all to unravel the damage that was at least a year in the making.

I prepared my checklist for the day: wake up, shower, get dressed, go to therapy. That seemed like a pretty full day to my weary mind.

I waited in the lobby and then followed my therapist back to her office. Taking a seat on her sofa, I kicked off my flip flops, folded my legs under me and put one of her pillows on my lap. I had worn a nice pair of jeans, a tank with beading near the neckline, a summer-style sweater, earrings, a necklace and carefully applied make-up. Next to outward appearance of caring and sanity I put a big check.

I stared down at my nails, took a deep breath and waited.  Somehow I knew that I was going to have to admit another secret today and I wasn't looking forward to unveiling another crazy part of myself  to the world.

She looked at me and asked how I was. "OK," I lied.

So I'm sure to break the ice, she told me was that I was the first of her patients in the three years she'd been at the practice that the doctor had written out of work. Great - so I was clearly a mess and now it was affirmed. Maybe I needed to put the task of appearance back on my list.

Now, she said "What are you going to do with this gift? What would you like your life to start looking like again in three weeks? What will make going back to work and life easier?" I knew the answer but I was, if possible, more embarrassed to say what I wanted to do then I was admitting that I needed help in the first place.

So my therapist and I had a battle of silence as I averted my eyes, picked at the pillow and took some deep breaths.

Finally I caved. "I need to clean my apartment." My life and mind were a mess and so was my place.

Somehow during the year of indifference and despair I'd stopped caring about not only how I was living, but  the environment that I lived in too. To anyone else I'm sure this would be disturbing and I'm sure that cleaning seemed like a sad use of time. I mean I knew that I wasn't the kind of person that would be accepted for an episode of Hoarders - there were no stacks of used butter containers or folded paper towels saved in bags or any other weird assortment of things. I could walk from room to room without having to turn this way or that way, but there was clutter.

The origin was simple. One day I'd come home from work and I just didn't want to do anything so I'd throw the mail on the table and veg-out in front of the television. Soon enough the pile of mail that needed to be sorted and shredded was toppling over onto a chair. So when I couldn't look at it anymore I'd shove it under the sofa or throw it in a drawer. It's not like I didn't know it was there, but I no longer had to stare at my failings. Tired from another day of work I threw my clothes on the chair in my bedroom and soon enough the chair housed more clothing than my closet. I'd look at a stack of folded laundry and then never put it away, picking clean clothes from the pile until I had to wash it and start the process again.

All parts of my life were becoming overwhelming and the more I didn't do, the more overwhelming it became. And knowing how many things I'd hidden away or thrown in a closet and shut the door on, I knew that the mess wasn't easily unraveled. And much like everything in my life I didn't know where to start so I just didn't.

There had been many failed attempts during the past year to take care of this. I'd deal with one small part of my mess and then be overwhelmed by how little difference it made or simply the act itself would exhaust me. So, I eventually I only cleaned what I had to. But after having clean dishes, a clean bathroom, clean clothes and taking out the trash, I didn't see the point in much else.

To give her credit she seemed to have expected that I might have been ignoring things. She told me that it was a common part of depression to stop caring, to not have the energy for everyday tasks and to have let things that others wouldn't easily see (the inside of my house where I was inviting no one) to go to hell.

I needed to look at this rationally and appropriately. The goal was to have made a major dent in this when I returned to work. Set small, attainable goals. Maybe the first day only meant dealing with a stack of mail. We developed a list. So now, thanks to a handy app on my phone I had a place to type in my list, my start on the road back to sanity.

First up I'd clean my living room since it was the first room I entered when I came home. That way when I entered my apartment I could look forward to a clean, orderly space that inspired serenity instead of panic.I had a week to do it. Such a small space but I was still overwhelmed by the idea.

 I was going to unclutter my mind by literally sweeping and shredding and putting things in their place. For every bag of garbage I threw out I'd be cleaning a small corner of my brain. What I had to admit to myself is that I could do it, that I needed to not beat myself up if I didn't accomplish as much as I wanted in a day and I needed to celebrate small victories. My life, mind and apartment didn't get this way in a day and they weren't going to be fixed in one.

 For the next three weeks this was how I would spend my work day and then after the work was done I could rest, relax, connect with friends and let myself learn to be me again. Small baby steps with a checklist to guide them. And as I put digital check-marks next to seemingly simple tasks I slowly felt some of the weight of the clutter and my life lift.

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