Most English-speakers are familiar with the canary in the coal mine idiom, based on a practice that (up until very recently) helped alert miners to danger so they could have time to escape. The idea is that the canary will die before toxic gases like carbon monoxide can harm the humans in the mine. Obviously, working in an office setting doesn’t necessitate a bird to keep me from inhaling harmful substances (plus I’m pretty sure we have automated carbon monoxide monitors now). The physical risks of my day-to-day life are pretty low (unless we’re talking about shin splints, in which case the physical risk is very, very high….). What I struggle with is knowing when my mental health requires me to slow down and recharge. Can birds sense emotional well-being and respond accordingly?
I don’t know about birds, but plants can.
The past couple of weeks have been a huge challenge for me. I’ve been on a major deadline at work (and suffering from major creative block until very recently) and I’ve been struggling to find balance in life outside the office – plus, it’s just hard for both Boyfriend and I that our work schedules don’t allow for much time together. Fitting wellness into that equation has felt impossible – whether that’s physical or mental. Even running – which is often one of the only things I have during the week that’s purely for myself – has been a challenge because I’ve had such severe shin splints! My mom came for lunch yesterday for a much-needed break in the action and noticed my shamrock plant was pretty much on its last leg stem.
And that’s when I realized I hadn’t watered it in 4 days.
Shamrocks are very thirsty plants, and I generally have to water mine every day – but since I’ve been so distracted by my overwhelmed mental state, I have paid almost no attention to the plants that sit on my window ledge. I pride myself on being a green thumb like my parents, but my inability to recognize how much I needed to stop and take care of myself made me equally incapable of caring for anything else. It’s lucky Tigger, Romy, and Michele can meow and bark at me or I may have been too distracted to remember mealtimes and walks.
I can’t tell you how many self-care articles repeat the adage that “you can’t take care of anyone else until you take care of yourself,” and of course, duh, that’s right…but I don’t know if it’s the Marton, Lindstrom, woman, or human in me that keeps screaming over that saying, “Taking care of yourself is so selfish and lame. Who cares if you’re overwhelmed because you still have 20 things on your to-do list.” I know I talk a lot about that tension, but it’s one of the most difficult parts of my mindset to work with and surmount in times of challenge.
Self-care feels so “optional” when I’m looking at the big picture of my day, and it’s the first thing to fall off when I have a lot on my plate. It feels “lazy” or “selfish” to swap out mopping the floor or attending a club meeting with something like a warm bath or just time to relax on the couch with our fur babies – but without those times to relax, you start forget the basics (like watering your shamrock regularly…). Boyfriend is better at recognizing my need for rest (probably because a mentally maxed-out Katlyn is a grumpy Katlyn) and makes sure to encourage that slow-down time – but when we hardly have a chance to see each other (awake), I need to find my own voice of reason when I don’t have his to keep me balanced.
Finding a way to reconcile my own human needs with the needs of everyone else around me (and learning when my needs should come first) is something I will always struggle with. And then, after mentally recognizing that maybe I need a day of rest instead of jetting off to another after-work commitment, acting on that recognition and actually saying “my needs in this moment come first.” Even if what I need is doing “nothing.” “Nothing” is something, too. This process is easier than it was two years ago and even a month ago, but it’s still a mental battle most days to even get myself on my list (and following through is a whole other story).
I hope one day I won’t need a shamrock on a ledge to tell me when my mental health needs my attention if I want to function properly (or at least I hope they can make an automated version like they can for carbon monoxide so my plants don’t have to suffer!). An overwhelmed mental space might not kill me like an overdose of carbon monoxide, but that doesn’t make it less toxic.
Lots of people forget (or don’t recognize at all) the ways in which poor mental health affects your ability to function at your best (or function at all) – in many ways it’s no different than being exposed to a physical toxin, but it’s often a knee-jerk reaction to advise someone to just “snap out” of their “bad mood” or “stop being so dramatic.” But mental health isn’t about just a “bad mood” or being dramatic for drama’s sake – it’s just as real as physical health, and just as important to take care of. I still need those tangible reminders to guide me back to treating my mental well-being as what it is – a health priority. For now, remembering that is often the best I can do, and that’s okay. Recognizing the issue is the first step to addressing it and finding a solution.
And don’t worry, I watered my shamrock.