Pastimes for the Harried Mind

On the face of it, this pandemic has been business as usual for me. Well, aside from being away from our apartment, Mewon, and all of our things. But I’ve been a remote copy and content writer for years. I’m used to working from home in my sweats with a cat on my lap and succulents as coworkers. And I’m the kind of person who quietly rejoices in canceled plans, rarely wears makeup, and is too lazy to style or dry her hair. Plus, I like eating at home because I’m bad at budgeting and $12 lunches stress me out.

In all of the chaos and heartache, much of the world is joining the freelance gig workers, slowing down, remembering what’s important, and taking stock. But in talking with friends, it seems that some of us hit a collective wall this week. We’re struggling in similar ways—and feeling guilty about it. Our neuroses are bubbling to the surface. We’re living inside our own private surrealities. But if we’re healthy, if our loved ones are healthy, we can and should count ourselves fortunate. Still, things are strange and sometimes hard.

For me, this weirdness is manifesting in my manic depressive symptoms. But because I’ve dealt with them since my early twenties (and looking back, almost certainly my chaotic teens), I’ve amassed some eccentric, hard-earned strategies and workarounds to keep me sane-adjacent right now. And I thought I’d share some of them in case they’re useful. As always, your mileage may vary.

Luxuriate in “brain candy.” Depending on where I am in my mood/chemical cycle, it can be nearly impossible to read a book for more than ten to fifteen minutes at a time. During these periods, it feels like my brain can’t properly process visual information; my mind makes odd connections in some instances and severs them in others. And as an avid reader and writer, these foggy spells can feel demoralizing.

But my time in therapy has given me some useful tools. When my “reading problem” inevitably cropped up last year, my gentle therapist Margaret helped me hatch a plan: I would give audiobooks some attention and quit trying to chip away at the literature with a capital “L” on my shelf. Instead, I allowed myself to lean into genre fiction, my first love, and return to cozy detective novels—“ones with more menus than murders,” she would urge. She also reminded me that there’s nothing inherently noble about being a reader. Sure, time spent in the interior lives of other people engenders empathy and enriches our lives, but that can be achieved through other means too. Other helpful cerebellum sweets include: crossword puzzles, foreign films with subtitles, YouTube spirals into well-documented subjects like the history of Europe’s royal families (don’t even get me started), or the changing fashion silhouettes of the 20th century. Also fun: deep dives into one artist’s work. I’m exploring Kate Bush’s discography right now and having a blast. The more wholesome, obscure, or tedious the activity, the better. (Shout out to my friend Joce and my therapist for introducing me to the term “brain candy.” Not to be confused with candied brains.)

Look to the past. If you can’t handle our current reality (and frankly, who can?), spend time in a bygone era. A friend and I are making our way through the Best Picture Oscar winners through the years, starting with the earlier black and white films. The transatlantic accents, flamboyant monologues, and lush costumes are providing such a welcome escape. Also, it’s nice to be able to tick something off a list.

PB&Js are okay. Seriously. If you can’t muster the energy to make dinner, embrace sandwich life with zero shame. Just try to add some fruits and veggies to your plate. You don’t need to learn how to bake right now if you don’t want to. I would rather sit here with my baby carrots, peanut butter, and Coke Zero playing Animal Crossing than make an elaborate dish. And I’ve made peace with that. (Animal Crossing on the Switch only allows you to inhabit one island per device, which means Greg and I are stuck puttering around the same small area, even in virtual reality, but we like each other so it’s okay.)

Don’t beat yourself up for not #selfhealing. I’ve become a bit disheartened by some of the big psychology accounts I used to follow on Instagram. At first, I loved the focus on agency and the actionable advice. But recently I’ve noticed that some of the pages with huge follower counts are veering into “good vibes only” and victim-blaming territory, even if subliminally.

I see this in in-person spiritual circles too: the idea that there’s one correct answer/practice/path, and if it isn’t working, you’re not trying hard enough. I’ve attended weekly meditation meetings for the past few years, and even though I find them hugely helpful, meditation has its limits, at least for me. Sometimes I need self soothing methods and distractions, not deeper excavations into my present consciousness, especially when I’m experiencing a flood of anxiety or a trauma response. Above all, I hope you listen to your heartttt. You’re the one who has to live inside your own head.

And I hope you’re gentle with yourself this week. We’re flying back to France tomorrow. I’m anxious but I have brain candy and meds. And I’ll be reunited with my fur daughter soon. Talk to you on the other side. xx