Look Here Vade Mecum

Section Three: How are You, Really?

The Look Here file was initially created because my perceptions can be unreliable when I’m struggling with mental health issues. I need an outside influence to tether me to reality when I can’t trust my own brain to do so. And it needs to be something specific to what happens in my world when things are starting to untether.

The tool needs to be available 24/7, so it can not strictly rely on talking to someone else for their feedback. Community is critical and often fills a similar role as this checklist. More than once, my best friend or wife has said to me, “Do you maybe need to call Dr. E?” Those moments tend to happen when I forget to use my Look Here file, which is rare.

Yet they highlight an essential truth about mental health: no tool, no app, no book can ever provide the full breadth of what we each need to sustain health, nor are they a failsafe against falling below the safety threshold we each have.

Look Here is an invaluable piece of my overall wellness plan. Most importantly, it reminds me to reach out when I need to. That was its primary function when I first created it, starting with the simple question:

How are you, really?

This question highlights the need to be honest with myself. To remember a foundational approach that is the bedrock of this document, one that would eventually become one of the non-negotiables:

Look at what is REALLY happening and see it as it is. Even if you choose not to address it fully, be honest with yourself even if you aren’t honest with anyone else at this moment.

Over time, patterns have emerged between what I am feeling and doing and whether or not I am in a space where I can recover on my own. At first, I only used the checklist if I felt the onset of depression. It consisted of the behaviors that I recognized as directly related to slipping into darker territories. When the list was created, I didn’t realize I was depressed until I hit the behaviors in the orange section. The two previous sections didn’t exist at all. [See the image at the end for what I mean by different colored sections.]

The orange items represent behaviors that I may pull back out of by putting my self-care regiment into action. By following my Non-Negotiables, it’s possible to get back onto more stable ground. It’s also possible that depending on where I am on a scale of 1 to 10, I might need some additional support. If I don’t actively intervene, I most certainly will hit the red section.

Once in the red section, I almost always need help from one or more doctors. At first, the red section didn’t exist. The list went from orange to dark red; all of the behaviors in the red zone were in the dark red zone. I didn’t have the skills to pull myself back up once I reached that point at all. Over time, I’ve developed questions that I can ask myself and learn something from this space. The trick, as always, is to be honest with myself. Am I learning, healing, growing my way back from this experience, or am I trapped by it and need some help?

The dark red zone is my quagmire. If I’m there, I need help, and I need it as soon as possible. When I reach that part of the list, I pick up my phone and make a call. Or a few calls. I activate my support network. This is my ultimate fail-safe.

Over the years, I’ve become more adept at seeing depression, anxiety, and other issues before they hit the orange zone.

What did I feel before I started to zone out with video games? Oh, yeah. I was really really tired. I couldn’t think very well. My sleep was off. Why was my sleep off? Well, my stomach stuff kept me awake. And this headache is making me miserable. And I haven’t been moving very well or very much because my back/foot/knee (pick one or more) has been acting up.

Now when I see the dominoes lining up, I know clearly where unresolved back pain can lead me.

My back hurts → I’m not sleeping well → I can’t think well → I’m exhausted and know I should be doing xyz but I’m not functional → Let me play this game to help take my mind off the pain → Keep playing the game → Shit, I should be doing xyz → Start to panic. → Now I’m saying my Rs like Elmer Fudd again and yelling at the cats → Feel bad about yelling at the cats → SO tired → this pain is never going away → fuck it, I’m staying in bed this morning with a hot pack → Nope, not getting up today either → What if I never get better? I’m going to lose my job, shit this is all too hard, why can’t I do this, what’s wrong with me, I need these voices to stop yelling at me, stop stop → the momentary pain makes the voices stop and brings me back to the world but it is far too brief → I’m so tired, is this ever going to end???

At any of those transitions → I can pull the domino out and interrupt the cascade. I can go to my non-negotiables list and work with those items. If any of my self-regulating approaches don’t work, or if I can’t activate any of them because I’m trapped in an orange/red/dark red zone, I can call on my doctor, my therapist, my friends.

Start with what you know. What’s your dark red zone? What places do you find yourself that feel impossible to get out of without external support? What tools can you use when you are there?

Is there a red zone for you, or does it go from dark red up to orange? That red zone took me over a decade to develop. Be honest with yourself about your skillset. This is YOUR tool. No one else has to see it. They don’t even have to know it exists. Aside from my therapist, I’ve never talked about this to anyone until now.

Do you recognize the nuances that happen between “I’m fine” and “I don’t care anymore”? Maybe your list starts with Orange and Dark Red only. Perhaps you become aware of some Yellow items that become dark yellow or orange when left unchecked.

This is 100% personalized to you. The question is, “How are you, really?” and what tools can best help you where you are?

One final note on this section (really on the tool overall): It’s hard to create it when you are in the midst of a crisis. We don’t always see the best solutions then. For me, most of the source material for this came out of my writings. Either as I was in the midst of it or working my way out. Once I was on more solid ground, I could reread my writing and see trends in thoughts and behaviors. I’d mine those for Look Here.

This takes us into the final section, Remember. We’ll get to that next time.

In the meantime, take good care of yourself.

Disclaimer: If you are feeling suicidal, thinking about hurting yourself, or are concerned that someone you know may be in danger of hurting themself, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). It is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and is staffed by certified crisis response professionals.

My degree is in creative writing. I’m not a psychologist, therapist, guru, coach, or expert. These thoughts are thin filaments meant to share some things that help me through the hellish times. That’s it. Please make sure you have the support system you need to get you through wherever you are in your own journey.

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