My Metamorphosis into the Perfect Mental Patient Begins

January 2, 2010 at 5:42 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Welcome to 2010

After one day of my campaign to become The Perfect Mental Patient, I feel hope for the coming year.

It seems like every time I pick up a book on how to survive bipolar disorder, it suggests that I quit all caffeine, exercise regularly, cut out refined sugar and flour, practice perfect sleep hygiene, meditate, join a spiritual community … the list goes on and on. And when I read that, I nod and think, “Yes, those are some excellent ideas” with no intention of actually doing any of it.

In fact, every book I’ve read about anxiety says the same thing. Recently I picked up a book on how to improve your skin. (Yes, entire books on the subject exist, and I am vain enough to read one.) It turns out that if you want to have dewy, youthful skin well into old age, all you need to do is follow the advice in the above paragraph. Oh, and drink green tea.

Now, there’s no doubt in my mind that if I did these things my mood would improve. These are precisely the things that everyone from the FDA to my insurance company to my shrink tells everyone to do. But as I pored over my most recent anxiety workbook, I thought, Does anyone actually do all of this? I reviewed my entire acquaintance, and thought, “Hm. No.” I tried to call to mind every guy I’ve had a few dates with, distant cousins, that sort of thing. I am quite sure that not a single person I know follows even half of the advice casually passed out in these self-help books. If you know anybody who does, I invite you to email me a name and phone number so that I can interview this marvel of rectitude and pass on his or her secret.

If that’s the case, is there even the remotest chance that I adopt all of these new habits in the length of time it takes me to read a self-help book? Well, of course not. First of all, I read self-help books primarily as a form of escapist entertainment. I love to imagine a bright, shiny new me, but I’m as reluctant as the next person to actually change my habits. And it’s really not realistic to imagine that I could adopt even one new habit in a week — change doesn’t work that way. So there’s something actually irresponsible about a book that suggests that I could and should. It’s like those absurd headlines on women’s magazines (and men’s, too, I notice) trumpeting a surefire method for losing 40 pounds in 30 days.

At the same time, I really do need to change my life. As my last existential crisis demonstrates, I’m up against some serious quality of life issues, and they are undeniably connected to my habits. I must change my life. Really.

The problem is, every time I contemplate making a change, I’m overwhelmed by the sheer weight of my bad habits. I don’t work out. I don’t eat enough, and what I eat is pretty crappy. I’m afraid to answer my phone, pick up my voice mail, or read emails, which has made me a bit difficult to reach. My sleep habits are bizarre; I swill caffeine morning, noon and night. (Any connection there? Surely not.) My yoga practice has dwindled from a rigorous hour or so to, um, nothing. I haven’t prayed or attended church since early November. To top it all off, I don’t wash my face before I go to bed. Even I can tell that this is not the road to dewy, youthful skin at any age. I know that I can’t change all of this at once, but it’s hard to know where to start on this formidable and by no means all-inclusive list of bad habits.

So as I was bouncing around among these thoughts — I must change, I can’t possibly change enough, I must change, I can’t change enough — I conceived my Grand Scheme. Over the course of the next year, I will become (drum roll please) The Perfect Mental Patient. I will take on two habits a month, one physical, one spiritual, cognitive or social, and, if my calculations are correct, I will attain perfection sometime around August. I will keep detailed metrics and determine the exact effect of each change on my mood.

If nothing else, I’ll know in short order to what degree my slack lifestyle contributes to my depression. If my mood improves substantially — and all of the clinical evidence indicates that it will — then I will be highly motivated to keep several new habits, and I will stop imagining that I’m living in a Beckett play. (“I can’t go on. I must go on. I can’t go on. I must go on.”) And if it doesn’t work, I will be able to say to my shrink triumphantly, “See, my depression really is special, and since I can’t control it, it is definitely not my fault. I am a sad victim of a horrible disease.” No matter what happens, I will enjoy the smug sense that I am perfect. Don’t underestimate the allure of an opportunity to feel smug. An orgasm may be more pleasurable, but you can feel smug at any waking moment, in public and in private, in the rain and on a train, and it doesn’t require batteries or an electrical outlet.

Yes, I like this idea for several reasons. First, it should be amusing for you, the reader. It will be instructive to see what lifestyle improvements really do work. It might inspire others to follow my lead. It will give this blog a bit more unity and a sense of progress. It will be difficult, but it’s by no means impossible. By God, if No Impact Man can live in the heart of New York city and reduce his carbon footprint to zero, surely I can transform myself into The Perfect Mental Patient. He had to do laundry by hand and read by candlelight, which to my mind is a lot tougher than merely eating more fruits and vegetables.

One caveat: I am not going to take every habit to the extreme. I am not going to train for a marathon while cutting out all refined sugar and flour. And I’m not going cold turkey on caffeine. Each month I will make a meaningful but doable adjustment.

So here’s the schedule:

January: Walk 20 minutes a day; improve existing relationships (i.e., answer my phone and email, and place calls regularly)
February: Restart my yoga practice and pray for 15 minutes daily
March: Eat the recommended number of servings of fruits and vegetables; practice relentless cognitive therapy
April: Work further on my social phobia and follow all recommendations for sleep hygiene (goodbye eating in bed!)
May: Volunteer for two hours a week; write and follow a relapse prevention plan
June: Set a firm morning and evening schedule, and follow David Burns’ recommendations for good communication skills (which are eerily like those of Dale Carnegie)

You’re probably thinking, What about the caffeine, smarty-pants? Well, I’ve already cut back, and I will taper off slowly over the next several weeks. So there.

I’ve only planned through June for three reasons: if I find two habits a month overwhelming, I can switch to one a month. Also, it gives me plenty of room for backsliding. Finally, once I’ve figured out what works, I can start doing more of it come July.

Now, I don’t expect this to be easy. However, it’s hardly impossible, and I have nothing to lose. I really doubt that, say, walking 20 minutes a day, will precipitate me into a depression even more horrible than the last.

And here’s the intriguing part: I started yesterday, and the results were encouraging. I had a most excellent morning walk with a friend, and I answered what phone calls came my way unless I was already on another call or sound asleep. I learned how to use Skype, and had a nice, long video conference with a good friend. I hung out with another friend all afternoon and evening. And you know what? It was a most excellent day. That’s the least time I’ve spent brooding about my problems in months. It was very, very hard to pick up the phone, and I owe some return calls, but, man, it’s almost humbling how just this one changed helped. So I definitely feel motivated to continue, and I’ve begun to cherish the hope that I have the power to improve my life substantially.

Love to all.

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