Content note: This article contains references to suicidal ideation and a suicide attempt.
I have always lived one step away from suicide.
Or more specifically, the way I manage my suicidal thoughts is through imagery. Suicide sits in a cage in my brain. The cage is locked. I have the key but I won’t use it because of my son.
I made that decision after my first and only suicide attempt. I thought I had a handle on things until three years ago, when I fell into one of my deepest, darkest, most self-destructive meltdowns.
I discovered that there are other ways to kill yourself without suicide.
I caught myself halfway down into the pit of a self-inflicted slow death. It was a painful scratching, clawing of a journey back out.
There are days I am surprised I’m even here.
Due to the guilt I associate with the inability to function for long periods, very early in my life I became obsessed with idea of discipline and willpower. For a long time, I was convinced my problem was that I was weak-willed. Even years into therapy and medication, sometimes I get that voice telling me I’m not trying hard enough.
I have dulled that voice over time. It may seem contradictory, but accepting the fact that it’s hard for me to do simple things is actually empowering. If I acknowledge that it was hard to get out of bed and brush my teeth (and it honestly feels like Sisyphus and his f*cking rock some days) then I also get to acknowledge the strength it took to do it. That knowledge can be a strong motivator.
Despite acknowledging that I do indeed have an illness, I have remained fascinated by the science of willpower. Most of my reading so far compares willpower to a muscle. It can be trained and strengthened. Unfortunately, it can also be exhausted, which is why we make poorer choices when we are tired or hungry or drunk. I love the concept of training your willpower like a metaphorical muscle.
Literally anything can be a willpower exercise as long as you do it in a regularly prescribed way. The very act of doing something on a schedule improves your willpower. Learning about this concept made me think about ritual and how it is built into so many religions and cultures: praying at set times, lighting candles, meditating every morning. All of these things, I realized, can work to boost your willpower.
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As I was crawling out of my mental health pit, I started thinking about willpower and ritual and if I could use some simple exercises to get me back on my feet, quite literally. I crafted a very short list of rituals, which were really just mundane daily tasks:
- Wake up and get out of bed in the morning.
- Shower and brush my teeth.
- Make and eat a healthy breakfast.
- Handwrite my goals and affirmations. (These were long-term goals and affirmations about the kind of person I wanted to be and the kind of life I wanted. They were only a page and I couldn’t just read them, I had to handwrite them out every morning… even if I felt like a fool doing it.)
That was it. I had no other requirements. I could go back to bed after that and read or sleep or cry or play mindless games on my phone, whatever my choice of numbing poison was that day, as long as I did those four things. Over time I would add more items to the list such as house cleaning, cooking, baking, and taking care of errands that had piled up over the months. As you can imagine, I’d lost my job during the months of the descent into the dark pit.
At this point I have to acknowledge the privilege that allowed me the time and space to work towards being healthy. A combination of help from family and friends and government assistance allowed me to feed and house my son and myself through this journey. (Accepting the help available to you is one of the lessons I learned. And, yes, accepting help can be hard.)
Once I was semi-functional, meaning I could take care of myself, my son, and the household without too much trouble, my next step was to become productive. For me this meant writing my novels.
One day, I was complaining to my best friend about how difficult the writing process was for me, and he said, “Just think of your writing as digging a grave.” I responded, “I can’t dig a f*cking grave because I don’t have a shovel!” He answered with the quip, “Even if all you have is a spoon you can still dig a grave; it will just take longer.”
I decided to literally think of my work as digging, and that the only tool I had was a spoon. From this foundation I then made a list of rules. I changed what I was digging to a ditch, since a grave is rather morbid for a self-help tool! And so my spoon rules were created.
When All You Have Is A Spoon
1. Self-Care is Supreme
This means if you do nothing else today, you WILL do self-care. A spoon may not be much, but it’s all you have. If you break it, you’re screwed!
2. Seek Help
Don’t be afraid or ashamed to get the help you need to keep your spoon in the best condition possible. This help could consist of friends, family, doctors, therapists, and/or medication. If you can access it, use the help. Keep in mind that what you need may change over the years.
3. Cultivate Radical Acceptance
Get comfortable with your spoon and stop wishing you had a shovel. Wishing for a tool (a brain, a body, a life) you don’t have is a waste of energy. Use what you have because it’s ALL you have. It will eventually get the job done if you do the work.
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4. Be Kind to Yourself
Being kind to yourself is ESSENTIAL. Digging with a spoon takes a lot of energy. Don’t waste it beating yourself up.
You will f*ck up. You will fall down. Acknowledge it. Assess your situation. Get up. Forgive yourself. And keep going.
5. Start Now
Seriously, all you have is a spoon. It takes forever to dig a ditch with a spoon. Tomorrow won’t be easier than today. Next week won’t be easier than this week. No matter WHEN you start, digging a ditch with a spoon is going to be hard. So you might as well start now.
Dig every day. No matter how little. Just dig! In other words, do the work. Even when you don’t believe in yourself. Do it. Because while believing in yourself can make doing The Work easier, whether or not you believe, if you do the work, it will get done!
I cannot tell you how to use the rules, or even if you should use them. I wrote them for me and never imagined I would be sharing them so publicly. However, my sincere hope is that if you are struggling to be productive and you suffer from mental illness, these rules can help guide you.
Remember: The Spoon Rules are not for when you are deep in the darkness. When you are in that space, you need to focus on self-care, especially ritual as therapy. Where I think the Spoon Rules come in is when you are in a space where you are just surviving, but you want to do more.
Many self-help books and productivity apps and workflow strategies may not work because they run on the assumption that you have a shovel. But you don’t. All you have is a spoon. Maybe it’s a teaspoon. Maybe it’s dented or chipped but it’s all you have.
I am here to tell you that your one spoon, whatever shape it’s in, is enough.
[Feature Image: Photo of a person wearing an olive green parka that obscures their face as they sit at a table with their head down. Their forehead rests on their fist. On one finger is a black ring. To their right is a navy backpack sitting on the table. A window is visible to their left, with sunlight streaming in onto the table. Source: Hichem Deghmoum via Pexels]