Monthly Archives: November 2013

The problem with “healthy lifestyles”


I am really struggling. I can barely take care of myself. Whenever I ask for help, whether it is from a professional or a peer, one of (if not THE first) things they tell me is the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle. Get enough sleep, stay hydrated, eat well, exercise and so on. Do you not think I don’t know that? Of course it’s important. I’ve learned enough about healthy lifestyles by now that I could probably write a book. The problem isn’t lack of knowledge or motivation (I know, backwards and forwards, what I’m supposed to be doing). The problem is that leading a healthy lifestyle is hard, very hard, and sometimes (when I’m most vulnerable and depressed and probably could use it the most), the difficulty is such that it’s beyond my reach.

I have a lot of trouble with food for instance. I have trouble eating, not because of any sort of body image issues, but because of the logistics involved in choosing what to put on my plate and preparing it. If somebody were to cook a healthy and balanced meal for me, and put it on my plate (so I wouldn’t even have to decide what to eat or the portion sizes like you do at a restaurant or cafeteria), I’d happily eat it. Ok maybe that’s not quite true, I also have very picky tastes so unless a food tastes good to me (and there aren’t that many foods that do) I probably won’t eat it unless I’ve reached the point of being in pain from starvation. But I do enjoy eating foods that taste good to me and that don’t require effort in preparation or decision-making. 

Of course, you do what you gotta do. I know I’ll get hungry, so I go to the grocery store to make sure my kitchen is well-stocked so I can eat. Grocery-shopping, it itself, is enough to give me a panic attack for the same reason that eating does (overwhelmed with choices, decision-making is hard). But I do it because what choice do I have? I try to pick things that above all, will be easy, that I’ll have the emotional energy to prepare, because if I don’t do that then I’ll go 16+ hours without eating and that is more unhealthy than any amount of crap I put into my body. I buy microwaveable meals. I buy deli meat, tortillas, and cheese to make wraps, but even for that, it has to be a pretty good day because some level of energy and decision-making is involved. I buy tortilla chips and salsa con queso. My favorite thing though is to buy whole meals from the prepared meal aisle, in little containers like you get on airplanes, with the proportions already all divided up and you just need to open the plastic container and eat. I try my best, but no matter how hard I try, the easy foods are not usually the healthiest ones even if you have the money to live entirely off of Annie’s and Helen’s Kitchen organic frozen meals. I feel being forced to choose between eating crappy foods most of the time, or attempting to eat healthful foods but ending up starving myself in the process, and I choose the former.

Exercise. People say if you can’t eat healthy for whatever reason (money, time, energy, whatever), try to make up for it with exercise. Besides exercise gives you endorphins which is great for mental health. What about the days when you’re so depressed that you can barely lift your head off the pillow, never mind run around the block or do sit-ups? On these days, heck, if I manage to walk from the bedroom to the living room I’m happy and proud of myself, and I’ll call that my “exercise” for the day. And what if you just don’t have the time? What if you need to, I dunno, pay the bills, do the laundry, write a term paper, instead? Yesyesyes, I know I know, time is what you make of it and you can always rearrange your schedule and priorities to “make” time for the things that are vitally important. (At least, this is what I’ve heard, though to me it seems like it might as well be a magical power.) But what if you have trouble with time? What if you will be folding your laundry at 2pm one minute, then you look up, and suddenly it’s 3 and the same damn shirt is still in your hand and you have no idea what happened and you thought it was maybe 2:05? What if you act on impulses all the time, logging onto the Internet just to check the weekend’s weather and ending up on Facebook for hours instead (despite knowing that, actually, you don’t even like Facebook?)

I could go on. Sleep, they say, is the answer, obviously I’m too depressed and anxious and scatterbrained to exercise or cook because I haven’t been sleeping well. (Well, duh. I don’t think it would magically eliminate all my problems on its own, but of course it would help, and I wish I could get a good night’s sleep for the first time in like three years.) Again, I know what I’m supposed to do; I have the rules of sleep hygiene memorized and could probably give you an informative lecture on it. No caffeine in the evening, start dimming the lights at least two hours before bed, no TV or computer use in the two hours before bed, sleep the same hours every night, develop a relaxing wind-down routine, etc etc etc. But a lot of times, you do everything right, and still toss and turn all night or wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to go back to sleep. And a lot of times, the only way to get any sleep is to do break the rules, to watch TV in the living room until it’s 4am and you’re so completely exhausted that you collapse on the couch in your clothes with the TV still on. It’ll probably be only a few hours of completely unrestful sleep, and you’ll wake up with a headache and a backache, but hey, at least it’s something. 

And then there’s the fact, just like my issues with food, if I try so hard to memorize and follow this huge list of rules because everyone has me thinking that it’s my fault if I can’t sleep (just like it’s my fault that I’m fat and depressed, right?), then falling asleep becomes this complicated and impossible game. I develop performance anxiety, so obsessed with doing things “right” and so afraid to fail, that I end up scared to even try to sleep, to even face things I associate with sleep (a bed, a pillow, pajamas, brushing my teeth). This anxiety is far stronger, and will ultimately get in my way of sleeping far more than any amount of anxiety that could result from a cup of coffee or bar of chocolate right before bed.

Fuck sleep hygiene, fuck nutrition, fuck exercise.

I guess I’m just tired, yaknow, of people dispelling the advice to “live a healthy lifestyle” as if it’s easy, something that people, given the knowledge of what is healthy and not, can just wake up one day and decide to do. I hate the implied blame and guilting in that, that because healthfulness is this magical cure-all that is within everyone’s reach, if you’re struggling just to get by day to day it must be your fault. You must not be trying hard enough, you must not be trying everything. “Just snap out of it. Have you been eating enough vegetables lately?” (Are you my mom?) And it’s also so hard because I know that lifestyle is a great contributor to mental health and overall well-being, but the people most in need of improvement in these areas are most likely to have trouble achieving it. I feel like I’m running in circles; in order to be happy and healthy and stable, I must live a healthy lifestyle, but in order to be capable of such lifestyle to begin with, I need at least a modicum of mental health and stability already. 

Not everyone is able to lead a healthy lifestyle at all times, for various reasons (whether it relates to capability, accessibility, lack of knowledge or time or spoons, or whatever else). I just wish this were recognized. I also wish it recognized that sometimes, for some people, a healthy lifestyle isn’t even the most important thing to overall well-being. Maybe it’s more important to first work toward a better job, that pays more, to be able to have ultimately have access to a healthy lifestyle, even if in the short-term this is at the expense of health because they must work long hours and eat fast food every day and not sleep or exercise enough in order to move up the career ladder. Maybe a mad person is struggling so much with symptoms that impact their functioning that they need to be on medication with horribly unhealthy side-affects but that stabilizes them, so they can then develop enough skills and resources and support to eventually go off said medication. Maybe it’s better to fall asleep on the couch in clothes while watching TV than to not sleep at all, or to eat frozen food and nachos all too often than to not eat at all. 

And maybe there just isn’t enough time and energy and money and whatever else to do everything “right” (if there even is such a thing), and so we have to choose. Some focus on social life, or career, or love, or schooling, or raising a family, or developing artistically or spiritually, or contributing to the larger world through activism or volunteerism or charity, over a healthy lifestyle. Perhaps temporarily, or perhaps more long-term, but I honestly don’t think it really matters. I think that happiness and fulfillment are what really matter, more than anything else, to health and well-being (the mind and the body are very much connected). And when it comes to this, every person is different and prioritizes different things, and that’s wonderful and we shouldn’t try to change that. So ultimately, though this seems extremely counter-intuitive, I think that sometimes ignoring one’s health can be the best thing a person can do for their health, if that is what’s necessary to achieve a larger and very important goal. 

I’m not sure what I value. I’m still trying to figure that out. Right at this very moment though, I think I’m just trying my best to survive.