I am really good at large-scale projects. I have started a theatre company, written a book, and earned two Masters degrees. When directing a musical, I know how long it will take to block each scene, learn each song, and load in for tech. I can practically write curricula in my sleep.
I don’t explain all of this to boast. I offer it instead as a contrast to my greatest weakness:
Give me a major assignment and I will deliver. Ask me to clean the kitchen, and I will stand paralyzed with a dish rag in my hand before giving up and taking a nap.
Of course a lot of this discrepancy can be explained by lack of interest. I like directing musicals. I don’t like putting the laundry away. But as a person who has suffered from depression my entire life, there’s more to it than that. Small tasks seem mundane. They can start to feel pointless. Feeling pointless leads to avoidance. And avoidance can make a small task like doing the dishes became an overwhelming task like trying to clean the whole house.
If I lived my life alone as a quirky artist, none of this would matter. I’d keep myself busy with art-making and live in chaos. Or if I had a steady full-time job in one location that paid a ton of money, it wouldn’t matter. I would work all day, pay someone to clean up my mess, and come home to an organized life.
But. I am neither alone, nor wealthy. And this September, after a surprising job loss, I found myself in a new situation: half PTA Mom, half Independent Performing Arts Teacher.
I was thrilled to be able to spend time volunteering for my daughter’s school, while teaching whenever, wherever, whatever, and whomever I wanted. But it meant I was completely in charge of my time. I didn’t technically have to do anything. If I wanted to nap all day in front of the TV in my pajamas, I could. It wasn’t the best choice for me or for my family. But I could. If I wanted to cancel all my piano lessons, there was no boss over me to say I had to go. I would lose all my students, but that would be my choice.
It was incredible freedom. And, as a person with chronic depression, it was an incredible challenge. After a few days of actually napping in front of the TV in pajamas all day, I knew I needed to do three things:
- Figure out what I actually wanted to do with my time.
- Turn to the experts.
- Manage my expectations.
The first step was the easiest. I sat down with pen and paper and journaled a bit. And before long, it was clear that I wanted a cleaner, more organized home, and better habits related to exercise and nutrition. I also knew that I wanted a more connected spiritual life.
I know a lot of things about a lot of things. But I didn’t know much about housework (even at 40). And I didn’t know much about fitness or nutrition (even as a former college cheerleader). And I didn’t know much about reading the Bible (even as a Christian).
Fortunately, there are experts in all of those fields. And they are accessible online, either free of charge, or for a reasonable fee. As much as I love to know it all and do it all myself, there was no need to reinvent the wheel. I found the plans that worked best for me, and followed them step by tiny step.
There were times, especially in the first month or so, when my inner brat fought me. It told me I shouldn’t need these silly tutorials. I should know how to clean a house. I should know what “eat better” means. That inner brat — the one who says “should” a lot — is an especially tough problem for those of us who battle depression. But I had something she didn’t count on: years and years of therapy.
So I was able to tell that brat that she was wrong. That it was unreasonable to think I could be an expert at everything. That it was unreasonable to assume that I could take on brand new habits right away and have them be easy. That it was a really good idea to take things one step at a time.
And that’s where that third step came in. Managing my expectations.
When I’m music directing a youth production, I don’t panic when everything falls apart the day we add choreography. I just look at the director and say “Yep. That always happens.” I understand the whole process, and I know things will come together.
Further, I know that if they don’t come together, I have the tools to fix it. And I know I will feel a sense of accomplishment on opening night because I’ve done this a million times and I’m good at my job.
But when I look up and suddenly the kitchen dishes have piled up again and there’s clean laundry all over the couch so we can’t even sit down and I haven’t worked out or read my Bible in a week and I’m eating chocolate ice cream from the container… Well, it’s tempting to call the whole thing a loss.
That’s when I take a deep breath, and remember the words of my dear friend Maria VonTrapp. “Let’s start at the very beginning.” I refer to my daily list of routines, and I just do the next step. Often, that will give me the confidence to do the next step. And on really great days, I’ll flip through my daily routines and enjoy all the little check marks I’ve made.
There’s a strong temptation every January to start over. Change all the things! Start all the habits! Fix all the wrongs! This January, for the first time in a long time, I’m taking a different approach. I’ll wake up every morning and simply do the first thing.
And if I work very hard, by next January I might not have to work so hard at it.
Want to know more about the specific resources I use? Check out my series on ThoroughlyModernMommy.com