Like many children, my youthful escape hatch typically involved books, stories, and my imagination. When things felt challenging at home – whether my parents argued about family trips (my dad preferred spontaneous adventures and my mom vehemently opposed voyages lacking meticulous planning) or my siblings squabbled (about everything from who got the last cookie in the jar to the best football team) – at some point I learned to move away from the fray and toward my own peaceful place. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, good self-care requires making choices about when to invest energy in others’ battles and when to let things go.
As a young mother in a precarious marriage with a sour-tempered man, I eventually found my way out. Initially I sought escape, after the kids fell asleep and while my spouse worked nights or drank with friends, by diving into any good story filled with loving characters and a bit of humor. That often got me through, but after my spouse physically assaulted me, I opted to take action and reached out to a domestic violence hotline. Through that connection, I had the opportunity to work with a therapist and, with some help from my imagination, to assess and change my situation.
During the same time, I had written a few articles for a small local newspaper. In order to jot down inspiration, I stashed a small notepad and pen in my pocket and they accompanied me everywhere. In the days before smartphones, these rustic and affordable devices served me well. One day, after my spouse had an outburst, threatening to throw me down the stairs, I waited for him to exhaust himself and walk away. Taking a breath, I pulled out my notebook and wrote out some notes as if I were an observer stating facts without interpretation. When I presented that information to my therapist, we established a behavioral pattern and later those notes showed the behavior intensified.
Though I wish I could state I immediately fled, I did not. In fact, I could barely imagine a different way of living until two great things happened. My spouse accepted an opportunity to travel for his work. His absence for several months brought so much peace into the home that neither the children nor I could ignore the calm. To help make ends meet during my spouse’s absence, I found a better paying job and enrolled in a university class. Nothing earth-shattering, but in the workplace, I met people who called me brilliant, reliable, and competent. In my class, I met people with dreams and goals that inspired me.
This colorful bouquet of new people in my life helped me understand that asking for advice and help did not indicate weakness, but strength. Their support meant a lot, though my biggest lesson was that it’s hard to physically step outside any situation until we can imagine something different. And I had a great imagination. I just needed to exercise it.
Here are some ways I employed that creative spark:
I heard a story about a famous psychologist who worked with couples and asked them, at the start of a marriage-encounter type weekend, to go to their rooms and turn the toilet paper roll around. If it normally fell off the front, switch it to fall off the back, and vice versa. In his case, if folks admitted they didn’t do this, he refunded their money and sent them home. He pointed out it was a very small inconvenience and if they weren’t willing to do that, he questioned their readiness for change. I switched the toilet paper roll. It sounds odd, but I still do that now and then to help me notice something I largely ignore (unless it’s gone 😊) and to realize that feeling upset at a “backwards” toilet tissue roll is actually quite silly. The same holds true for lots of other small inconveniences.
My commute to work felt so boring. One day I took a different route. Literally. All those years ago, I noticed changing my route kept me more mindful. If you use public transportation (good job, you!) change your routine so instead of reading a book, speak with someone or listen to music or anything that is, for you, a change. If you absolutely cannot change those things, imagine the last time you traveled. During your commute to work or the market or church or school, look at the world around you as if you’ve never seen it before. I call it seeing through new eyes, waking up imagination.
When you find yourself in a situation that troubles you and you feel stuck, consider looking beyond your immediate resources for help.
- Though working with a professional may sound scary, and finding the right person may not happen immediately, having someone who will listen can make a huge difference. There are affordable resources if you can’t afford a licensed psychologist or therapist, including pastors, school counselors, and students who are finishing advanced degrees in mental health counseling or social work. The website www.opencounseling.com has some articles with good tips and can connect you to someone in the US. In addition, for mental health resources as well as medical and more, visit www.auntbertha.com.
- It might be that you just need someone who gets you and isn’t going to lie to you. For me, my great aunts – wise and very outspoken women – were folks I could turn to. If friends or family won’t work, perhaps a friend will loan you their aunt or cousin who has a gift for helping people.
- There are also online groups, including anonymous ones, that offer very low cost or free services. The National Alliance for Mental Illness (please don’t let the name scare you off) has an article and a listing of some online groups. To learn more, visit: https://nami.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/360024615074-Are-there-any-online-resources-for-therapy-support-groups-or-mental-health-apps-.
Once upon a time I used my imagination to write down a plan for times when I feel stressed and can’t quite get myself to that logical, rational person I am. My plan is a handy list of what works for me and when it’s time to pull out the plan. If you make a plan, suggest you include:
- Your Tells: the signs that you’re super-stressed or otherwise challenged. Over-stressed me gets clumsy, my throat feels tight, I feel antsy and tired at the same time, I don’t concentrate well.
- Coping: Ask yourself: Hungry? (Eat). Angry? (Take a Break). Tired? (Nap). Lonely? (Reach out). Undecided? (Breathe). When you need more, go for a distraction.
- Distractions: I like funny movies, sudoku puzzles, journaling, walking, listening to happy or soothing tunes, and baking. Try to come up with at least 20 so you have options to choose from.
- Connections: Name people who will be there for you to listen and offer support. Include their contact info. These folks can be anyone meaningful to you who has your back.
- The Big Guns: These are professionals such as your physician, your therapist or other mental health helper if you have one, your pastor or other religious elder, and a hotline or two.
More in-depth plans are often suggested for people who are considering suicide. If you are thinking about ending your life, please tell your doctor, go to a hospital, call a suicide hotline, or call 911 / the emergency services line in your area. The info I share here I have on stand-by for my own self-care when I don’t know where to start.
Imagination sometimes gets a bad rap, but it can elevate us when we feel ourselves sinking. Tapping into that power can help us re-envision our world and our future. Einstein said, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” May your imagination take you to great places!
[i] “Gaslighting is an insidious form of manipulation and psychological control. Victims of gaslighting are deliberately and systematically fed false information that leads them to question what they know to be true, often about themselves. They may end up doubting their judgment, their perception, and even their sanity. Over time, a gaslighter’s manipulations can grow more complex and potent, making it increasingly difficult for the victim to see the truth.” (From Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/gaslighting)