The life-changing magic of community resilience: a quest for better mental health management
The second law of thermodynamics reminds us that everything is moving towards disorder and chaos. Yet, as humans, we seek balance, or at least self-help books have taught us to do so. We are taught to find our inner peace, create work-life balance, equilibrium, blah blah blah. But the universe and thermodynamics are, by law, working against us.
In the age of Marie Kondo’s ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” , traditional Japanese wisdom mixed with practical life skills teaches us to reduce the chaos and bring balance and peace back to our house. I recently watched one episode of the Netflix follow-up to the book and was like, YEAH – I need less chaos, let’s do this. “This” resulted in a week of pure chaos of mind and home, followed by much less chaos and with the help of my father, lean manufacturing expert, an impressive implementation of a lean-household that I like to think Marie would be proud of (important side note - Lean Principles originated from Toyota in Japan).
But in a matter of moments post-Marie-Kondo-household implementation, the chaos sets in. Damn thermodynamics. I would like leave the house a museum, an untouched monument proving proof to the world that Rachael Cox is capable of creating balance, peace, and lean-principled organization in her household. I am often mocked for my inability to keep a place organized, thus the importance of showing off my museum of household perfection, while in reality, many of us who battle to keep mental illness in check on a daily basis know that this is an embarrassing, reality of our illness. People wonder how I can keep a job or business together but not my home. We all have limited energy, so we choose, I suppose.
It turns out science may be in favor of my chaos, suggesting that my tendency to chaos in arriving late and having a not so tidy house can lead to more creativity and be connected to being hyper-smart. I break it down to trying to run businesses in multiple countries that make social impact and turn a profit (which we haven’t achieved yet, but we won’t give up trying yet!) AND get a good night sleep to be a happy healthy person COMBINED with a brain that is already creating chaos and at odds with order AND entropy – chaos – thermodynamics.
STOP blaming me. It’s the second law of thermodynamics.
For as much money collectively humanity has spent on looking for solutions to organize our lives, organize our houses, find inner peace, and whatnot, we do a lot to intentionally bring our lives and our homes out of balance. Along the argument that balance is the essential “good” and imbalance is “evil” it makes no sense that we would do this, yet we do it anyway. A few examples:
People throw themselves down mountains on slippery plastic extra waxed up death skis “for fun” weaving between other people and trees, risking bones and brains in the process. Arguably this would put the human body out of its ‘balanced’ mode. People pay a lot of money to do this imbalance. We put ourselves in airplanes and move at jet speeds across oceans and time zones, so far that our bodies and brains don’t know what time or day it is, what language to speak, and if the food we eat will make us sick or not. Complete imbalance.
I live and embrace imbalance and chaos and somehow chaos becomes part of my routine. This drives people around me crazy but we each approach life in a different way. Much of what I love about living outside the well-organized, well-oiled machine of smaller towns in the United States is that every day is full of surprises. The chaos leads to moments of beauty, surprise culinary delights, and unexpected friendships. Sometimes I lose control of my chaos-into-routine and this is when problems arise. But first a word on ecology, a fascinating, and you will see, relevant scientific discipline.
Academically speaking, I was trained as both an agricultural scientist and an ecologist. These two sciences are so often in strict opposition to one another because ecology is considered a science to study if you care about the environment is agriculture is in many cases posed as a science or practice that doesn’t pay much attention to environmental concerns.
Ecology is the study of the interaction of the biotic (living, like plants and animals) actors in a system with their abiotic (non-living, like rocks) components, and how many diverse species in a community come to interact and form stable or unstable ecosystems. We study balanced and imbalanced ecosystems and learn why and how they come to be this way.
Agriculture on the other hand is the purposeful disrupting of ecosystems, creating imbalance in order to grow food, fiber, or fuel. I was trained to disrupt and create imbalance. Humans rely on this as the basis of life. Disrupt the balance of ecosystems.
Here we go again, humanity. We want balance and internal peace and super clean organized homes (or so I am told) yet our entire existence on planet earth is one big disruption towards chaos and imbalance to grow food and exist.
So how on earth Marie Kondo, my mental illness, and my academic formation in ecology and agriculture is all related and it took me a while to figure it out too. The reason I am so fixated these days on ecosystem stability and home tidying is due to a minor, and near major, relapse in my mental health management.
In ecology we study something called resilience. According an original paper from a Japanese Scientist Takehiro Sasaki (I swear I didn't intend to bring together three Japanese themes today, it was an accident!!) ecosystem resilience is “Ecosystem resilience is the inherent ability to absorb various disturbances and reorganize while undergoing state changes to maintain critical functions”.
The concept can be summed up in this graph nicely:
How does an ecosystem to react to a stressful event? Does it collapse? Does it keep going? Does one species take over and dominate? Is the biodiversity able to react and find balance again? The concept of resilience is relevant to what we think of as natural ecosystems, like a rainforest or a prairie, but we can also think about it in terms of societies or the human body as well. How does a society react to stress? Say, an earthquake or a hurricane, are we able to “absorb the disturbance and reorganize while undergoing changes AND maintain critical functions”?
And in this case, for my writing today, Can I absorb the disturbance, react, reorganize and maintain critical functions? Like go to work, keep the business running, be happy, healthy, and stay alive?
For optimal mental health management, and according to various psychiatrists and also extensive research, routine and life-stability is key to successful management of the disease in avoiding manic and depressive episodes.
However, as I’ve discussed, life tends to chaos and no matter how much we desire to control our routines, or in my ecology analogy, there will be disturbances and changes outside of our control. My first psychiatrist post-diagnosis told me I should never travel again to control such disturbances but that was in direct conflict with everything I am as a person, so I have learned tools and tricks for managing disturbances while traveling. I have spent the last three years learning every tool and trick for managing a routine while maintaining a high-stress, highly chaotic life while working abroad in countries that are not highly controlled environments and later as a small-business owner, which is the career choice farthest away from routine and structure I can imagine.
In the last month some major life changes have happened that upended my home situation, my healthy sleep habits, my sense of stability in all senses, and I lost track of my tools and tactics and all the things I normally use to keep my routine that helps me manage my mental illness. I lost a person who I depended on greatly to help manage it all while they were managing their own health. Before I realized, but thankfully before I lost complete control, I had some symptoms that were all too familiar and for anyone who doesn’t live with bipolar or something similar, know someone with it, or study it – REALLY terrifying.
I was at the red arrow on the graph. If I wasn't resilient, I could go here, no recovery, straight into endless destruction:
Or here, a bump down upon disturbance, and a gradual adjustment to a new steady state:
I am a high functioning individual according to most metrics, but I couldn’t ‘pull it together’. And this is before I was REALLY sick, since I managed to catch things. This is the pre-episode oncoming where I realize something is wrong and thankfully I stopped it before it gets really bad.
I have an incredible team of people who run the business with me. We are nine people running a tiny business with big dreams in two countries that don’t talk much about mental health. When your business leader has a major mental health disorder, you can’t ignore it. In parts of the world, including where we work, devil exorcisms are still an existing response to mental illness, because mental illness ‘isn’t a real thing’. And the United States may not be one of the places where exorcisms are common, but the ‘isn’t a real thing’ attitude sure is.
In our teams, we talk openly about mental health, so that all team members know they can ask for help and have a safe space to talk openly, but also so when I am sick and cannot work more than essential functions due to my symptom relapse, the spectacular team of people don't wonder why I "don't look sick". And as they do every day, these weeks they stepped up and made sure things kept running.
Meanwhile I timidly asked for help from people I normally wouldn’t have, I focused on extra treatment from my doctor, I slept a lot and I KondoMar’d my house to try to bring some sense of equilibrium back to at least one aspect of my life I could control. I got back on the most basic of human routines – sleep, eat, walk dogs, shower, repeat.
I would normally scoff at the very specific folding of clothes and I most definitely would never make time in my normal routine to thank my possessions for their role in my life (though I would never scoff at it because I think it is a brilliant practice to practice gratitude), but I did it, because I had some extra free time due to a medically induced fuzzy brain and prescribed rest time from my doctor and family.
While folding and organizing I kept thinking about resilience and ecosystems. I kept thinking about myself as an ecosystem and how this time the ‘disturbance’ or ‘shock’ to my ecosystem was big and how there will always be big shocks and how I want to build a more resilient self. I don’t want to be a ploughed under prairie, shock too big to destroy with only remnants left. I want to be a biodiverse rainforest, that despite invasive species attacking at all sides, the community resists together, adapts, changes, is no longer its exact former self, but continues to ‘maintain critical functions’.
I know that no matter how perfectly folded my clothes and organized my house, this is not going to make me the resilient person I want to be, at least to the extent I want to be. I admit it might help.
So I’ve started brainstorming what I need to be resilient far beyond organized drawers and beyond my normal tips and tricks. I used to depend on one person to help me when I was sick but I need many more. This is getting really agricultural, but a monocrop (one single crop species planted in a field) is one of the least resilient systems in the world as it is susceptible to disease, pests, and economic changes as well.
In ecosystem management, diversity is key to resilience and I know now that my community diversity was key to helping me be resilient through this crisis as well.
An incredible group of people, not large, but diverse, helped me in different ways, to ensure, as a whole community, I got through to the other side. I didn’t want to ask for help because they had never played that exact role in my life before, but I didn’t have to ask for help. They called, rang my doorbell, flew to another country, and just plain showed up in a thousand small and big ways.
We are taught, especially where I grew up in the United States, to be strong, to be independent, to compete with one another, and to suck it up and keep going. We learn to take care of ourselves and we are expected to do that. It is beneficial in many ways for career success and economic independence.
We are not taught to be resilient and we are not taught how to be part of resilient communities where we nurture and support one another. In the way that a diverse community helped create a resilient ecosystem response to my disturbance, near-crisis, near mental health episode, I ask myself how I can do the same for others? How can we have better mechanisms in our society so that we don’t face any such crisis alone?
It is with gratitude I face each day, still alive, knowing that staying alive is one of my biggest challenges in life, a resilient human, in a resilient community that I will now put much more attention and intention, towards strengthening for myself and others.