Tuesday, August 21, 2018

When Your Mental Health Affects Your Financial Well-Being


Connecting mental and financial wellness


For a while now, I've been wanting to revisit a topic I've broached in a few previous posts: how my mental health impacts my financial well-being. For me, the two are closely connected. 

My dicey mental health is something that I've long struggled with, and I know I'm not alone. In fact, I'd bet a lot of money that most of us deal with mental health issues of some sort because let's face it: being human is really, really hard. Our minds are placed under enormous amounts of stress every day. We're all doing the best we can to cope. (That's something I tell myself a lot when I find myself getting annoyed at others... They're doing the best they can in the moment, as we all are, and we need to cut each other a little slack.)

While I'm not quite ready to parade out all of the diagnoses that therapists and doctors have assigned to me over the years (at some point I want to put it all out there and talk about it openly, because I think transparency and vulnerability are incredibly powerful), I will say that depression and anxiety are constants in my life. Usually they tag-team with one another: I'll come out of a depressive episode to find my anxiety ramping up, or my anxiety will settle down only for depression to tuck in for a long stay.

Other people have likened depression to a large dog that follows you everywhere and anxiety to a monkey that crashes around in your mind. Both are apt analogies. I've been dealing with the dog and the monkey for such a long time that they're veritably woven into the fabric of my daily experience. Just as a fish doesn't swim around thinking about how wet the water is, I don't always go through my life with a conscious awareness of my depression, anxiety, and other idiosyncrasies because that's the mental environment in which I live (and even occasionally thrive). Sometimes I'm very good at operating as if the big dog isn't right under foot and the monkey isn't playing heavy metal in my prefrontal cortex. Sometimes, for a short while, I can even let myself think they're not there at all. I can convince myself that I've got it all under control.

So what's often tough to admit is the extent to which my mental health has affected my finances and career. There's no doubt it has had, and is having, an impact, but I have to be careful about how much I allow myself to analyze the consequences of a situation I can't always control (even though I feel like I should be able to, always). Writing about this is challenging for me because it means looking at some hard truths.

Impact #1: Sometimes I've spent lots and lots of money (even money I didn't have) for the opportunity to feel better. 


I don't often do this now, but in the past, whenever I felt truly awful, I'd bust out my wallet in a desperate effort to shake off the unbearable feelings. Personally, I've never been that enticed by things. New clothes and fresh home decor have rarely dragged me out of a slump and usually made me feel worse in the long run. But what did always seem to help was travel. Particularly when I was in my twenties, I'd think nothing of spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on spur-of-the-moment vacations and adventures. Cruises, expensive resort stays, even a semester-long adventure course in Europe - all of them were attempts to extricate myself from the giant tar pit in my brain.

And honestly, it almost always worked. These escapades helped me un-stick myself, introduced me to people and cultures that I might not have otherwise known, and built my self-confidence. Despite the damage that traveling did to my credit card balance, I look back at it with barely a shred of regret.

 If I were wealthy, I might still be using this coping technique on a regular basis. And you know, if things got bad enough, I think I'd still be willing to throw much of my savings at a plane ticket if it meant feeling better.

Impact #2: I've had a hard time staying in any one place for an extended period of time. 


Not only have we physically moved multiple times in the past 15 years, I've regularly changed jobs, too. I'm not a psychotherapist so I won't pretend to understand the psychological nitty-gritty of why this happens, but I know that people with certain types of mental illnesses often get into a cycle of starting over. Each time, things go well for a while. Then something bad happens. They blame themselves. The atmosphere - for them - changes, and the situation becomes disorienting. Suddenly, the experience starts to crumble, and their instinct is to flee. So they leave and begin somewhere or something new. Lather, rinse, and of course repeat, because problematically, no matter where you go, there you are.

Hey, you're thinking, just stick around! Take it day by day! Give it time! It'll get better! All good instincts, but trust me when I say that it isn't that simple. In the mind of the person who's wired in this fashion, it's a Code Red fight or flight scenario each and every time. Taking a few deep breaths and a mental health day won't solve the problem.

Moving is expensive. Changing jobs and careers is very, very expensive: think of the lost bonuses, raises, and promotions. While I haven't crunched the numbers to see what I've missed out on, I know that my peripatetic lifestyle has definitely cost me.

To some extent, I've successfully modified my tendency to up and leave. We love where we live now, and my partner and I have basically agreed that every choice we make needs to accommodate our commitment to staying here. As for work, I promise myself that I will stay in every job for at least a year, which is a timeline I can hold myself to without panicking or feeling suffocated.

But this area continues to be a challenge for me. Usually, my mental illness and traditional work environments/expectations don't mesh that well, and that's something I'm still trying to figure out.

Impact #3: Little desire to invest in the future


For a very, very long time, I struggled to picture myself in a year, much less 10 or 30 years down the road. This common phenomenon is known as "present bias," and it is not limited to those who deal with mental illness. But I think that particularly when you are grappling with any kind of condition that causes a great deal of pain - physical or mental - the future can seem so nebulous and incomprehensible that spending any time thinking about it or planning for it seems like a giant waste of time.

That's how it felt to me, and that's why I didn't invest in it. Especially when I was in my 20s and early 30s, when I was still figuring out how to cope with my mental health issues, I didn't want to put money into the future. The present was demanding enough, and it was there that I spent my time, energy, and money.

To me, people telling me to invest was like telling me, "Hey, civilization might live on Mars one day, so you might want to start packing your bags." Okay. Sure.

As a result, I didn't save or invest much, and obviously that has an impact now that I'm in the future that younger me couldn't imagine. That's why I'm so in awe of my friends who are just out of college and already shoveling more than half of each paycheck into their retirement funds: they have a concept of the future that I just didn't. 

Doing the best I can with what I've got, and being okay with that


While I think anybody can improve their situation, I also think that mental health is likely to be a lifelong struggle for me. It's just how I'm wired and how my brain handles stimuli from this go-go-go world in which we live. My brain hits its limits on a fairly regular basis. I can't always do what other people do easily.

But the way I respond to these challenges has changed for the better - mostly in the sense that I act less impulsively now - and as a result, I have a much better handle on my personal finances than I used to. I'm very proud of that. Do I think it's going to all go perfectly from here on out? Nope. The goal is to simply do my best with the quirky mind I've got, consider the long-term effects of the decisions I make, and let go of non-ideal choices made when things get difficult.

If you're struggling with depression, anxiety, or mental illness of any kind, know that you are not alone, and give yourself as much credit as you can for fighting a hard battle every day to the best of your ability. And if you feel safe sharing your own experiences here, I'd love to hear them.


Disease Called Debt

17 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I don't have anything to add relating to depression or mental illness, but I suffered severe anxiety (the worst I've ever dealt with) from my recent move. I used money as a way to feel better. It took a bit of a toll in the beginning, but I've managed to reign it in as I settle into a routine and school gets closer.

    I really appreciate you sharing your struggles. I think it's good for us to share these with each other so we know we're not alone, no matter what the struggle may be.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anxiety is a BEAST. I'm so glad you're feeling better. What you are doing - moving across the country, starting school - is so inspiring and courageous. And HARD. I am cheering you on every step of the way.

      Delete
  2. Thank you for this open and honest post Liz. You are so right about the impacts of mental health on finances. I have been analyzing successes and a bit part of it is resiliency and keeping going. Starting over takes so many resources that you are constantly building a new foundation. I often wonder what it would be like if we lived in a system that encouraged positive mental health. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Starting over takes so many resources that you are constantly building a new foundation." YES. You've hit the nail on the head and so adeptly said what I was trying to say! This is something I need to remember when I have the urge to run for the hills and go somewhere new.

      Delete
  3. Yeah, putting it out there can be kind of tough. I've written about being in funks, and that sort of thing before. It is cathartic and maybe helpful to someone else too. The last decade especially I've battled with depression and cycling through bouts of "normal" and bouts of who gives a shit, and why should I give a shit.

    It's a real struggle. I didn't see a therapist or have a support group the 5 yrs I was in Houston and it didn't go well, me self-managing things. I am going to try a support group tomorrow night, now that we're in our new place, and even look into a therapist again just as a pro-active measure.

    Good luck with your battles and thanks for putting this out there. You're not alone that's for sure.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Mr. SSC. I really appreciate that. I hope it is helpful to others. Given that most people do struggle with these very difficult issues, I'm surprised that society isn't more open about discussing them.

      I am still figuring out whether to get a therapist. Okay, I know I SHOULD, but I've done it before and now that I know how important it is to mesh with that individual, I'm reluctant to start the search. I realize that's a poor excuse. LOL.

      Delete
  4. "Just as a fish doesn't swim around thinking about how wet the water is, I don't always go through my life with a conscious awareness of my depression, anxiety, and other idiosyncrasies because that's the mental environment in which I live (and even occasionally thrive)." This, this hit me so hard. I know that your post was about so much more than this, but I've never had anxiety explained so beautifully, and I'm definitely going to use this in the future!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Moriah, for sharing that. I struggle to put my experiences into words sometimes. It's hard to describe what it's like to live with these conditions.

      Delete
  5. I've spent money to try and make myself feel happier before. Never worked. Always been annoyed at myself later on. Like you said, travel does help and it helped me too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Traveling is so beneficial in so many ways, isn't it? I wish I hadn't spent so much money on it, but in the end, I don't regret it. It's shaped me.

      Delete
  6. Thanks for being brave enough to share this. I deal with depression, as well as some anxiety, and one of the big impacts in my life is thinking too much about my money situation, even when everything is fine. This tends to occur at night when I should be drifting off to sleep, and so it impacts my rest as well. When we're dealing with mental health issues, it tends to affect lots of different aspects of our lives. You're right, being a human is really hard and we should be able to talk and be open about our struggles.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Gary - for this comment and for being such a compassionate person. I feel lucky to know you here in the blogosphere/Twittersphere!

      Delete
  7. I've never heard of this cycle of starting over but it sounds alarmingly familiar to me. I definitely deal with diagnosed anxiety and what I suspect is some undiagnosed depression and I'm often completely overwhelmed by how expensive and complicated it can be to get help for these things. It is frustrating to realize there are probably happier ways to lead my life, but to not know how to get there myself and not have the funds or a schedule that allows me to do things like schedule appointments weeks and months in advance.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mel, I completely relate: I, too, get overwhelmed by the process of getting help for some of this stuff. I have "therapist shopped" before, and it was a hard process. It's difficult to make yourself vulnerable to a stranger. That said, someone on Twitter recently shared that she has been doing therapy online, via text and email, and she said it's actually fantastic (and affordable). So that's something I've been considering as an alternative.

      Delete
  8. Great post. I think we all have mental challenges to deal with, even though we are all different. One thing that helps me get past the present bias is shifting to a future self bias. I think - hey if I save $5 on this coffee, in the future I'll have that to look forward to, and even though my life will still be whatever it is in the future, at least I'll have $5 more and so it will be the smallest bit better. I do this constantly and it helps me and certainly has given me confidence over time. I can't tell you how much getting rid of your debt and having financial freedom will do for your anxiety!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, JP! I certainly do think it will help! Annoyingly, much of my anxiety seems to stem from minor issues or even NON-ISSUES. Like, if I don't have something to worry about, my brain will make something up for me to stress over. I cope better than I used to: I am constantly using self-talk to shift my perspective and remind myself that the sky is actually not falling.

      Delete
    2. Yeah I do that too. My wife will find me pacing the house looking for some minor item. I wont stop thinking about it until the mystery is solved. Slightly OCD I guess, and there isnt anything to do about that. Or I will worry about some small scratch in an item etc. It has gotten better as I have aged...At some point you stop worrying so much because you realize how short life is...:)

      Delete

Coming To You LIVE From The Debt Repayment Pain Cave

There's a point in every long race that's known as The Pain Cave. It's the point where you can't remember why you ever...