Changing habits

I had a bit of an epiphany this week. Some of you might already be caught up on this, so please do excuse my lack of understanding for over 30 years.

I’ve been interested in what it takes to form or break a habit for a number of years. Most significantly since I became a Christian – the habit of bible reading and praying being core to this; going back further, the habit of a routine – getting up and going to school/uni/work, eating “properly”, sleeping well. These are key fundamentals that underpin all of our lives.

Looking at the minutia – tidying up, cooking, doing laundry, making the bed. None of these are habits I’ve ever formed.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I live in a kind of constant chaos – my flat is always a bit of a tip, my desk at work has stuff everywhere (let’s not even mention my desk drawers!) and my wardrobe has more typically been empty and floor full. But I maintain that I know where everything is, and that I can find anything I need in that nonsense – because there is some order to my chaos (to me anyway).

I read ages ago, that to form a habit takes only 31 days. After that, it’s locked in and that’s how it goes. I’ve believed this to be true, however I’ve seen absolutely no evidence of it in my life. I talk about it a lot – I’ve done bible studies that last 31 days, I’ve joined exercise classes that last more than 4 weeks, I’ve been ordering from Gousto and HelloFresh for more than one month – does that mean my habits have changed? No. Does that mean I stopped believing in the line that habits take 31 days to form? No.

Until this week. When I had this revelation. Habits are not something that just happen. Since lockdown, I have spent some time (like a lot of single people, or couples without kids) tidying and organising my flat. We have nowhere else to go, so we work on what we have.

I had made a huge impact – I’d reset my work station, as my personal desk was rarely used I had accumulated a lot of “stuff” on and around it that made it kind of impossible to use. So that all got cleared so I could add my docking station and screen from work, and I cleared space on various shelves to add my notebooks and folders taken from work.

I tidied my room – which in all honesty I’d been avoiding since last time I tackled it (this is a legitimately true story) a huge spider had emerged from a pile of clothes – I was pretty nimble and hoovered it up almost instantly (I am a huge arachnophobe, which is a real struggle when you live on your own!), but when I checked inside the hoover, it was so big it didn’t get killed in the vacuuming, it then proceeded to take up residence inside the vacuum cleaner and I was so scared to empty it, I bought a new hoover on Amazon Prime Day. So I conquered my fear and cleaned anyway – and this time no spiders terrorised me.

I tidied up my living space (my workspace and living space are one – I’ve kind of separated them with my sofa) and gave everything a home (which it hadn’t had before). I was feeling really good about myself and my flat. There was only the kitchen left to sort… and then it happened.

I suffer with depression, and most of the time I’m bobbing along at okayish. Not great, but not terrible. I talked before about how I’ve made myself do certain things whilst working from home, like getting dressed everyday as though I were going to work, not working from home (which could easily mean the t-shirts I wear to slob around the house in, not tops I’d wear to work) but like I said – just because I’ve been doing that for more than 31 days, doesn’t mean I keep doing it. I was struggling to get out of bed, I stopped cooking the boxes of food that were arriving from HelloFresh, I stopped taking care of myself.

I could feel myself plummeting down the spiral of depression, and I wanted to shout out for help and ask someone to grab hold of me and pull me up before I’d got to the bottom of the chute. Problem is we’re in lockdown, and no one can walk through my front door and help me, and although I wanted to shoutout – I didn’t know who to shout to or what to ask for. I just knew I needed help.

I’ve been rewatching Criminal Minds on Prime Video and they were working a case and one of the characters, Spencer Reid, talked about depression, and it felt like he was talking about me in my situation. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something along the lines of: depression is difficult – when it triggers you stop caring for yourself and your surroundings, then being in those surroundings makes you feel worse, but you feel frozen in that situation. It’s a vicious circle.

It resonated with me. I was sitting there with greasy hair, in my pyjamas I’d had on for too many days in a room that only a week before had looked great, but now was a reflection of my mental state. It made me think how my flat was a careful ecosystem, and how it reflected how I felt at any given stage.

Just because I’d worked so hard to make my flat look great, didn’t mean it was going to look after itself without me thinking about it. When I fall down that spiral, I tend to stop eating well and eat cereal for every meal. I stop washing regularly (which is gross but I live on my own and it’s lockdown, so I’m not inflicting my gross-ness on anyone else) and I just kind of collapse in on myself.

Creating habits isn’t a 31 day process and then it’s mindless and easy. Habits are like a relationship. They take time to form and they take work to maintain. But the habits that are fruitful are the habits worth creating, much like relationships. But they are work.

No one was going to come and pull me out of the spiral of depression. I called Validium (my work’s employee assistance programme which provides all kinds of help including counselling over the phone) and I spoke to someone about how I was feeling, which was helpful. As someone on their own at this time, just talking to someone makes such a world of difference (especially as I’m a world class over thinker, so spending too much time in my head is a dangerous place to be sometimes). But I kind of had an outer body experience and saw myself and my flat through fresh eyes, and I realised, to make things better, I had to do them. And it wasn’t going to be easy.

To try and make you understand what that felt like, as someone who was paralysed with depression to get up and move and be proactive about making choices to make myself feel better and not feel like Spencer Reid said – in that pit where I feel bad, my surroundings makes me feel bad, and I’m caught in the endless loop, I’m going to refer you to this film clip:

No swearing or violence in this clip – promise!

I got up – I washed up the mound of bowls that had held cereal for every meal, I tidied up my flat again, I washed (hallelujah) – and it was far from easy. I was like every movement was weighed down with a lead weight. But the more I moved, the easier it became. I was like the tin man all rusted up and the oil was this epiphany that I had to do it myself (no Dorothy to come save this tin man) and as I started moving, I felt better and better and better.

Actually, rewatching that video, it feels even more fitting, as depression does feel like a rain filled cloud coming over your life as you’re going about your normal business. Though unlike the tin man, I do have a heart – it just feels clouded over when I feel particularly low. I did, however, like the tin man, need oiling a few extra times after the first round – because it was so easy to feel defeated by one thing and sit back down and rust up again. But I now feel incredibly okay again – and this has been the first time I’ve successfully pulled myself back out of the spiral.

It’s also helped, that I’ve started “attending” church again – lockdown has made it easier than ever to access a church service. And I have formed a new habit, that’s been going three weeks now – I tune into Emmaus Road‘s service on Sunday mornings at 10am, I sing along with the worship songs, I take communion (in the shape of party rings and squash, but Jesus knows what I mean), and I listen to the message. Today I had this vision that my flat isn’t empty – it’s like it’s been filled up with the Holy Spirit – I can really feel God’s presence here. He doesn’t care if I’ve done the washing up, or if my living space is perfectly tidy, He cares that I’m happy and healthy. So I don’t think I pulled myself out of the spiral on my own – I don’t think I’m capable of that. I believe that God helped me do it – because he is capable of anything.

I’ve also started a weekly (ish) bible study with my mum and sister. We’re on week 2 of Lisa Harper’s Malachi bible study, and it’s a bit of a challenge – thinking about God’s love through Jesus, and it’s made me rethink a bit about what I believe and what I think of as “theory” – I say Jesus loves everyone regardless of who they are, but do I believe that applies to me? We talked this week about times God has felt shatteringly present, and it made me crave more of that presence.

So here’s to another week in lockdown, and some new lessons learnt, habits broken and formed.

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