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“No” is a complete sentence.
– Shonda Rhimes
Whenever I make plans with a friend, I’m always sure to give them an out. It’s usually something to the tune of, “If you don’t feel like it on the day, it’s okay to cancel. We’ll reschedule or find something else to do.” If they do end up canceling, I don’t get upset. On the contrary, I’m happy for them because they set (and honored) a personal boundary, which is an act of self-care.
Like most people, I too have days when dragging my ass out the front door feels like as insurmountable a task as climbing the Mauna Kea1. It’s not (just) because I live with chronic depression. Sometimes, I simply don’t feel like it, even though I made plans before. And, unlike the Chris of ten years ago, I’ve learned to listen to that gut feeling that tells me you’re gonna feel like shit if you do this thing, so just don’t.
What’s a spoonie? #
A spoonie can refer to any individual who suffers from a chronic illness. These illnesses are often invisible; to most people, spoonies may appear healthy and able-bodied, especially when they are young.
I’ll let you read about the spoons theory on the page where I got that quote from, if you’re interested. The tl;dr is that we spoonies have a limited amount of physical and mental resources, so it’s a good idea for us to be mindful of how we use them.
Note that I said “we”. As a lifelong sufferer of chronic depression (and a few other things), I’m a spoonie, too. I’ve learned to mask it pretty well. Masking, however, takes a toll. It’s tiring in the moment and, if it goes on for long enough, it can sometimes lead to full-blown emotional burnout.
We live in a society #
Spending time with people whose company you enjoy can leave you feel happy and recharged. Conversely, being around people you’re not that fond of can be draining to the point of exhaustion. Sounds simple, right?
The bottom text is ironic.
Sometimes, we’re stuck with people we’d rather throw into the sun2. Other times, we’re stuck doing something we’d rather not be doing. Why do we put ourselves through these things? Well, humans are social creatures (allegedly), and there’s a boatload of social conditioning around doing what other people expect us to do so they like us.
This is exponentially worse if you were born and/or socialized as a woman, but men have their share of it, too. Neurodivergence further compounds the lack of boundaries that’s so typical in those of us who tend to say “yes” to plans almost instinctively, then end up agonizing over the things we agreed to do.
Weddings and funerals #
Content warning: This section deals with violent death, grief and the loss of a parent. If that’s not your cuppa, skip to the next one.
The first and only funeral I attended happened when I was about ten years old. A classmate’s parent died in violent circumstances, and the adults in our lives thought, in their infinite stupidity, that we kids should go to the wake and the funeral as a show of support. The orphaned kid was “drugged out of her poor little mind” (according to my mum). The dead parent was–well, it was an open-casket funeral, and you could kinda tell they hadn’t died peacefully in their sleep.
When they started to close the casket, the surviving parent wouldn’t let them. I’ll remember their cries and wails until the day I die.
This is a big part of the reason why I don’t go to funerals, much to the chagrin of my relatives. The rest of it has to do with my own physical and emotional resources, which are limited at the best of times. As far as societal norms go (in Romania and, I suspect, elsewhere), this is a massive faux pas. It’s also an act of radical self-care that I’ve stuck to for about twenty years now.
At first, I tried to explain to my surviving relatives why I couldn’t deal with the whole thing, from the wake to the funeral procession and religious rites, plural (one at the church, the other one at the graveyard), not to mention the banquet that comes after3. They didn’t get it. They still don’t, but that’s fine. If it comes down to choosing between my mental heath and something that falls squarely into the “what will people think otherwise?” category, I’ll choose not to re-traumatize myself, thanks.
Talk of death, etc. ends here.
Weddings are another big thing I don’t do. Himself and I got hitched in a ceremony consisting of us two, my parents, his mother and my grandmother. We did the City Hall thing, went to a restaurant to eat and drink, and then we went home. No dress, no fuss, and no five-figure bill to mark the occasion. And, best of all, no social debt incurred.
Would I go to a friend’s wedding if they asked? Probably not. I’d get them a nice gift, wish them well, and offer to hang out at a later date so they can vent about their post-wedding blues. And that’s fine. A friend would understand. Someone who didn’t understand was never a true friend to begin with.
Boundaries as self-care #
Setting boundaries around your time and availability (physical, mental or emotional) is a skill that’s easy to try but surprisingly tough to master. When I started doing it, I found that I was pushing against years of conditioning, both from my birth family and from society at large. Deprogramming my brain was a lenghty and imperfect process. That is, until about six years ago.
I’d made plans with a friend who was the pushy sort. They’d say, “We’re doing this,” and I’d be left feeling like I didn’t have a say in it. I had a crush on them, though, so along I went, even if I ended up pondering my life decisions at 1am on a Tuesday in Temple Bar.
This time, though, I fell ill the night before we were supposed to go… somewhere (I forgot), and I still felt like crap on the day. I texted my friend to tell them I was sick and couldn’t make it. They replied with a 🙄.
My immediate reaction, as I lay in bed with a 39 fever (that’s 102.2 in American units), was to feel bad for letting them down. It didn’t occur to me until much later, as I was talking to my therapist about it, that friends don’t do that. A friend might have replied with, “Shit, I’m sorry. Anything you need me to do?” or at least, “We’ll hang out next time, get well soon.”
It also didn’t occur to me, as I spent the following days agonizing over my friend being mad at me, that I was the one who’d put themself in this position by letting them walk all over me on at least a dozen other occasions. To paraphrase Sansa Stark, I may be a slow learner when it comes to interpersonal relationships, but I do learn, eventually.
After this episode, I promised myself I’d never say yes if I dind’t mean it, and that I’d also afford myself the grace of being able to change my mind without shame or remorse.
Since then, I skipped at least one company party, even though I’d come to the office fully intending to follow my coworkers to the venue at the end of the day. I changed an RSVP from “yes” to “no” on the day because I had a migraine and I knew noise and alcohol would make it worse. I unfriended (and sometimes blocked) online connections that felt draining or dangerous.
Did I regret some of these decisions? Sure. Did I feel some degree of FOMO? You betcha. On the whole, though, I found that the more I practiced setting and honoring boundaries, the better I ended up feeling. It’s worth it in the long run.