Mental health days as a kid
In sixth grade, I started attending public school. No sooner had I added this (admittedly normal) routine to my life than I realized the necessity of occasionally taking a break from it. "Mental health days" - that's what my mom called them.
At 11, my mental health wasn't in dire straits. Yes, on one hand, that age marked the beginning of my separation from self. On the other hand, my light angst was developmentally expected. It wasn't depression. It wasn't anxiety. It was just the unavoidable fact that each day of wanting to be somewhere different, or someone different, adds up. Taking a break from school meant it added up at a slower rate. Hence: mental health days were born.
I credit my mom for realizing that mental health days are harmless. I did not actually miss anything when I missed school. I had sufficient fear of inadequacy that no assignments would go undone, no tests failed, due to my absence. Although I've heard it said that attending public school is less about the education, and more about learning vital social skills, I've never heard it said from someone with vital social skills. There are social rules we need to learn, and then there are social rules we will spend most of our lives unlearning. In my experience, high school imparts the latter.
Mental health days as an adult
Although, like most adults, I'm actively revising much of what I learned as a kid, I'll forever defend mental health days. My mom was right - and here's why: Many people - probably most - haven't quite created the daily routine that meets their every need.
Not wants. Needs. We need a level of relational, occupational, and spiritual fulfillment. We don't tend to get all three on a daily basis, and sometimes we're in a place where one or more of these needs is never met.
How do I know these are needs, and not wants? Simply put, it's this: When they go unmet, we get sick. Someone with anemia needs iron. Someone with scurvy needs vitamin c. Someone with chronic, even sub-clinical anxiety or depression needs something, too. We take mental health days because the steady accumulation of "typical days" - while important, while sometimes fulfilling - has left one or more needs unmet.
When I was 11, a mental health day was often spent doing something creative, eating something fun, spending a little more time with my sister. Now that I am 27, a mental health day looks a little different. Folding laundry. Doing dishes. Avoiding email. Minimizing my use of screens. Exercising, if I want to. Writing, if I want to. Petting my cats a little longer, because I always want to.
Responding to the "buts"
But I have too much to do.
But it's self-indulgent to take a day off.
But I haven't worked hard enough to earn a rest.
But work really shouldn't stress me out; it's my anxiety that's the problem.
But if I took a day off - what would I even do with myself? Do I even know what I need?
There's a trick I often used in counseling and still use as a sponsor. I use it when someone can't quite seem to love herself, because loving oneself is hard. Loving oneself is abstract, intangible. It's like loving God, or imagining God's love for us. It's a nice thought, but it doesn't feel like anything.
When someone cannot imagine loving herself, I ask her to think less about the feeling, and more about the behavior. How does it look to show love? If not to yourself, to your child? Your sister? Your partner? What kinds of things would you, and wouldn't you, say to someone you love?
I'm not a parent yet, but I was born with this knowledge. I was born knowing what I wouldn't say to my child:
"Sorry, no breaks today. You have too much to do."
"Nope, that's a little too self-indulgent."
"Sorry kid, you haven't worked hard enough to rest."
"It's your own damn fault that work stresses you out."
That's not what love sounds like. But here's something you might ask a child. And something, I think, we should be asking ourselves. "If I took a day off, what would I do with myself? Do I know what I need?"