Turns Out, I’m Coffee: Thoughts on Managing Mental Illness

I hit a mental wall last week, on Thursday, at noon. 

I pulled into my driveway after my morning tasks, sent a few urgent texts, crafted my plan for the afternoon which consisted of Too Many Commitments and No Time to Shower, and couldn’t shake the increasing sense of impending doom. It wasn’t a feeling, per se; not an emotion, necessarily. It was more of a physical response. Fight or Flight. Or Freeze. Or, my personal favorite, Fall Apart. My heartbeat was rapid. My breaths were shallow. Everything on my schedule felt overwhelming and unmanageable, as it had for days, and I could acknowledge to myself in the quiet of my car that the mental illness wall was rising, brick by brick, and getting consistently higher.

I could’ve vaulted it.

It was a surmountable wall still, of a size I’ve overcome before.

I could’ve pushed through. Soldiered on. 

But I’ve met the wall before, and it’s nothing if not determined. Tenacious. I could surpass it if I wanted to, but it would only be bigger when it returned, and I’d only hit it harder in the long run and do more damage to myself.

I’m trying to be wiser, friends. Trying to beat myself up a little less. Trying to make incremental progress on becoming a healthier, happier person. Trying to do what I always tell my kids to do — MAKE GOOD CHOICES, and LISTEN WELL TO YOURSELF, and IT’S OK TO CRY. So I put my head back on my headrest. I took a breath and held it. And then I texted all the folks I wouldn’t be able to see that afternoon because I was sick, and I needed to put myself to bed. 

GOD, THAT’S HARD. To admit I’m unwell when it’s “just” my brain that’s sick? It’s rough. Every time. I DO NOT LIKE MAKING GOOD CHOICES. And I really don’t like managing mental illness.

I feel like it picked the wrong person, you know? I prefer to DO THINGS and to glean self-esteem from external markers, not intrinsic value, bless my heart. I prefer to be proactive, accomplish tasks, reach goals, and follow through on commitments. It’s important to me to be reliable, and I feel like Mental Illness should’ve taken that into consideration before signing me up for a lifetime subscription to Mental Fuckery Weekly without my permission.

Unfortunately, Mental Illness seems committed to teaching me how to fail to meet my own expectations. And then I get to pick whether I’m going to do that with kindness and compassion or cruelty and derision. I’ve tried the latter — I gave it a very solid try — and I don’t recommend it, so now I’m giving the former a shot. We’ll see how it goes. 

I’ve been shallow breathing a lot lately, a sure sign my mental space isn’t doing that hot. As tension and panic increase, so does the height of my shoulders, and I’ll catch myself with my neck muscles tightening and my head trying to sink into my torso. It’s like my upper body is so anxious it’s trying to implode with the black hole centered in my throat, sucking shoulders, neck, head, and back into its vortex. I’ll catch myself clenched with rapid breaths reaching just the top 1/3 of my lungs, like I’ve forgotten I have full lung capacity and can choose to breathe more air — choose to send it all the way down — choose to give my body access to enough oxygen.

I spent the rest of Thursday in bed, practicing breathing and trying not to call myself mean names. 

On Friday, I got out of bed and made myself a cup of coffee.

I bought an electric kettle for Christmas.

It’s a fancy one, chosen specifically to complement Betty the Stove. I needed it to look pretty and heat water, and that’s it; sort of superficial and practical all at once. 

Now, DO NOT TELL OUR BRITISH COMMONWEALTH FRIENDS lest they feel horror and shame on my behalf, but this is my first kettle. Ever. I just felt like… a kettle’s not all that vital. I can boil water in a pot on the stove, so a whole separate appliance sitting next to the stove to serve the same purpose felt redundant. Extravagant. 

Still. Nearly-instant hot water was appealing so I broke down and bought a darling little Russell Hobbs with one redundant, extravagant job. As though I’m worth it. ❤️

AND NOW I DO NOT KNOW HOW I LIVED WITHOUT IT. It’s dreamy, friends. Magical and perfect, and I use it all the day long.

What I didn’t expect to love, though — what I didn’t think about at all — was the temperature gauge on the side.

Yes, as an Oregonian in the heart of Snooty Coffee Country, I’ve heard about the importance of temperature in brewing the perfect cup, but come on. Precision is hardly my strong suit. It’s not that I don’t appreciate others’ emphasis on the exact craft of coffee-making. It’s just, who has the time? Not me is who. As much as my Marine father tried to teach me to do tasks correctly the first time — “would you like to see a Better Way to do that, Beth?” — I live these days by my own mantras: Half Assed is Good Enough, I’m Doing the Best I Can (lie), and Get Off My Back, Man (usually directed at Me.)

Upon acquiring Mr. Hobbs, though, I found myself with a temperature gauge, and, shortly after Christmas, I decided to use it. 

My prior method of brewing coffee was a) boil water, b) grind beans (I am an Oregonian with some standards), and c) poor boiling water over grounds and let steep in a French Press. They’re smaller items to wash than a coffee pot, and I made it in a single serving size so it felt like an acceptable method. (Spoiler: IT WAS NOT AN ACCEPTABLE METHOD.)

Friends, the optimal temperature for brewing coffee is 195-205°F (90-96°C), a few degrees shy of boiling. Turns out, water at a rolling boil makes coffee bitter. Terribly bitter. With an awful, lingering aftertaste.

Oh, you have to let the water get hot to make a good cup. REALLY hot. Hot enough for the beans to feel it.

But not so hot that the beans have nothing left to give but exhaustion and resentment.

Not so hot that the beans burn out in a flash.

Not so hot that they lose the purpose for which they were created and become so much sludge, wasted in an environment for which they were never intended.

You have to let the water get hot for good coffee, but not too hot, which means you’ve got to keep an eye on gauge and pull it before it’s too late. And then you have to let it rest a while before it can release all the goodness it has locked inside.

Listen; coffee was meant for hot water. Coffee isn’t asking to be kept at room temperature. Coffee doesn’t want to be kept in the cupboard where it’s safe and secure. Coffee knows it can take the heat. Coffee welcomes it, in fact. But coffee also knows how much it can accept and when to call it quits before it becomes bitter. Coffee understands the boiling point and that it needs to avoid moving past what it can handle. Coffee knows what it takes to be robust but not acrid. To get the job done but respect its own boundaries because moving past them only creates something harsh and unpalatable. 

And, finally, coffee knows you can’t pour water over the same used grounds and expect them to give anything but weak results. Coffee knows you have to refresh your supply — every time — if you want a strong cup.

I hit a mental wall on Thursday, at noon.

My brain space was past the brink and starting to boil, so I did what I’ve only recently learned to do, and I took it off the heat. Let it rest. Let it steep. Let it cool down.

On Friday, I got out of bed and realized I’m a cup of coffee. And that that’s a pretty fine thing to be.

Sending you love, friends, and waving in the dark,

 

 

 

P.S. I’m not better yet. My brain’s not done needing rest. This one’s going to take time. But I think we’re out of the immediate danger zone as long as we keep a close eye on that gauge. Wish me luck, and I’ll wish you the same.

P.P.S. I rearranged stuff in my kitchen so Mr. Hobbs would look his best. Now that you’ve seen his glamor shot, this is the reality. 

I mean, coffee’s amazing, and I am coffee, but coffee’s also a mess, and I’m coffee then, too. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

P.P.P.S. If you ever find yourself past boiling, and you need immediate help, please call the suicide prevention hotline at 1.800.273.8255. They can help you, and they know how to take boiling water off the heat. 

 

 

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ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
24 comments
  1. You’re allowed to go to bed and do nothing. You’re also allowed to cancel all your appointments and go see a movie…in the middle of the day! Popcorn and no kids? It’s allowed! Really, we mom’s do the “Give, Give, Give” all day long and day after day. You’re human. You’re and adult. Give to yourself a bit too…and guess what…the earth will continue to revolve around the sun! Woo hoo! You have the right to joy in life too. Sending mental hugs!

  2. Too tired to write a proper response… but want to thank you for shining the light. Shine on, Beth. You are brilliant.

  3. This was so beautifully written!
    I don’t know you and I’ve only just discovered your blog (got you set up in my RSS Feed and everything) but for what it’s worth you bring a lot of JOY into my life when I read your posts and giggle. If I’m having a bad day I know your post will put a grin on my face or take my mind off of things. I hope that you feel better soon!

  4. What an awesome analogy!

    Hope you are doing a little better every day…

    Lots of hugs and love

    P.S. Mr Hobbs looks very regal in his spot

  5. take care of yourself

  6. I am in LOVE with the picture this painted. Awesome share Beth!

  7. OMG! When I first started reading this post I thought you wrote that your BREASTS were shallow, not “My breaths were shallow.” And for a split second, before I realized the err of my way, I thought- WTF, Beth! And then I thought, well, that kind of sounds like an analogy that Beth would make! THEN, I realized what you’d really written.

    So, anyway, now that I’m back on track – shallow breasts and breaths withstanding – the coffee analogy really works for me. OO, PLUS, I didn’t know about the temperature thing. My kettle is stove top and does not tell me his temp – perhaps I need me a Mr. Hobbs to combate my “bitters.”

  8. Stumbled on to this blog, don’t remember how. I will now be adding it to my favorites. I have also been learning how to be kind to myself when my mental state causes me to act in a way that I *sort of* consider to be “wrong”. I am trying to learn to have healthy responses to my mental “unhealth” and it takes a lot of practice. I literally just wrote the following in my journal: “Be kind to yourself because you’ve never done this before.”
    Part 2: I love BETTY! I grew up in a 1914 craftsman bungalow with an O’Keefe & Merritt Stove and it was the best! Your new electric kettle is gorgeous and now I want to upgrade mine lol.
    Keep fighting, keep sharing!

  9. Oh, Beth. You are the very finest coffee. I find it interesting how some of the people in my life who make me feel like a huge underachiever {*coughyoucough* and also my sister} because of how damn much you get done are also the ones who have this natural tendency to run yourselves right into the ground. (Grounds? Is this a coffee pun?) I am really protective of my down time these days, to the point where I wonder if my coffee is maybe a little on the tepid side. Why is balance so impossible?

  10. Def one of your best posts. My youngest of five just recently let us in on the secret of his depression/anxiety. Your writing gives me hope and joy.

    1. Love to you, Nancy, as you navigate depression/anxiety with your kid. The fact that he told you is enormous! A) He recognized it enough to find words to describe it (AMAZING AND AWESOME), and B) He has a mama he could trust to tell. You’re lightyears ahead in managing mental illness when you can do it together and keep watch during the night. Hope and joy, indeed. x

  11. Wow, what a great analogy. You described my life so well. It’s good to be reminded that we’re not alone in this, no matter where we are. Thanks for sharing this, Beth. It encouraged me today.

    1. Never alone, Nathan. Solidarity, friend. xo

  12. As someone who is crying because she can’t find missing pants, that -get this- we may not even own, I can relate. I call mine misplaced anxiety as I freak out over some really weird stuff. Like pants. I am blessed with a hubs who points out the other things I do to help our boy, that I don’t even realize. Because my broken mind says “you are the finder of the things” and when that laser focus is broken, so am I.

    I am off to the gym so I can follow the song “Free your mind, and the rest will follow” – I have found it to be quite the mind releasing activity, or the cooling off so I don’t boil over. Obviously it is a work in process with the tears this morning.

    Beth, think of how many people LOVE coffee. Are unbearable without it. Can not survive without a daily dose. YOU. Are. AWESOME!!! Thank you for sharing your heart.

    Always waving from over here. xo

    1. Just spent the last hour trying to find the Missing Coat for one of the smaller humans in my house. I feel your pain.

      Thank you for the kind words and encouragement, J. Hoping the gym — and especially the song — was a rousing success!

      Waving, waving, waving. x

  13. You get just the weekly addition of Mental Fuckery? Mine comes daily. The unsubscribe button doesn’t seem to work.

    Hang in there, Beth. We’re with you in darkness and in light.

    1. Mental Fuckery is quite the publication, isn’t it?? Their advertising budget must be insane. I’m always getting emails, coupons, pop-up ads, etc. trying to get me to update to the daily circular. I’ve subscribed in the past to the daily (and the hourly)… and several times recently, because MAN those ads are convincing… but I’m really trying to limit my subscription. Their tactics are nefarious, though, so success is limited.

      With you, too. Darkness and light. x

      1. “emails, coupons, pop-up ads” This is hilarious – and YES! 🙂 Gah!

  14. I RELATE TO ALL OF THIS AND ITS SO ACCURATE AND HELPFUL. This weekend I went on a trip with friends and I enjoyed the whole dang thing. I didn’t worry about us being late to places, missing the bus, or my dogs back home dying because they were in someone else’s care. I wasn’t homesick or stressed or anxious. And all of that was true because a couple months ago I realized I was doing too much and I pulled myself from some weekly commitments I had made. I rearranged my weekly schedule to give myself more routine downtime and it has been such a game changer.

    I know the anxiety I have lived with is so minimal. So many people live with so much more anxiety. But man alive! Making time for routine rest and telling myself every day that I am not a failure has been such a game changer in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

    Anyway, moral of the story, thanks for being you out loud for all of us to delight in and relate to and learn from.

    1. Routine Rest = Game Changer! YES. Now if I could remember to give myself a break regularly instead of thinking I’m “better” and Rescheduling Too Much, I’d be leapyears ahead. #FoodforThought

      Love to you, Suzanne! And thank you for your kindness.

  15. I love coffee, and I love you.

  16. As a British Commonwealth Friend who is also finally coming to terms with boiling over, I adore everything about this…

    Those few degrees make a whole world of difference…

    Best regards to the delightful Mr Hobbs xo

    1. And love to you, Lucy. x

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