wellness

"Run the dishwasher twice." The life advice to follow when you're at your lowest.

I was about 14 when my dad gave me his first piece of advice about depression

He took me for a drive, and it was dark outside. Probably after dinner. His eyes were focused on the road and that way he could say things to me he might not have been able to if we were sitting across from each other at the dining table. 

"You just have to go through the motions," he said. 

It wasn't very poetic. Or mildly inspirational. 

He didn't elaborate much. He'd battled with depression on and off. So had his dad. And what he meant was, you've almost got to imitate what it is to live a life, even though your heart's not in it. Even though it's as if you're floating above yourself, watching this meaningless ant scuttle to school and then back home again, with no connection to either. The only way out is through. And you might go to school and find it impossible to concentrate. Or turn up to netball and find you can barely catch a ball. That's fine. But you put one foot in front of the other even if they are very small steps and most of them were more of a stumble.

His point was, if you go through the motions and don't fall into the big black hole, then one day getting out of bed will feel less bad. And you'll find yourself attached to your life again, butterflies in your stomach, looking forward to the future rather than dreading it.

It's not perfect advice. But it worked for me. And I drew on it again years later when the black hole reappeared and I thought I might like to jump inside it. 

A better way to put "just go through the motions" is "run the dishwasher twice". The four words appeared on my Facebook feed a week ago. 

The story had been shared by a counsellor, but originally came from a woman named Kate Scott in response to a question on Quora

The post begins with the woman describing one of the lowest points in her life. Some days she couldn't even get out of bed. 

Watch: The difference between sadness and depression. Post continues below. 


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Once a week, she'd see a therapist. On this particular day, the therapist asked: "What are you struggling with?"

She gestured vaguely at the room around her. All of it. She was overwhelmed by the big and the small. She was overwhelmed by tomorrow and next month and next year.

The therapist clarified: "No, what exactly are you worried about right now? What feels overwhelming? When you go home after this session, what issue will be staring at you?"

She didn't want to say her answer out loud. But eventually she did.

"Honestly? The dishes. It’s stupid, I know, but the more I look at them the more I CAN’T do them because I’ll have to scrub them before I put them in the dishwasher, because the dishwasher sucks, and I just can’t stand and scrub the dishes."

She felt ridiculous. There are people in the world who don't know where their next meal is coming from. Who are facing violence or persecution or don't even have a roof over their head and here she was complaining about a stack of dishes? 

But that's not how the therapist saw it. 

"Run the dishwasher twice," he said. 

You're not supposed to do that, though. The rule is once. You rinse and then you stack and then you unstack and then you start all over again. And the environmental impact. How selfish and ridiculous, she thought. 

She began to explain why that wasn't allowed and he said: "Why the hell aren’t you supposed to? If you don’t want to scrub the dishes and your dishwasher sucks, run it twice. Run it three times, who cares? Rules do not exist, so stop giving yourself rules."

It was something she had never considered. That sometimes you just need to do whatever it takes to get through the day. 

She went home after the appointment and put her dirty dishes in the dishwasher. She ran it a few times. And she felt like she'd "conquered a dragon".

Then, she showered lying down. 

Then, she washed her clothes and threw them in her wardrobe wherever they'd fit. 

The earth didn't stop spinning. The police did not come and arrest her. The sky didn't fall in and the dishes were clean and she'd had a shower and suddenly everything felt much more doable. 

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What the therapist gave her was permission to abolish the invisible rules in order to get some momentum. Go through the motions as loosely as is necessary. 

"Now that I’m in a healthier place," Scott writes, "I rinse off my dishes and put them in the dishwasher properly. I shower standing up. I sort my laundry.

"But at a time when living was a struggle instead of a blessing, I learned an incredibly important lesson: There are no rules.

"Run the dishwasher twice."

Of course, we're not advocating we all abandon our commitment to the environment when life gets too tough. Running the dishwasher multiple times is never... ideal.  But it serves as a metaphor.  

In other words, if something is worth doing, it's also worth doing badly.

Listen to Mamamia Out Loud, the podcast with what women are talking about. Post continues below. 

Doing a sub par job at the dishes is better than not doing the dishes at all. 

Going for a walk around the block is better than not moving off the lounge because you feel so guilty you're not running a marathon. 

Washing your clothes and then never getting around to putting them away is better than not having washed them at all.

The sinister side of perfectionism is that it can end up being self-defeating. If I don't have the energy to ensure my house is spotless, then why pick up my towel off the floor? 

Particularly after a year like 2020, it's important we interrogate the invisible and arbitrary rules we've always lived by.

If you're at a low point, then lower the bar. Have it so low that everyday you can stumble over it. Abandon the guilt and shame and self-loathing and just do what you can. 

Grant yourself permission to do whatever gets you through the day. 

Eat toast for dinner. Wear odd socks. Don't iron your shirt. 

Put one foot in front of the other. And one day, it will all stop feeling so bloody hard.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.



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