There’s something about a head cold that puts me in mind of an apocalypse. I don’t sleep, food loses its taste and thus its pleasure, and as I drown in snot and soggy Kleenex, I despair for humanity and myself.

It sounds melodramatic. When I think about the relative ease of a cold compared to what could be, it seems silly and weak and trivial.

However, I think it’s a good example of the connection between our physical health and our mental health. When my body is fighting a bug of some sort, the effort taxes every dimension of who I am. My thinking slows and I lose the ability to focus (even more than normal). My emotions break free from their usual channels and run wild. All the upheaval of mucus and the exhaustion weighs down my spirit while the stopped-up ears simultaneously mute the distractions of the superficial and amplify existential questions of life. The armor of manners and social graces and keeping up appearances rips away, exposing all my character flaws and the Kleenex stuffed up my nose (imagine my horror at realizing I just drove through town, at rush hour, with a Kleenex hanging from my nose!). There I sit, like the proverbial Job, on the trash pile of all my failures as a human being, emotionally and spiritually raw and guilt-ridden, scratching at myself with the shards of questions like “What’s it all for, anyway?”

This has been one of those weeks. One of my kids caught a cold and then a stomach bug, then shared it (the cold fortunately, not the stomach bug) with me. I caught it worse than usual because I’m physically weary. We’re in the 4th week of a solid stretch of schedule mayhem in which we’ve had only 3 nights without anything planned. I’ve had a very welcome surge in work, which helps after a very tight few months money-wise, but also means I haven’t been able to take a day off. Add to all of this my escalating struggle with both the concept and the current reality of “church” and it’s no surprise that I was looking for the end of the world this weekend.

hand holding clump of soil and a plant

It has taken my lifetime, but I’m finally learning to spot this pattern and treat all of me sooner. In addition to taking vitamins, I take things off my plate. I shut down the computer and put my phone on silent. I seek quiet, staying home instead of going out, or if I must go out, watching the swirl of activity from the shore instead of swirling around in it. If at all possible, I get outdoors — take a walk, work in the yard, put in some quality time in our hammock, or sit on the porch by myself with a cup of coffee.

Friday I realized I was in free-fall, and I pulled the cord on my parachute. This weekend was about rest, perspective, and recovering health. [Unfortunately, in the middle of writing this post, another one of my kids came down with the stomach flu. I’m going to need another weekend of rest!]

Building in margin helps prevent depression from getting its hooks back into me again. It’s been stalking me from the perimeter the last couple of weeks, waiting in the shadows for me to collapse. It tries to bait me with lures like cocooning myself away from all the garbage of dealing with people, or having a drink to dull the pain, or distracting myself from real life with virtual diversions.

These are very attractive when real life makes me physically ill (hello stress stomach), or throws me into a blind rage at the injustice of it all, or sparks desperate tears in the middle of a church service. But they don’t help.

Getting my hands in the dirt and cultivating new plant life helps. Soaking up sunshine and birdsong helps. Stepping away from superficial distractions and focusing on the moment helps. Focusing my thoughts on well-worn prayers when I can’t think what to say myself helps. Of course these aren’t magic bullets, but they help slow the descent and remind me that I’m not completely at the mercy of my circumstances and biology.

What helps you when you despair of humanity and yourself?