Sleep, food and water, shelter, hygiene, communication, attention, belonging, and control. Fulfilling all your basic needs while coping with mental illness or poverty may seem like an impossible way to live. We know our issues will be easier to cope with if we live healthily but the process of cultivating a consistent routine, at face value, doesn’t seem feasible especially if you’re lacking in most or all basic needs. It’s very possible though. You and your capacity for chance and capability will grow with each step. No matter what stage of life you’re in – homelessness, physical disability, social isolation – you can get to the next step in your journey. There are as many first or next steps as there are people and situations, but I wanted to share my own experience with self care and with recovery ladders. I’ve been in therapy most of my life and I didn’t run into the metaphor of a ladder until a group therapy in my late teens.
The concept was fascinating to me, so much so that I incorporated the exercise into a pivotal climax of a novel I’d been writing. I’ve seen ladders used in many therapies in my research, especially in exposure therapy, early childhood attachment issues, and physical recovery after injury. Recovery and personal growth is less daunting if you break your goals down into steps, starting with the easiest and most doable. Successfully, we transform an insurmountable wall into its various pieces we then sift through. The task is never easy, but our impossible ideals become practical action, become possible.
Structure a detailed goal — I want to eat one small meal, make one friend, fall asleep before 1am six days a week, brush my teeth once every day. What would the ladder look like moving up to that goal? To just sit down and organize your thoughts can be arduous, a lot of energy upfront but don’t let that dissuade you from going through with it. Don’t rush, if you feel overwhelmed, take breaks and go back to it when you feel up to it – and don’t trick yourself into believing you’re not up to it. You know best how critical working on these skills are and how much time you can allow yourself to ruminate.
If you have many areas to focus on, think of which are affecting you the most right now. What indicates crisis, immediate risk and danger. Pick two but remain mindful of the others. Keep your list. Make two goals and start brainstorming the process of leading up to that goal. Rank the steps from easiest to hardest, this will start to form the rungs of your ladder, the steps leading up to the goal at the very top. It may have five rungs, six, maybe even ten. Give yourself enough to work up to, but don’t fill your ladder with redundant or unproductive steps that don’t have a jump in difficulty level from one to the next. Keep your goal fairly practical for what you might accomplish in a couple months if you practice consistently. Dream big but not beyond your resources.
Sleep, food and water, shelter, hygiene, communication, attention, belonging, and control. Our first four needs apply to the body and its connection to the mind, keeping yourself safe and healthy physically, and mentally relating to how you care for yourself. The last four are social and emotional, the dynamic of your psyche and the world around you, how you live as an individual and what basic needs you require to feel more psychologically stable.
All needs tie together and are strongly affected by each other, which is why while writing your self inventory of needs, you can’t neglect or ignore anything that feels unfulfilled. Control may connect with eating, belonging with communication, shelter with hygiene, make a web of how your needs intersect while planning your ladders and remain mindful of what must be worked on in congruence. What needs are compatible and might even fit into one ladder? Don’t over complicate or make things more difficult for yourself but many skills naturally fit together. A better understanding of how your needs relate will in fact simplify your recovery and make it easier to progress.
I will be detailing different ways to approach each basic need in a series of writings entitled “Basic Needs in Self Sustainment”, from a perspective of severe mental illness and financial strain. Recovery doesn’t end, each ladder will lead you to a goal that becomes the first step in a new ladder, and I’ll never stop learning about living and what it means to want to live. Something I’ve been saying and thinking repeatedly over the past three years is, “wanting to want is always the first step”. I had to desire a will to live. After I tapped into that longing I found a new pathway that had been blocked my entire existence. We focus on what we don’t have and don’t let ourselves think about the things we do, the things we could— returning that focus on what’s manageable right now and what we want slowly awards self confidence and a new relationship with hope. Recovery is about challenging the way you think and the way you relate to yourself and your needs. This a lesson I will forever be revisiting and I write to remind myself. I write to understand myself and the world around me, to process information, record thought, analyze concepts. I write out of need, from lacking, from needing to learn. There are things missing. I’ll be writing for the rest of my life.
I hope you’ll read on.