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When Your Mental Health Affects Your Financial Well-Being

Originally posted on The $76K Project on 8/21/2018

For a while now, I've been wanting to revisit a topic I've broached in a few previous posts: how my mental health impacts my financial well-being. For me, the two are closely connected. 

My dicey mental health is something that I've long struggled with, and I know I'm not alone. In fact, I'd bet a lot of money that most of us deal with mental health issues of some sort because let's face it: being human is really, really hard. Our minds are placed under enormous amounts of stress every day. We're all doing the best we can to cope. (That's something I tell myself a lot when I find myself getting annoyed at others... They're doing the best they can in the moment, as we all are, and we need to cut each other a little slack.)

While I'm not quite ready to parade out all of the diagnoses that therapists and doctors have assigned to me over the years (at some point I want to put it all out there and talk about it openly, because I think transparency and vulnerability are incredibly powerful), I will say that depression and anxiety are constants in my life. Usually they tag-team with one another: I'll come out of a depressive episode to find my anxiety ramping up, or my anxiety will settle down only for depression to tuck in for a long stay.

Other people have likened depression to a large dog that follows you everywhere and anxiety to a monkey that crashes around in your mind. Both are apt analogies. I've been dealing with the dog and the monkey for such a long time that they're veritably woven into the fabric of my daily experience. Just as a fish doesn't swim around thinking about how wet the water is, I don't always go through my life with a conscious awareness of my depression, anxiety, and other idiosyncrasies because that's the mental environment in which I live (and even occasionally thrive). Sometimes I'm very good at operating as if the big dog isn't right underfoot and the monkey isn't playing heavy metal in my prefrontal cortex. Sometimes, for a short while, I can even let myself think they're not there at all. I can convince myself that I've got it all under control.

So what's often tough to admit is the extent to which my mental health has affected my finances and career. There's no doubt it has had, and is having, an impact, but I have to be careful about how much I allow myself to analyze the consequences of a situation I can't always control (even though I feel like I should be able to, always). Writing about this is challenging for me because it means looking at some hard truths.

Impact #1: Sometimes I've spent lots and lots of money (even money I didn't have) for the opportunity to feel better. 

I don't often do this now, but in the past, whenever I felt truly awful, I'd bust out my wallet in a desperate effort to shake off the unbearable feelings. Personally, I've never been that enticed by things. New clothes and fresh home decor have rarely dragged me out of a slump and usually made me feel worse in the long run. But what did always seem to help was travel. Particularly when I was in my twenties, I'd think nothing of spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on spur-of-the-moment vacations and adventures. Cruises, expensive resort stays, even a semester-long adventure course in Europe - all of them were attempts to extricate myself from the giant tar pit in my brain.

And honestly, it almost always worked. These escapades helped me un-stick myself, introduced me to people and cultures that I might not have otherwise known, and built my self-confidence. Despite the damage that traveling did to my credit card balance, I look back at it with barely a shred of regret.

 If I were wealthy, I might still be using this coping technique on a regular basis. And you know, if things got bad enough, I think I'd still be willing to throw much of my savings at a plane ticket if it meant feeling better.

Impact #2: I've had a hard time staying in any one place for an extended period of time. 

Not only have we physically moved multiple times in the past 15 years, I've regularly changed jobs, too. I'm not a psychotherapist so I won't pretend to understand the psychological nitty-gritty of why this happens, but I know that people with certain types of mental illnesses often get into a cycle of starting over. Each time, things go well for a while. Then something bad happens. They blame themselves. The atmosphere - for them - changes, and the situation becomes disorienting. Suddenly, the experience starts to crumble, and their instinct is to flee. So they leave and begin somewhere or something new. Lather, rinse, and of course repeat, because problematically, no matter where you go, there you are.

Hey, you're thinking, just stick around! Take it day by day! Give it time! It'll get better! All good instincts, but trust me when I say that it isn't that simple. In the mind of the person who's wired in this fashion, it's a Code Red fight or flight scenario each and every time. Taking a few deep breaths and a mental health day won't solve the problem.

Moving is expensive. Changing jobs and careers is very, very expensive: think of the lost bonuses, raises, and promotions. While I haven't crunched the numbers to see what I've missed out on, I know that my peripatetic lifestyle has definitely cost me.

To some extent, I've successfully modified my tendency to up and leave. We love where we live now, and my partner and I have basically agreed that every choice we make needs to accommodate our commitment to staying here. As for work, I promise myself that I will stay in every job for at least a year, which is a timeline I can hold myself to without panicking or feeling suffocated.

But this area continues to be a challenge for me. Usually, my mental illness and traditional work environments/expectations don't mesh that well, and that's something I'm still trying to figure out.

Impact #3: Little desire to invest in the future

For a very, very long time, I struggled to picture myself in a year, much less 10 or 30 years down the road. This common phenomenon is known as "present bias," and it is not limited to those who deal with mental illness. But I think that particularly when you are grappling with any kind of condition that causes a great deal of pain - physical or mental - the future can seem so nebulous and incomprehensible that spending any time thinking about it or planning for it seems like a giant waste of time.

That's how it felt to me, and that's why I didn't invest in it. Especially when I was in my 20s and early 30s, when I was still figuring out how to cope with my mental health issues, I didn't want to put money into the future. The present was demanding enough, and it was there that I spent my time, energy, and money.

To me, people telling me to invest was like telling me, "Hey, civilization might live on Mars one day, so you might want to start packing your bags." Okay. Sure.

As a result, I didn't save or invest much, and obviously that has an impact now that I'm in the future that younger me couldn't imagine. That's why I'm so in awe of my friends who are just out of college and already shoveling more than half of each paycheck into their retirement funds: they have a concept of the future that I just didn't. 

Doing the best I can with what I've got, and being okay with that

While I think anybody can improve their situation, I also think that mental health is likely to be a lifelong struggle for me. It's just how I'm wired and how my brain handles stimuli from this go-go-go world in which we live. My brain hits its limits on a fairly regular basis. I can't always do what other people do easily.

But the way I respond to these challenges has changed for the better - mostly in the sense that I act less impulsively now - and as a result, I have a much better handle on my personal finances than I used to. I'm very proud of that. Do I think it's going to all go perfectly from here on out? Nope. The goal is to simply do my best with the quirky mind I've got, consider the long-term effects of the decisions I make, and let go of non-ideal choices made when things get difficult.

If you're struggling with depression, anxiety, or mental illness of any kind, know that you are not alone, and give yourself as much credit as you can for fighting a hard battle every day to the best of your ability. And if you feel safe sharing your own experiences here, I'd love to hear them.

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