Positive affirmation quotes often aren’t helpful for tāngata whai ora. But taking the piss out of them can be.
Early in January, on the first day of what would be a week of staying in bed with the curtains pulled, I put a disappointingaffirmations Instagram post up on my stories. Today I am putting my mental health first. it said. I’m going to be depressed all day.
Two weeks later, back in bed with the curtains pulled, this time for three days, I put another disappointingaffirmations post on my stories. Everything is going to be okay. Just not for you.
I first saw disappointingaffirmations on someone else’s Instagram stories. I laughed at whatever that one said, and was like, mmm, feeeeeeeeeeels.
I saw another one a few days later. I laughed. I felt it.
And then I went to their Instagram page and it was like coming home, to someone who knew what was inside my head, but with photos of beautiful landscapes. In a society obsessed with Everyone Being OK and needing to fix you up and make you live your best life, it’s such a relief to find this place where someone was saying, yeah, things are shit. Really.
I post a disappointingaffirmations post to my stories most days. Haha my brain says. Reality check, bitches.
Last week I was messaging with someone who thanked me for introducing him to disappointingaffirmations. So relatable he wrote. Disappointingaffirmations feeds my (sad) soul I replied.
I always live like there’s no tomorrow. Because I keep hoping.
Back when I had The Lovely Harry as my hospital psychologist, one day he mentioned how some staff member(s) in community mental health liked to put affirmation inspo posters up around the building. And that, when he was by himself, Harry would go around and remove the posters and destroy them.
You know the posters. A thick black border surrounding a photo of a flower / puppy / rainbow + some message about everything will always get better / tomorrow is a new chance to start over / family is everything.
Fuck that Harry said. Most of my patients are here in part because of their shitty family dynamics. It’s entirely inappropriate for us to have those posters up.
I’d never seen one, so clearly Harry was doing a good job of clearing them.
A few months later, Harry and I had our weekly session in a different room than usual. Community mental health called the room The Library because it had a couple of books in it, but mainly it’s whiteboards and conference centre chairs. At the end of the session, as I walked ahead of Harry towards the door, I saw an affirmation inspo poster to the left of the door. I can’t remember now what it said, but it was something ridiculous and upbeat, and I turned to Harry and said Oh shit! They really do have them here! and we both rolled our eyes.
Harry said Shall we….??? and we both giggled like kids while I took it down from the wall.
At that point we realised there was a second one on the adjacent wall. Harry took that one down, and we giggled, and we folded them up and Harry tucked them behind his diary, to carry back to his office and dispose of.
Back in September, when I was in the psych ward after an interrupted suicide attempt, one day I decided to go into the women’s lounge, just to see what was in there. Across one wall, someone had painted Live Love Laugh along with the mandatory coffee cup that such things always seem to accompany. But because of ward rules, if the lounge is open to patients, the door must be kept open. And poor planning – beyond the poor planning of whoever thought that a bunch of psych ward patients would in any way be in the mood for Live Love Laugh bullshit – meant that Love was partly obscured by the door.
I took a photo and sent it to some people, and later posted it on my Instagram. I wrote I like to think of this as being a piece of sardonic installation art, which I’ve titled ‘Love is always hidden behind the door’
Love being hidden behind the door was a shitload better for my mental health than bloody Live Love Laugh.
You have survived all of your worst days. Your prize? More bad days to survive.
I know, someone reading this is going to frown and be all Well, all you’re doing is reinforcing your negative thought patterns.
Which is part of the problem with talking about mental health more widely. That we’re not allowed to freely talk about the real, sad, negative thoughts in our heads. The shit that – for some of us – is in there every day, all day, and has been for years. And will be for years to come, and we know it, because hey, reality!
You know what truly makes me – and all the tāngata whai ora I know who are in the weeds and dealing with our mental health on the daily and struggling to stay afloat – feel shit about ourselves?? Fucking all-positive-all-the-time affirmation quotes about how great things are going to be. Tell us how amazing our lives can be and all you’re doing is highlighting that they’re not.
Most days after I put up a disappointingaffirmations post, my inbox will have someone, another tāngata whai ora, saying Mood or It’s funny because it’s true.
These are the stupid thoughts that we have in our heads, which the rational part of our brains knows are (probably) stupid and (possibly) wrong, but still, they’re in there, bouncing around. Disappointingaffirmations allows us to laugh at those thoughts, without judging us or telling us to get better.
Realistic mental attitude disappointingaffirmations’ bio says. Yeeeeesssssssss.
Due to anhedonia, I don’t feel much of anything anymore – everything is mainly slightly sad blandness, emotionally – but the moments that I can still truly feel are when I’m laughing. Even if it’s an internal laugh, that no one else will ever hear.
The only person you can rely on is you. What a fucking nightmare.
A couple of weeks ago, over on Twitter, Robbie Nicol wrote As a people we are now comfortable with the word depression. (None of the symptoms, but we’re all good with the word.)
Which sums up what it’s like to exist with mental health issues in Aotearoa. And I know that depression is one of the more publicly acceptable mental health conditions… although preferably only talked about in the past tense (sorted! doing so much better now! effective plan in place if start to feel down again!) and by high-level sportsmen. Occasionally a bit of post-natal depression is allowed to be talked about, but again, only in the past tense. You can’t be in it. You can’t be struggling.
Disappointingaffirmations knows that mental health is a struggle. Disappointingaffirmations sees us. What a fucking gift.
It’s never too late to start over. But odds are this is as good as it’s going to get.
In 2021, I was lucky to be part of a panel put together by Ruby Solly at Verb Wellington, called Not Your Mad Genius. Ruby, Freya Daly Sadgrove, Eamonn Marra, Nahbo and I talked about our mental health and being artists and the places where those two parts of us meet. I don’t know what it was like for the audience, but we spent that panel being really open and real and laughing so hard that at one point I think I strained a muscle. All of our experiences are different, and our relationships with our mental health are different, but one thing we all had in common was that we laugh to give ourselves breathing room. When the shit in our heads is getting a bit much, that brief moment of laughing lets us step back for a moment, just a moment. And we need that moment.
We talked about a private psychologist I went to for a while, who had frowned at my making jokes during sessions, because, she accused me, I use humour as a distraction technique. And, I mean, duh, of course I do. I always knew that we’d come back to whatever thing we were talking about, but I needed a momentary break before I lost my shit completely. I remember Eamonn saying that he could never go to a psychologist who didn’t accept that laughing was something we needed, as tāngata whai ora, to get through a therapy session sometimes. Laughing might not fix us, but it does allow us a brief moment of respite.
I remember I had a session with The Lovely Harry, where I was once again getting super overwhelmed and struggling and was trying not to lose everything I had in me, and Harry quietly watching me and then making a joke. Not making fun of me, but making a small joke, so that I could laugh, so that I wouldn’t lose myself completely. It was the first of many times where he’d be the one to make the joke, when I needed that moment of breathing room. We always came back to dealing with the shitty stuff in my head, but that moment of laughing – even a half-hearted laugh – is what got me there.
Disappointingaffirmations allows us that moment of breathing room, by letting us laugh at the stupidity and realness of the things inside our heads.
Last night I cried until sometime after 2:30am. This morning, when I woke up, disappointingaffirmations’ story was at the front of my Instagram queue. Not every day is precious it told me. Waste today. You deserve it.
The joy of disappointingaffirmations is that when I post one to my stories, I am entirely telling people one of the things that’s going on in my head, but without the risk of someone reporting me to Instagram for thinking about suicide (it always makes me feel worse, to get that notification) or feeling anxious that someone will call the psych ward on me. Hahaha, I could say, it’s just a silly Instagram post, I’m fiiiiiiiiiiiine. I feel safe.
But it also means that others who might have that same or similar stuff going on inside their heads can feel less alone, less of a freak, when they see it. It’s like our secret handshake to the worst secret society ever.
And if someone isn’t in the worst secret society? All they see is a parody of all the ridiculous positive affirmations littering social media.
The OG disappointingaffirmations post:
If I knew back then what I know now, I would’ve just fucked up my life differently.