Homesteading with Mental Illness

September 20, 2021

Homesteading with Mental Illness

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Mental illness has held a lot of stigma around it for most of human history. In the last few decades, and the last ten years in particular there has been a growing movement to remove that stigma. To re-educate people who may not fully understand the many different disorders that people live with, and to make those of us who live with them comfortable coming out and speaking. Living the way that I do now, and how I want to live in the future tended to seemed like an impossible goal due to my mental illness. The homesteading world is very old fashioned in a lot of ways and didn’t seem open to changes in science and human health. And honestly, I have not always found the homesteading community to be particularly open about mental illness, but I wanted to try to share my experience all the same. I want other people who deal with mental illness that they shouldn’t feel like they can’t participate in this community. You are valid, seen, heard, and totally welcome. 

A Little Bit of Story Time

When I was 20 I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. For me at the time it wasn’t a surprising diagnosis, as I knew something was wrong. But it was a scary diagnosis. I was raised in a household that wasn’t fully sympathetic or understanding of mental illness, and so I felt a lot of shame and guilt around it. Please don’t jump to conclusions about that statement, my parents loved me and they did their best with the knowledge they had. But it meant growing up believing that my depression, and later anxiety, were somehow my fault and could be fixed through sheer willpower, or through exercise/weight loss. Mental illness runs in my family in a few different forms, but my generation is the first to be fully benefiting from modern mental health science. 

Over the last 13 years I have struggled with my mental health, and learned ways to cope, as well as found ways to heal. And those strategies don’t line up with the “suck it up” attitude that I occasionally find within this community. So for about 6 years, I wasn’t sure if homesteading was really going to work for me. I felt ashamed of my depressive episodes that prevent me from doing tasks, and was embarrassed that I wanted to be part of a community that I hadn’t been born in to. It was isolating, and made me question my goals a lot. For a period of time, I tried to ignore my mental health trouble, and just push through it. Which of course led to burnout; Something that is all too common in the food industry. (Another community of “suck it up” and “work til you drop” type of attitudes.) Eventually I hit the bottom of my barrel. I’m very fortunate to live in a country that offers mental health services like therapy and psychologists through our government health care plan. I slowly began to work on getting healthy. It’s slow, and I’m not there yet, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint. 

Over the last 8 years I have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, PTSD, and most recently ADHD. I know it sounds like a lot, but it’s important to remember that these disorders tend to occur together because they can cause one another, or make people more susceptible to one another. And some of them have overlapping symptoms, or compounding symptoms. 

So Why Talk About Mental Illness?

I have been wanting to talk about Mental Illness and homesteading for a while. Partly because I feel isolated in the community. But partly because I want other people who deal with these things to know that they can still live sustainably, grow their own food, and do anything that they want to make themselves happy. You shouldn’t have to feel limited because of the worlds standards. I don’t want someone else to feel like a failure because they were too far down the depression hole to do the canning that day, or because they can only handle a small garden. You’re not a failure because you aren’t doing every single thing that the full time farmers are doing. Life doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Most of the goals that we set are set for us, by us, and affect no one but us. And if something isn’t working for you, then you can just stop; no one will be mad at you. Once again, I still struggle with these things everyday, but I wanted to share the things that I have found have helped me. 

Some Things/Thoughts That Can Help

1 – Start Small

I realize this is wildly obvious. But I don’t think there’s enough hype around people taking the first steps. It’s always “great, but what’s next?” or “You could be growing more” or “So when is that going to pay your bills?”. And not enough love for the first (and possibly only) tomato plant. Pick a thing you want to try, and then try it on it’s own. You don’t need to plant a garden to feed the whole neighbourhood, or even your whole household. You could grow herbs in your window, and you’re on your way! If you try to do too many things at once, whether that’s 2 things or 10 things, you might get overwhelmed and feel discouraged. That can cause people with mental illness to experience panic attacks, depressive episodes, and just general feelings of guilt. Start Small. 

2 – You Don’t Have To Do Everything

There are a lot of great teachers in the homestead community. Usually people who are doing everything, or appear to be doing everything. But for me, that doesn’t make sense. I become overwhelmed by work, and other responsibilities, which can cause sensory overload. Followed by guilt and shame. I’m not raising ALL my meat, or growing ALL our veggies, or making ALL our household products. If you put the entire responsibility of your family’s survival on your shoulders, you will isolate yourself. If you can’t raise meat, or don’t think it will work for you, or tried it and hated it, then don’t! Find someone local to support, and buy from them. Not a baker? Find a bakery and support them. Homesteading doesn’t need to mean cutting yourself off from society. It can mean building and participating in a smaller, more meaningful society. I love the idea of most things in the homesteading world, but time is short, and my anxiety and executive dysfunction doesn’t allow me to do everything. But there are some great producers near me who I can turn to. Use the community, that’s why it’s there. Which leads me to…

3 – Sunk Time/Sunk Cost Fallacy

The Sunk Time/Sunk Cost Fallacy is our tendency to follow through on something if we have already invested time, effort or money into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits. What does that mean? It means just because you built some garden boxes, spent the time and money on them, doesn’t mean you have to forever grow a garden. If it wasn’t bringing you the joy you thought it would after a season, you don’t have to do it again every year. You can just stop. Built a cheese press, but not actually able to make cheese? It’s not working for your life? It’s simply not bringing you joy? Just stop! Sometimes you can recover the cost of things, but not the time. It doesn’t matter, there is no reason that you need to keep doing the thing. If you learned a skill, great! But don’t keep going just because you feel guilty about already putting in time, energy, or money. Because…

4 – This is Supposed to be Fun!

Don’t let anyone tell you that the homesteading life isn’t supposed to be enjoyable. Yeah, fine it’s hard work, but hard work can still be fun! I have heard a lot of tut-tuts from people who don’t seem to grasp this concept, and honestly, screw ‘em. When something is rewarding and brings you joy, then the hard work part won’t matter. And sometimes the hard work can make the task more enjoyable. But if it’s not rewarding, or enjoyable at all, it will cause you to fall into a depressive episode that will cause you more damage than it’s worth. Your happiness, and mental health is far more important than completing a task that isn’t immediately keeping you alive. 

5 – Rest is Good. 

This is a big one that I have trouble with. As I mentioned above, I am very fortunate to live in Canada, and have access to reasonable mental health care. So I talk to a therapist often. She has introduced me to the radical (within capitalism) concept that laziness isn’t a real thing. Stay with me, don’t freak out. As a child I was made to feel lazy a lot; probably because I had an undiagnosed mental health issue that caused me to be overly exhausted, or to become overstimulated/overwhelmed, or to have panic attacks. Doing certain things, like participating in sports that I didn’t want to, or going to activities that I didn’t want to , or simply taking a nap, meant that I was shamed/made to feel guilty for being “lazy.” Our bodies aren’t always the smartest, but they will let you know when you need something. Learning to listen to my body has been a huge help to me. 

If I am feeling foggy, scattered, emotional, angry, and all my brain wants to do is lie down, then that’s what my brain needs me to do. Plain and Simple. Resting, and recuperating is vital to maintaining our minds and bodies. If recuperation looks like going for a hike for you, great! Do that. But if recuperation looks like napping, or playing video games, or watching films for someone else, don’t shame them! That’s what they need to do to allow their brains to reset. For me, resting comes in a few forms; napping, movies, video games, reading in the hammock, having a fancy meal and a glass of wine. And though I still feel a sharp pang of guilt for needing to rest, I stop; listen to my body/mind; and try to do what it needs. The bread not being baked for a day won’t end the world. The wine not being racked for a day won’t turn it to vinegar. Maybe I will buy a product this week instead of making it. Resting is more important. 

6 – Plan Ahead if You Can

This last one is also a bit obvious and is very short. When you’ve been dealing with mental illness for a long time, you probably are very familiar with how you are when you’re up versus when you’re down. When you’re feeling back to normal, try not to forget that you could go back into your dark or quiet place at anytime. And though it’s best to work on healing and preventing that, we can’t always predict. So try to utilize the ups. We always have some kind of meal frozen that we can go to when I can’t bring myself to prep another thing. A good go to is soup, and bread. Both freeze easily, and are comforting and healthy. Try this Butternut Squash Soup with your favourite bread. Have a loaf in the freezer that’s off limits until you’re feeling down. That way you know it’s there when you need it.

I hope this post wasn’t too all over the place for those of you who don’t deal with mental health issues. And for those of you who do, and have felt hesitant about getting into the homesteading world, I hope it helped a little bit. As some of you may have noticed, I have taken a big break from posting for a good number of months. It was a break that I felt I needed. The homestead continues to roll along but I had found myself in a very dark place once again, and for my safety it was important to slow down a bit. I am hoping to start sharing more posts again soon, but if I am taking my own advice, then I will not be rushing back to it just to satisfy Hustle Culture, and neither should you. Stay Safe, We Love You. 

Mental Health Support Canada

Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566 (24/7) or text 45645 (4 pm to 12 am ET).

Wellness Together Canada Mental Health Resources


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