How a Sticker Chart Saved My Life

The title may sound ridiculous or super click-baity and yet, it’s true. This post has stuff about suicide and self harm, so please take care of yourself and don’t read if this might be triggering in any way. 

This picture is from the end of the 2nd week home due to the pandemic. Here I’m finally crawling towards help. I spent the majority of the first week feeling ok, a bit anxious, but ok. I poured myself into taking care of others – texting every person, checking in on everyone – if I focused on everyone else, I could avoid this increasing pain in my chest. I had a panic attack on my way to my school to collect my things.

I’m a worst case scenario thinker so I packed up almost all my books and brought my printer home. Folks looked at me like I was nuts, I felt nuts, but I also didn’t feel like we would be back in two weeks. As I left the school parking lot that day and went to the grocery store, everywhere I looked felt like Octavia Butler’s novel “The Parable of the Sower” – empty, desolate, foreboding. I was fearful of the empty shelves and the lack of smiles from folks in the grocery store. The world was shifting fast both in the outside world and inside my head. 

I did what was necessary the first week. I showed up to meetings on Zoom, I texted colleagues and friends, I went to therapy through Zoom. My chest hurt with anxiety and my body felt like the skin had been removed. I felt raw, open. I felt with every press briefing and graph about flattening the curve my heart break a bit more. I kept hearing my friend, Dulce-Marie’s, words in my head, “basic physiological needs” over and over again. I fed myself, I watered myself, I showered. I made a list of commitments to myself except I broke them day after day. I promised I’d go outside for a walk but every time I thought about going down the stairs, my chest hurt so badly, I returned to lay on the couch. I was barely hanging on. 

I have the tendency to not always be truthful about how I’m feeling – I don’t want to be a burden or to ruin other peoples’ days. I just responded as everyone went around in a check in at every meeting that I was ok. Even that felt a bit like a lie. 

I don’t have a lot of recollection of the next few weeks except I was in a deep dark hole. I wasn’t (and still am not) with anyone. I spend my days alone. I have a history of self harm and suicidal thoughts and deep depression. Truthfully, I thought those days were gone. I had done years of therapy and hadn’t had a suicidal or self harm thought in years. My scars are barely noticeable now. I thought I was past it. I was cocky in my mental health entering into this pandemic. I was going to therapy but I’m not sure I was being honest there. I was probably too passive.  As I laid on the couch day after day thinking about opening the window and jumping but terrified of my students finding me, I decided that I would probably just get COVID-19 and die. That decision in my head actually felt ok and like I now had a purpose in getting to that very obvious conclusion. I also had these glimmers of feeling more like Lizzie and I knew I needed help. 

I shared all of this with my therapist. We talked about a schedule while also talking about how the guilt of not doing everything on the schedule was making things worse. So I made a flexible schedule with some options on it and we discussed the need for the checking off or addition of stickers to it. This worked until it didn’t anymore. 

I added some things to my daily needs. 

Now I know that sticker charts and extrinsic motivators aren’t helpful in changing long term behavior. I have asked teachers to stop using them in their classrooms due to harm in not getting stickers or having stickers withheld for whatever reason. But this sticker chart wasn’t about anyone else having power over me, it was truly about reminding myself of the things I needed to do in order to live. The sticker chart helped me remember that I needed to call my mom everyday, something I haven’t’ done in awhile, but it’s a helpful tool to get me through my day. The sticker chart helped me remember to eat 3 meals, not just two or one. The sticker chart helped me remember to reach out to my friends to have a virtual gathering even if I wasn’t perfectly happy or have nice things to say. The sticker chart helped me put myself back together. 

I don’t need the sticker chart anymore but I do need reminders. So again I’ve adjusted the reminders onto these large post its. They have all the same information but done in a different way. There’s no expectation of it all happening every day but they are reminders for me of how to survive right now. 

This time has revealed some intense things to me and for me. Although it sounds as if I’ve only been struggling, I have also had intense moments of joy and love and happiness. I’ve also had some incredible moments of clarity around my purpose, my career, and my life. The ability to be alone is not for the meek, the ability to really sit in your thoughts because you can’t do another zoom or phone call is not for the weak. My mind has brought all of the ugliness to the surface and I almost succumbed to it all.

But that damn sticker chart saved my life. 

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