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The one and only Kelsey Darragh is a wearer of many, many hats, and this time she’s adding to her extensive resume with a mental health workbook; Don’t F’cking Panic: The Sh’t They Don’t Tell You in Therapy About Anxiety Disorders, Panic Attacks & Depression details Darragh’s own personal experiences, offering coping mechanisms and other useful insights she’s learned from over two decades of mental health management. Considering the current global landscape (hellscape?), the forthcoming release could not have arrived at a better moment.

Darragh was kind enough to hop on the phone with me earlier this month to talk about what we can expect from the book, as well as how she’s been faring during the pandemic, other passion projects she’s been working on (check out #Justice4Saraya here) and more. Internet-eavesdrop on our full conversation below, and be sure to pre-order a copy of Don’t F’cking Panic here.

So first off, congratulations on the book! It’s absolutely bananas to me that you wrote it before the whole quarantine situation happened. Like, it was essentially (more or less) done by then, right?

So it was pretty much done; the deadline was technically April of this year, and then all of this shit started to happen and I slowly kept pushing the deadline and adding things, rewriting chapters. I’ve told everyone in interviews that I didn’t plan this, but I find it synchronistic that I’m sharing my deepest traumas during this time when the world is collectively also experiencing its deepest traumas.

Have there been moments throughout this year that you’ve been like, “Do I take my own advice now?” For me, I’ve been a proponent of giving people my own advice for depression and things, but then when it’s happening to you, I’ve found it can be harder to take that on board in the moment.

My therapist said something I’ll never forget – she said, “Your first thought is your worst thought. It’s your second thought that counts.” When this all happened, of course I reacted just like everyone else, and my first thought was, “Oh no! Oh fuck! Oh shit!” but then my second thought was, “Wait a minute. You literally just finished writing a mental health book. You absolutely need to go through these pages.” And I learned a lot, too, because in the book I take exercises and techniques from lots of different professionals in the field. There’s something in there for everyone.

Was there anything you decided to incorporate specifically due to the pandemic? Any big changes to the mostly finished material?

I have a chapter about agoraphobia, because we get so comfortable in our own homes, and then when we leave for the first time, we feel different, scared of the world, and cautious. We approach that outing with fear these days instead of management and comfortability, so that was a chapter I’d written a year or two ago but came back to and realized that a lot of people would be able to use this kind of stuff because of the current climate and situation we’re in.

Yeah, I realized I’d gotten comfortable with being stuck at home, but then when things started opening up again, and especially during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, I realized I needed to go out and semi-rejoin society. I was like, “I have no concept of how my body fits into public spaces anymore?”

100%! And I’ve said this a couple of times to people, but I think the best thing to come out of this pandemic and the social unrest is that sense of community. That’s so funny that you say you felt like you didn’t even know how to act, because that was my exact feeling, too. But then I realized everyone was kind of looking over their shoulder and glancing to the side like, “Is this okay? Should we be doing this?” I think it’s weirdly brought us together.

Totally. Now, I know over the summer you celebrated your one year sobriety anniversary, which is awesome! 

Thank you!

I think that’s something people have been struggling with especially during the pandemic, the election, etc.; I’ve spoken to sober friends of mine who’ve had moments of serious difficulty maintaining their sobriety, which I totally get. And even for myself, I’m not sober, and I’ve never really struggled in a social environment with drinking, but I do typically try to keep it out of the house when I’m by myself since that tends to be a slippery slope. I was pretty good at the beginning, and then mid-summer I had a bit of a meltdown bender moment. (Those happen from time to time.) Do you have anything in the book that specifically speaks to that?

Absolutely, there are a lot of chapters to my PR management’s dismay about drugs and drinking, and I really let it all out there about my experience with alcohol, dependency and drug use, and how that relates to mental health. I don’t believe I have the addictive gene because I’ve been able to quit things pretty much anytime I want, but drinking, Megan, was something I dead ass never, ever, ever thought I could do. In the book, I talk about how that’s exactly what anxiety is – keeping us from thinking we can never do things, and letting go of that and learning how to manage the anxiety will show you, “Oh, shit! I can quit drinking as an internet-famous alcoholic? I can really do anything!” 

Of course, I’m not here to judge anyone. (Like, hello, I’ve women up in the bathroom of an airplane before, I’m not gonna judge anyone.) But for me, what I’ve recognized is that it’s just a bandaid over a bullet hole. It was always something so much deeper that was the issue, and everyone has that little social ice breaker drink that I think is totally cool, but it became a problem when I started reaching for it to avoid feeling, and to actually quell feelings. I talk about this all the time, but I’ve realized that drinking isn’t actually doing anything. It’s not actually doing anything! You’re standing around, or you’re sitting on the beach, or you’re watching TV…that motion, that movement, that activity isn’t actually doing something. And when I looked back at my life at all the fucking times I thought I was living and doing something, I’d recognize that it was just an avoidance coping mechanism, and golly, I’m not one to try to convince anyone to quit drinking, but for people that struggle with mental health, anxiety, depression and panic, I suggest a mindful drinking journal in my book. I actually have an activity that you’re meant to take the book out with you and fill in the blanks and reexamine your relationship with drinking.

Totally. It’s so good to be mindful about it, and even with the upcoming election, you know, I actually don’t even want to drink during it this time, because I can look back at how that went the last time, and it literally did nothing. We still got stuck with the four nightmare years, I was just pretty hungover for a lot of it.

Right, it’s like, “What if instead of drinking I went canvassing? What if?!” [Laughs]

[Laughs] Exactly. Now, I’m sure you had to factor in some sort of disclaimer process just as like a legality thing, so what was that process like for you? I know you kind of clearly state that you’re not a doctor, but you do incorporate lots of professional advice.

Absolutely, and that was kind of the point of the book; when I started going through my worst bouts of mental health, depression, and was actually admitted into a mental health rehab, they would give me all these books and journals and exercises, and I hated all of them, because they were so archaic. They were medical journals with boring language and old white dudes, and it was so clinical. I couldn’t relate to it at all. So the point of the book was kind of not all to write it from a medical perspective; it really is more of a, “Hey, I’m one of you, and here’s how I am on the other side of it. Let me just so you every tip, trick, exercise, statement…I’ve tried Eastern medicine, Western medicine, crystal healing, bumble bee breathing…”

There’s something in there that I guarantee people have never heard of, and of course I took the time to reach out to experts. One of my favorites is the founder of a biofeedback and neurofeedback institute in Culver City; he really talks about how neurofeedback training can help you actually change your brain, which is called neuroplasticity. I also interviewed a European woman named Sophie who runs a knitting mindfulness class, and I took one of her classes, and I fell in love with knitting! So even I got to push my limits by reaching out to experts. There are sections in the book where I quote different techniques and activities, like Mel Robbins’ Five Second Rule is really popular, so the book is really a manual to be like, “Hey, have you heard of this? Try it! If this doesn’t work, turn the page and try the next thing, why not!”

Got it. Now, speaking more generally, how have you been managing your work-life balance? I know you’re super busy as-is, but having to sit down and write a book (even in non-pandemic conditions) is daunting as fuck. Do you have any advice on that front, or even just more broadly speaking for people who want to do more creative projects during this time?

100%. Especially because of the pandemic, I’m having a harder time being able to tap into that creative side of myself. Something I actually learned from TikTok (don’t shame me, because I learn pretty much everything on TikTok these days) is how to time block my day; it’s something that has completely changed the way I look at my schedule. The purpose of time blocking is to show you how much time you actually do have in a day. I hate those quotes that are like, “Beyoncé also has 24 hours in a day!” It’s like, “Yeah, but she’s also a billionaire with publicists and assistants.” So I really bring it down to a level of time blocking where you can really understand how to make the most out of your day. The first thing I start out with every single day, just to get into my body, is twenty minutes of stretching. If I don’t do it, I’m kind of a miserable asshole the rest of the day, so finding a good morning routine is really important for me to have a good day, and then time blocking. Time blocking, time blocking, time blocking. You can find PDFs for time blocking on Pinterest and stuff, print them out or even just use them on your iPad or whatever.

So true; I definitely have found structure to be super important, and I leaned in hard to the units of time vibe towards the beginning of the pandemic to help myself adjust, so that’s excellent advice. Alright, lastly, what else do you have going on in addition to the book? I know you’re still doing the podcast (which I love), but what other projects do you want to shout out before we wrap up?

I’d love for everyone to check out #Justice4Saraya; it’s a documentary that I’m currently making and directing about a little girl who was sentenced to eleven years in juvenile prison after she had a mental health psychosis episode. It’s really, really important to me because of what’s happening in the world that we’re seeing, that we’re sending police to mental health crisis incidents that they absolutely don’t belong in. So I’m finding this new…dare I say life’s purpose? in figuring out how we can change that system, how we can change dispatch calls, how police are trained…you know, they get eighty hours of gun training versus ten hours of mental health training. That’s kind of become my new purpose, and I’d love for everyone to get involved and look at her story and see how they can help.

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Featured photos by Jack Dytrych 

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