The bucket model of mental illness

A lot of people get frustrated that those of us with mental illnesses “can’t cope with everyday life.” I’m not going to go into the ableism and lack of understanding that society is set up for neurotypicals in this post apart from to say that’s a big part of it. Instead I want to explain my theory of mental illness* – the bucket theory.

Each of us, mentally ill or not, has a bucket of coping. Tough stuff we have to deal with, both small and large, adds to the bucket (I imagine it in liquid form); your boss yelling at you, financial worries, poorly loved ones, pain and discomfort, terrible traffic, etc. What adds to your bucket will be different to what adds to others, maybe you have a badass stuck-in-traffic strategy so it never bothers you while someone else would add 1 litre to their bucket.

So we go about our days, some things adding to our bucket, other things emptying it a bit, sometimes it gets a bit close to the brim or even overflows but mostly it’s got a pretty manageable amount of stuff in it, or nothing at all!

Mental illness is a constant in that bucket. I consider my BPD to fill approximately half of my bucket, how much your bucket is filled by your own illness will depend. Mine used to be filled almost to brim with BPD but an amazing therapist and a lot of coping strategies that I use every day have reduced it.

Living with a mental illness is living with your bucket already partly filled; there is just less space for the other stuff that needs to be coped with. We’re not waking up with an empty bucket which gets added to through the day, we’re starting with an already partially filled bucket which just gets topped up by “life stuff.”

Another aspect of bucket theory is that the weight of the bucket you’re carrying around, at a certain point, becomes a thing that adds to the bucket itself.
Walking down the road swinging your empty bucket is easy, lugging your over half full bucket around everywhere with you is draining in itself, and being drained can make things that wouldn’t usually go in the bucket, bucket-worthy. With just a few drops in your bucket, dropping a teaspoon while you’re making a brew might mean nothing at all but bending down to get it with a nearly full bucket is a lot more difficult.

To put a 2020 spin on things (2021 is really just “2020: the sequel” here), all the things going on in the world right now are filling everyone’s buckets to some degree. If you’re not convinced about that, there are a massive amount of well respected mental health professionals talking about how we are living through a collective trauma so keep that in mind.

What bucket theory ultimately means is we need to have compassion both for ourselves as we see that bucket rising, and for others because we can’t see what’s in their bucket and it might already be starting to overflow.

*I specify mental illness because that’s my own lived experience but I imagine this could apply to all chronic illnesses.

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