For many authors, releasing their first book in the middle of a pandemic and nationwide lockdown would be seen as far from ideal. After all, our present situation dictates that you can’t have launches, signings or book festivals. But for Sarah Crosby, releasing her first book, Five Minute Therapy, without all the customary hoopla has proven to be something of a blessing in disguise.
I really don’t know any different and I think part of me is almost glad it is this peeled-back version of a launch or a publication, particularly for the first one, because I tend to shy away from putting my face out there too much,” says Crosby. “This definitely suits my more introverted ways rather than doing the signings and stuff.”
“Claire, my fiancée, and I did manage to get to Dubray Books on Grafton Street on New Year’s Eve and they had a small stack of them there and I signed a few of them,” she adds. “That was my ideal sort of book signing. While I’m sure the other side of things would be exciting and bring its own value, I am kind of glad in a way for the more basic version of it.”
Crosby lives and works as a psychotherapist in Dublin. She is also the brains behind the enormously popular Instagram account @themindgeek, which boasts over 380,000 followers. There, she posts mental health content about everything from toxic positivity to self-care, often in the form of illustrated Post-it notes.
Now she has written Five Minute Therapy, which is pitched as a “pocket therapist” and aims to gently guide the reader through a journey of self-discovery. The book is divided into seven chapters, which each dive into topics like attachment, self-talk, reparenting and triggers. In accessible, easy-to-digest language, Crosby explores each topic and sets out simple exercises for the reader to try in their spare time. While she is at pains to stress that the book is not a substitute for therapy, it is nonetheless a helpful resource for those looking to dip their toe into the world of psychology and getting to know themselves a little better.
“I find that mental health information can be quite inaccessible at times and it can be quite overwhelming,” says Crosby. “I wanted the book to be a place where you could pick it up, dip in and out, and it wouldn’t feel far removed. That it wouldn’t feel, ‘I need a more thorough understanding of psychology.’”
Crosby grew up in Blackrock, Co Louth. After secondary school, she went to study archaeology in UCD. Upon graduating, she realised that she didn’t want to pursue a career in archaeology and instead got into health and fitness. This was in part precipitated by her struggle with Crohn’s disease, which she was diagnosed with at the age of 10.
“There is this theory… that Crohn’s disease can be tackled if you concentrate on your food and your exercise and all of that,” she explains. “It was something I was really drawn to because I felt like I was quite reliant on the hospital at the time. I was on this medication that meant that I had to go to the hospital every two months to be hooked up to this infusion. It meant that I couldn’t go away for that year abroad because I was going to be quite tied to the hospital here in Ireland, because here I had free healthcare. That wasn’t something that sat very comfortably with me so, naturally enough, I wanted to change that.”
As a result, she went down the “health route” and headed to Portugal to take part in a documentary experiment exploring the effects of an all-juice diet on a variety of illnesses, including Crohn’s disease. For one month, participants had nothing but smoothies and juices. While the setting was “bloody gorgeous”, Crosby says that any positive effects were short-lived.
“I came back from that and got sick again because you’re leaving that bubble, and you’re back to reality and dealing with the pressures of life,” she recalls.
It was around this time that Crosby decided to become a personal trainer. After she qualified, she returned to Portugal to work as a personal trainer. However, she quickly discovered that it wasn’t for her.
“It was when I was over there that I realised that I didn’t really get a lot of fulfilment from personal training,” she says. “While I liked going to the gym and all that, it wasn’t something that I felt comfortable inciting in others, this type of change. People wanted to work out for about five minutes and then for the rest of the hour they were talking about these really traumatic things that were happening in their life.
“When I went back then, I realised that it wasn’t something that I felt equipped to handle and I wanted to be. I guess that was one part of what led me to retrain [as a therapist] then.”
Another factor in her deciding to retrain as a therapist was her first-hand experience with therapy. As a young woman in her early twenties, she had what she describes as a “very fraught relationship with food” and developed an eating disorder.
“I think I knew what I was going through and what I was doing was detrimental to my health but I was in such a spate of depression that I found it hard to care,” she says. “I felt that it was something that I was good at. I can restrict my food. I’m good at this. I didn’t care how I was treating myself. I didn’t care how I looked. I didn’t have this dysmorphia. I knew how I looked and I knew that I was too thin. I was in a relationship at the time and I would say it was quite an unhealthy relationship. It was during that relationship that everything kicked off and I think I was just deeply unhappy and I felt stuck.”
When she first attempted to seek treatment, she was met with waiting lists and unhelpful doctors.
“My first attempt at getting help for it, I went to my GP and they said, ‘You’re not dangerously low weight-wise, you’re still in the normal range,’” she recalls. “And I guess when you hear that with an eating-disorder mind, you hear, ‘Well, I’ll show you. I’ll show you I can get into the low range.’ I was quite angry at that response. I wasn’t sick enough. My aim became to get sick enough.”
Her doctor sent a letter to the HSE seeking a psychiatric evaluation for her.
“I was really looking forward to that because I knew I needed the support and I needed the help, and a part of me really wanted that diagnosis,” she says. She spent over a year waiting for the appointment. While she waited, she started consuming information and media related to recovery, including the Food Psych Podcast hosted by Christy Harrison.
Eventually she got a date for her appointment. Unfortunately, it did not go as she had hoped. “I went to it and went through the rigmarole with the clinician and they said, ‘I just need to speak to my superior. Go into the waiting room and I’ll call you back.’ They called me back in and said, ‘OK, so I’ve good news, you’re not mentally ill. You just have a high IQ.’
“I was exhausted. I was livid. But a part of me thought this was f**king hilarious. I was like, ‘OK, so I’m just smart enough to know that the world is shit? Is that what you’re trying to tell me? I don’t really understand where you’re going with that.’ I did not have the energy to address it then and there so I just went silent. I remember asking, ‘So I don’t have to come back?’ and they said, ‘Nope, you need to improve the health of your sleep.’”
She describes the experience as “horrendous”.
“I remember going to my therapist shortly afterwards and she said, ‘Do you want to report them?’ I said, ‘No, because I don’t have the energy to, and also I’m pissed off that it falls to me to have to report something like that because I’m going through enough.’”
Despite that setback, she continued attending therapy and credits it with helping her overcome her eating disorder.
“It was healing,” she says. “I can try to phrase that in many different ways but ultimately that is it in a nutshell. It was healing and I think I found out a lot about who I was.”
Crosby then decided that she wanted to become a therapist and enrolled in a master’s programme. It was when she was studying that she set up @themindgeek on Instagram. At the time, she says, she was sitting in front of a mountain of information and thought it could be beneficial to share it with others.
“Had I known it earlier when I couldn’t afford a therapist, when I couldn’t afford training, I think it would have helped me feel less alone,” she explains. “I think it would have helped me to understand what was happening for myself.”
She started creating her own illustrations using a free online tool and the account “exploded” in popularity. Her posts were shared by high-profile accounts and she developed an enormous global following. (Ireland, she says, accounts for a tiny percentage of her followers. Most of her followers hail from the likes of the United States, Canada, Australia and the UK.)
Publishers started reaching out to her suggesting that she write a book. At the beginning of 2020, she struck a deal with Penguin and spent the following couple of months writing the first draft of what would become Five Minute Therapy.
“It was during the first lockdown,” she notes. “I found a really quiet area outside, a cordoned-off area that had picnic desks. The weather was stunning so I sat there for the majority of that lockdown for writing the book. That and the writing desk in the apartment. It was a strange, strange turnaround.”
Crosby says she already has an idea for a second book and plans to put pen to paper soon. But first she wants to ensure that she enjoys this moment as much as she can.
“I’m prone to letting things pass without marking them or taking any enjoyment or satisfaction from them, or even just giving myself a wee pat on the back,” she says. “I would like to try to do that for the next week or two anyway and we’ll go from there.”
Outside of writing, Crosby has continued to work as a therapist, seeing clients both in person and over Zoom. She says that the pandemic has made her work more challenging and adds that there has been a huge surge in people seeking therapy. Nonetheless, she says it’s an “honour” and “absolute privilege” to work as a therapist and have a front-row seat to a person’s recovery.
“For me, what could be more fulfilling than that? Having a space where someone heals and starts to accept themselves or feels like they don’t have to carry everything they’re carrying, that they can share it with someone. Part of me wishes I had something more profound to say but that is it in a nutshell. I wanted to create a space for people like the space that had been created for me. I couldn’t step away from that and I still can’t.
“On the hard days, I often have these fantasies of retraining as a florist and that being the thing I do with my time instead. Like, ‘Why did I have to get into mental health?’ But nothing beats that feeling of walking out of the office at the end of the day and you feel it in your gut that something has changed or moved for this person you’ve been sitting with for months.
“It’s hard to describe that feeling and maybe it’s a good thing that we can’t. There is something there that’s indescribable and not quite tangible. I live for it. It’s my bread and butter.”
How to mind your mind in Lockdown 3.0…
It’s safe to say, last year was a year unlike all others. And while 2021 may not be off to the clean start we’d hoped for, there are some small, practical ways we can begin to safeguard our mental health and mind our minds as we navigate the current lockdown and the year ahead.
1 Assess Your Boundaries
When we hear the word “boundaries”, our reaction might be to envision keeping others far away. Now, more than ever, it’s important we feel connected with those close to us, and healthy boundaries are an essential element to ensuring just that. To get a better measure of where you are with your own boundary-setting, take a moment to reflect on the following. Do I have trouble saying no? Do I feel guilty when I can’t do something for someone else? Do I have trouble making decisions? Do I often feel taken advantage of? If you answered “Yes” to most or all of these, it’s likely your boundaries could do with some maintenance.
2 Quieten the Inner Bully
Many of us speak to ourselves in the voice of a bully rather than in a kind, supportive way. It’s not uncommon for the bully to become so loud, it starts to severely impact our wellbeing. If you believe you fall into this category, it may be worth unpacking this further with a therapist. In the interim, it’s important to remember the Inner Bully isn’t you. It may be a part of you but it isn’t all of you. It’s just one part of us, sat at our inner conference meeting, hogging the microphone. Isn’t it time we passed the mic to the other parts of us at the table?
3 Keep Daily Promises to Yourself
If the two points above resonate with you, it’s likely you could benefit from making small, regular commitments to yourself that you stick to. It might not feel like a big deal when we say, “I’m going to do X, Y and Z tomorrow,” and we then choose not to do it for some reason. But over time, this making and breaking of tiny self-promises has an impact, creating a deficit in the trust we have in ourselves and in our sense of feeling heard and valued. Some examples include making the bed every morning, journalling for five minutes at lunchtime or reading 10 pages of a book before bed. These small promises may seem trivial, but over time they have the power to strengthen our voice and bolster our self-esteem.
4 Switch Off
There’s a fine line between informed and overwhelmed and the balance can be a difficult one to find. While staying up to date has its many benefits, it’s worth noticing when it goes beyond that; when we’re scrolling (and scrolling) after we have the facts. It’s easy to become saturated with the chaos of the world when it’s sat beneath our fingertips. This is why it’s helpful to set a limit on how much information we consume a day, as well as taking some much-needed time away from our phones altogether.
5 Acknowledge Your Feelings
“Things could be worse.” An old adage woven into the fabric of so many of us. It is most often said with the intent to silver-line something heavy we’re carrying and yet what it most often does is stop us talking any further on the matter at hand. It’s important to remember that while another person might have it “worse”, what we’re feeling doesn’t take away from their experience. Our feelings aren’t in competition with others’. There is room for all of it.
6 Don’t Judge How You Cope
Whether it’s a healthy dose of escapism by rewatching old episodes of Line of Duty or baking your umpteenth loaf of banana bread — whatever it is, don’t criticise what your coping looks like. Learn the TikTok dance. Ace the movie round of the begrudged Zoom quiz. If how you’re getting by isn’t harming yourself or others in some way, your coping is good enough. And if it is, please consider reaching out for support. Try not to critique what you didn’t get done or didn’t have the motivation to do today. Don’t allow shame to occupy your head or heart. There is enough going on. We’re all just muddling through, as best we can.
‘Five Minute Therapy: Mental Notes for Everyday Happiness, Confidence and Calm’ by Sarah Crosby is published by Cornerstone. Follow Sarah @themindgeek