I’ve spent the last couple of weeks questioning the correct length for toe nails. With my feet exposed in sandals, I’ve wondered whether every person I’ve encountered – from family and friends to strangers in shops – has been assessing my ungular choices. 

This kind of behaviour isn’t limited to toe nails. I’ve done it with heel heights and fingernails, even cuticles. There probably isn’t an aspect of personal appearance, however small, that I haven’t interrogated at some point.  

I believe this behaviour is profoundly connected to my mental health.

When I’m going through a difficult patch, or even a rogue bad day, everything appears overwhelming. I struggle to cope with what’s going on around me or within me. 

I feel I simply don’t know enough about life to function properly, as if everyone except me received a manual on how to be a human. 

I lose confidence in my ability even to do those things that I can usually manage.

At times like this, I grasp at anything with an air of certainty about it. I’ll devour magazine columns, self-help tomes and ‘try this’ tips of all kinds. I want clear instructions. I want to be told what to do.

There’s no shortage of sources out there happy to meet this need. There’s prescriptive advice available for every aspect of life imaginable. I know because I’ve read it – read it and believed it (or at least suspended cynicism long enough to give it a go). 

I’ve applied Marie Kondo’s methods to my socks, done a life laundry of my possessions, made it to Inbox Zero and a whole lot of other stuff that doesn’t have a catchy name to accompany it.

I cling to these admonitions as a form of protection, harbouring the vain hope they’ll keep me safe. If I reorganise the kitchen cabinets in the right way or buy a pair of reusable water bottles or put all my postcards and tickets in a scrapbook then everything will be okay! All my problems will be solved!

How could I possibly still feel overwhelmed by mental health issues if I’ve sorted out every aspect of my life in accordance with the advice I’ve read?

Of course this is a flawed way of thinking. Overcoming mental health issues requires more than a few nifty organisational tips. Life can’t be lived according to a ten step ‘how to’ guide. But when I’m struggling this logic returns. 

Next time it might be arranging my books by colour or only wearing white shirts for a month. For now, it’s trying to figure out the right length for toe nails.