I spent this morning looking for a beautiful quote I read about a month ago, something along the lines of what motivational speaker John Bradshaw said: “I define a ‘good person’ as somebody who is fully conscious of their own limitations. They know their strengths, but they also know their ‘shadow’ — they know their weaknesses.”
However, when I Googled quotes about limitations, I came across more than a hundred quotes like this one from Darwin P. Kingsley: “You have powers you never dreamed of. You can do things you never thought you could do. There are no limitations in what you can do except the limitations of your mind.”
They all had very inspirational backdrops — waves, sunsets, runners — and I wanted to wave my hands in the air and say, “Yeah, you know it!”
Except that I don’t. And I think all the messages in this world telling me that I can do anything I dream of — like working 80 hours a week while training for an Ironman and being an attentive wife and mother — are, well, not true.
A very clear pattern has emerged over the last 10 years.
Too much stress in my life triggers a severe breakdown. So I have to make the “phone calls of shame,” where I explain to editors and other executives that I am too ill to make the deadlines I had committed to, or I can’t handle the project at this time, or I’m sorry that my pieces suck. My cognitive functions are somewhere in the public sewer system.
Then, with the stress gone, I gradually start to feel better, so I start adding responsibilities little by little. I take on a writing job. I collaborate on an exciting program. I begin to think I’m normal, maybe even superhuman, so I keep on adding jobs and projects until I am over 40 hours a week (plus being the parent on duty, picking up kids at 2:30, etc.). I think that by drinking my kale smoothies and taking my fish oil and probiotic in the morning, I am immune to depression. My insides will turn to Teflon, and I will be unaffected by the craziness of my schedule.
But a few months into the 40-plus hour week, I get stressed again, and symptoms return. I have fits of frustration and begin crying during the day. I have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep at night. I can’t make a decision for the life of me, so I start flipping a coin to determine things like whether I should swim or run. I start obsessing on things, like what if I chose the wrong color for a logo. And I begin arguing with my husband over things like an empty carton of ice cream that was put back in the freezer. My daughter asks me if I’m depressed again, and if I’ll have to go to the hospital.
Then … after a week of crying and sleepless nights and fighting with my husband, the truth hits me in the gut: I’m not normal, and can’t keep a “normal” schedule. I have a few uncomfortable hours where I digest my fragility, my limitations as a person with bipolar disorder and treatment-resistant depression.
I cuss and throw things.
I ask God, “Why am I so damn fragile?”
“It is our duty as men and women to proceed as though the limits of our abilities do not exist,” wrote Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
I adore de Chardin, but if I follow his advice, I’m heading straight into another depressive episode. And because I uttered the words “I do” almost 20 years ago and procreated five years after that, my decisions now affect other people, too. It’s not just about me. I always forget that part.
“I don’t think you understand how fragile you are,” my husband told me this morning. I lashed out at him for something unrelated to the empty carton of ice cream. I have too much to do in a ridiculously small window of time, and that tension (lots of things in a small slot, like shoving 100 golfballs in a coffee cup) is starting to cause symptoms.
“You’re great about your diet and exercise,” he said. “But stress is just as important as what you eat and working out. So it doesn’t make sense to eliminate sugar and then take on a bunch of projects.”
Because I research this stuff as part of my job, I know he’s right. It can be practically impossible to keep your mood resilient if you are under chronic stress because it increases the connection between the hippocampus part of your brain and the amygdala (worry central), impairs your memory retention, affects your cortisol production (making it difficult for you to handle more stress), and weakens your immune system.
My friend Bob Wicks, author of Riding the Dragon, shared with me a Zen saying: “Face reality and unwilled change will take place.”
I like that much better than all the quotes with sunset backdrops that assert no limitations should exist.
I don’t want to have another breakdown this year. I would very much like not to have to wear a paper robe and eat rubber chicken in a room where a bunch of other paper robes fight over the remote control. I know on some level (even if it’s not conscious) that I have to protect my health with everything I have. So today I inched toward that acceptance of my limitations and asked an executive director of a behavioral health program I met last week if we could hold off on pursuing a joint faith-based endeavor until I finish some of my other projects. Then I declined an opportunity to contribute an article in a forthcoming anthology with 40 bestselling authors.
I guess I don’t believe everything is possible anymore. Not for people with chronic depression.
I believe wisdom comes with knowing your limitations and living within them.
Continue the conversation on Project Beyond Blue, the new depression community.
Artwork by the talented Anya Getter.
Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.