With Depression, Know Your Limits

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI 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. Kinsley: “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.”

Right.

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 of 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.

In fact, the one mistake I keep on making over and over again in my recovery from depression is not accepting my own limitations as a person with a serious mood disorder.

A very clear pattern has emerged over the last ten 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 twenty 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 are 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 towards that acceptance of my limitations and asked an executive director of a behavior 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 published on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.

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28 thoughts on “With Depression, Know Your Limits

  1. Therese, you are an immense blessing in my life. My struggles are much the same as yours but in addition to major depression I also have severe anxiety. Knowing there are others out there like me, fighting this illness so hard every day, gives me tremendous comfort that I am not alone. Thank you sincerely, from the bottom of my heart, for your raw honesty in sharing your experiences as well as the methods that help you. I am very, very grateful that you do what you do (no matter the limitations!!) and wish you much peace and strength. — Metta, Kat

  2. I hate the “You can do anything” quotes, because I have not found that to be so. :( With my bipolar I have lost jobs (even the “simple” ones), not written, not kept relationships until death, not cleaned my house (lol) – and not become Steve Jobs. One of my blogger friends is famous for a lot of those “Yes you can!” quotes and they drive me nuts. But in a way they do keep me at least striving, and I suppose that’s good. But they also make me depressed, because it is not my experience, so I often feel “less than.”

  3. It is a good thing to protect ourselves from progressing into a state where we can’t function. We must do this. It took me years to feel brave enough to say no. I know my limits, but it took a long time to get that set in my mind.

    It’s OK.

  4. Hi, Therese.

    Thank you for another great post.

    As I was reading it, I kept thinking to myself, “This sounds like a highly sensitive person. Yeah, this is a highly sensitive person.” I had temporarily forgotten the other very important part of your story. Then you mentioned your bipolar disorder and treatment-resistant depression. Then I began to wonder, “Does being born a highly sensitive person come first? Or does being born with a brain and/or mood disorder, a genetic predisposition come first? Does one inform the other?” And so on and so forth, continued my musings. I don’t have the answers, at least not yet. However, it did make me wonder and want to research more as I like understanding myself. I especially like finding out the answers, or as much information as I can, because it helps me to find a deeper compassion for myself, as well as for others who experience similar things.

    In any case, I understood a bit more when you mentioned fragility a couple of times. For myself, I came away with deeply wondering that maybe, just maybe it’s more that I’m a highly sensitive person with treatment-resistant depression, etc., and with not honoring that HSP part first, I become vulnerable, and feeling very fragile at times, which then worsens the depression, etc. Again, I’m not really sure. I don’t have the answers yet, but your writing has made me think, made me wonder. And that’s really great…especially for where I am at emotionally these days.

    This leads me to another thing… “I’m sorry that my pieces suck. My cognitive functions are somewhere in the public sewer system.” Wow! I have yet to come across a piece of yours that sucks. In fact, I’ve found your writings inspiring, uplifting. They’ve made me think, made me wonder more. They’ve certainly opened up an area of deeper compassion for myself, as well as others – though I’m not always successful at both, in which case I’ll go back and reread something of yours.

    I also enjoyed the part regarding quotes on limitations. I’ve met a few people, some very learned and/or in “top” positions in their fields, who were staunch in their “sunset backdrops” along with their beliefs that there are no limitations. Some insisted that we were our own limitations. That we were to blame for our limitations. I’d often fight back that I was a realist. You know, come to think of it, back then I didn’t really know what that meant, LOL. I also didn’t know that I was a highly sensitive person. (I was considered thin-skinned instead.) However, what I did begin to see over the years was that these same people, all of them to be exact, were actually hiding behind these very same quotes. They didn’t want to feel their humanity. They didn’t want to feel their pain. My frustration with them soon became compassion. Then one day a very wise woman once said to me, “Everybody’s got their sh#t.”

    Everybody’s got their stuff. Yeah, but I’d REALLY REALLY like to trade in my depression and PTSD (and all that goes with it). However, I’d like to keep my HSP part. But then I remember what you wrote: “I believe wisdom comes with knowing your limitations and living within them.” It’s there in those words that I find…acceptance…compassionate acceptance. Thank you!

    Blessings,
    Dawn Marie

    1. Thank you, Dawn Marie. I appreciate that you don’t think my pieces suck :) I looked at your photos the other day for a fit for one of my pieces (it didn’t fit) but was amazed again at YOUR talent. Yes, the highly sensitive certainly plays a part in this. Thank you!

  5. Thank you for your post. It is very timely. I was just expressing my frustration the other day that I can’t seem to work, be a involved mom at school, do the things that I need to do around the house, be a wife, do yard work, exercise, and deal with all my emotional introspection. I just don’t have the energy to do all that and can’t figure out how to get it. I can’t function on less than 8 hours sleep and I hate myself for being that way. If I could only be the superwoman society says I can. But thank you for giving me permission to be less than perfect and to take care of myself. As Dawn Marie put it, I can compassionately accept myself as I am.

  6. I on a anti depressant and I don’t feel depressed at this time,but I have a very hard time finding motivation for anything.
    I also have a hard time organizing my thoughts and time ,can’t make a decision
    and physically and mentally exhausted

  7. I hear ya. I have recently cut my working days down to 4 from 5. I know I start flipping out if I believe I can still maintain a 40 hour week. I can’t. This does not please me or my bank balance. I have to do this to survive!

  8. I think this is a very difficult part of the depression journey-especially if you can remember a time before depression when you could do so much more. It is especially hard when the people surrounding you remember that,as well. Everyday I think I can make the “old me” come back by pushing myself. Of course, I fail and become more depressed. And then comes the guilt(I was raised Baptist and they can keep up with Catholics on the guilt thing). Therese, your posts are a gift. I know they come with a terrible price, but please know your life is making a difference. And so must we all, as best we can. The people who write on your blog are so supportive and compassionate.

    1. Hi, Teresa.

      I very much relate to what you say about the “old me” dilemma. At least it’s been a dilemma for me at times – ESPECIALLY when people from my pre-major depression past pop up. I haven’t worked out how to really except myself as I am now with treatment-resistant depression. The pre-major depression me seemed really awesome and had some pretty major accomplishments to feel good about. I think that’s where that self-compassion aspect cimes in, at least for myself.

      Wishing all peace on this journey and in gratitude for this blog.

      Blessings,
      Dawn Marie

  9. I have just discovered your writings. I am elated at how many connections I make with your findings and what you go thru. It is soooooo hard for my family to understand the different aspects of MDD and anxiety. I am printing off some of your articles to share with them, hoping they will read and ponder what I need to do in order to be as healthy as possible. I do have a couple of aunts that truly do understand, and that is a God send if there ever was one. God bless you, a thousand times over. Your journey has been such a painful one and yet I sense hope and good sense of humor! Oh! I love being Catholic too!!

    1. I just submitted your email address, Cherlyn. You should get a confirmation in your email. Thanks for letting me know. t

  10. Do you have any suggestion for books that can help someone with Depression or any Chronic illness understand what there individual limitations should look like?

    1. Hi MB,
      I’d like to write a post on this topic. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. One of my favorite books on chronic illness is HOW TO BE SICK by Toni Bernhard. She has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and is bedridden a lot, so it really varies. But her guidelines are wonderful. She has a new book coming out in October. I got to read it in advance and it’s wonderful: HOW TO LIVE WELL WITH CHRONIC ILLNESS. It can be so hard to know when to push and when to rest and give yourself a break. I will think more and hopefully write about it.

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