Recovery from depression meant a lot of change in the way I lived, and cutting out the stress of a tension-filled job was at the top of the list. Once I had ended that life of constant pressure, I could feel the relief at the start of each day.
A freedom and energy filled me, and I could step at once into the work of writing that I had long wanted to do. That sounds like a happy ending, but things are not so simple.
Depression was not overwhelming me anymore, but the illness is generous with the legacies it leaves behind. Over the last year, I’ve had to deal with many of those. As I’ve often written here, there was no getting away from depression by going to a new place, finding a new job or trying different relationships. The same proved true of trying to leave stress behind by changing the kind of work I did.
I’ve kept stress with me almost every hour of every day. Instead of chasing the unattainable goals of someone else’s rules, I’ve set up plenty of my own. And not just rules about work. I’m too inventive to stop there. I have rules to follow about almost everything. At any moment, I should be following a rule or condemning myself for breaking one. Nothing is too trivial to merit its guidelines for measurement.
The rules are remnants of battered self-esteem – or rather the weapons of choice to do the battering. I would never have been able to push depression aside if I had not changed my belief about myself. Out went the assumption that I was worthless, bad, inadequate, doomed to fail (and on and on), but it’s taken awhile to dismantle the structure of rules that I had created to bind up that bad person.
Under the rules of depression, I wasn’t allowed to trust myself simply to take life as it came. No, rules had to confine me in narrow hallways allowing movement to certain rooms and not others. If I followed the rules, I could open another door – break them and doors shut in my face, just as I deserved. A judge was always present with a verdict of guilty, whenever I broke a rule by trying to do something too dangerous to be allowed. Writing drew on inner feelings that couldn’t be trusted out in the open, so the rules didn’t allow that. Judgment was swift for an infraction. My mind shut down – don’t go there, strictly off limits.
Without the force of depression, most of those rules disappeared, and I was free to do what I really wanted to do. But I immediately set about creating a new set of rules, most of them shaped by timing and deadlines. To start binding myself up with time might seem strange, but it’s a good route to the sort of self-judgment depression encourages. It’s an old habit, one that dies hard.
Here’s how it happens:
I was all set up to work full-time at online writing, but first I needed to set my goals and deadlines. Write many blogs on several different subjects, build a big readership, start to earn an income and do it all in one year. Having determined that I must meet those grand expectations, I needed projects with tasks, lots of them, each with its own duration and deadline, each having the highest priority. After that I created a daily schedule with pastel-colored blocks of time devoted to each major type of activity or project. It looked so impressive in my online calendar.
Of course, it’s the perfect set-up for disaster. With a long history of depression, I’ve had trouble meeting deadlines and finishing anything, and the old sequence begins again. Set high goals, fail to meet them, feel worthless, set more, try harder, still fall short – or, get everything done three times more slowly than I’d planned and feel hopeless about getting anywhere.
I can’t possibly meet all the goals with all those deadlines. I can see that clearly, but each time I try to drop something, I feel I can’t because it’s so important. If I don’t meet all these goals, I will have failed to…do what? Meet the arbitrary goals I have set for myself, of course. I know they’re arbitrary, but I can’t seem to let go of them.
Finally I have to face the reality that my work rhythm doesn’t match the schedule and need to make adjustments. I decide to give myself much more time – I move the task lines in the calendar days. Now those colorful blocks are bigger, more generous – but I still keep the schedule. There’s an underlying fear of erasing the whole thing. How can I face the day with a blank calendar staring at me – where’s the structure, where are the goals and tasks, the deadlines. No, they have to be there, just better suited to my style of working. Of course, it’s all still far more than I can get done.
On and on it can go. There’s no end to rules, to shoulds, to don’ts and dos. I’ve accomplished a great deal in the last year, but I haven’t met all my self-imposed goals, so it doesn’t feel like enough. If I don’t get out of the stress-by-rules trap, it will never be enough.
I may not be depressed, but I haven’t fully shaken the habit of ruling myself into a kind of captivity. It’s self-willed rather than compelled by depression, but it’s still hard to manage. Fortunately, I know full well that it’s a legacy. The only purpose of the rules is to bring back the sense of worthlessness I’ve struggled to overcome.
So I’ve added the rule habit to the cognitive therapy list. Just as I learned to shut up the voice that kept condemning me as no good, I’m learning now the skill of undoing self-defeating rules.
Part of the problem is the perverse comfort of familiar misery tempting me back from the risks of a new and more fulfilling life. The deadly skills of living with depression were refined over decades, and I mastered them completely. I’m well on my way to kicking the old habits and learning the skills that support a richer life. But it’s taking more time than I’d hoped. ……
Taking more what? Time?? So who set a deadline on healing, John? It’s happening – amazingly, truly happening. So drop the deadline!
Have you had a talk with yourself lately about rules and deadlines, time and stress?