When Depression Makes You a Procrastinator

My sheets need to be washed, the floors need vacuuming, the bathroom needs scrubbing, I have clean laundry that needs to be folded and put away (and has for a week), I need to get my blood work done for a requisition I received in July, and I need to revise and submit this very article I started writing six weeks ago.

I am not a procrastinator. I experience procrastination as a symptom of depression. It’s easy to assume that people like me who procrastinate are lazy; the truth is, if I could do it now, I would.

When I’m well and I see the light blink on the coffee maker reminding me to fill the reservoir, I refill it. When I’m depressed, I hit the off switch. It’s hard to imagine not being able to spend an extra thirty seconds holding the container under the faucet, but there are times when one more thing is just too much to think about.

Ordinarily, if I catch myself putting off a task, I’m able to persuade myself to do it by saying something along the lines of “you’ll feel better once it’s done,” or “do it now so you won’t have to worry about it later.”

Unfortunately, part of depression is losing the ability to exercise that type of control over your mind. The incentive isn’t there because you’ve stopped caring. When you’re a hollow vessel with zero “effs” to give, you can’t persuade yourself to do stuff now so you’ll feel better later. The long-term reward system is broken. Later is endless fathoms of pain away when it is taking every ounce of what you have to get through now.

On a really bad day, I don’t even reach for the switch; I just let the stupid light blink.

So when I’m depressed and there are dishes all over the counter, it’s not because I’m lazy. It’s because I don’t have the energy to sell myself the usual motivational speech, never mind move my body off the couch, even if the sight of those dishes makes me feel worse.

So the dishes pile up and the more they do, the worse I feel. I’m failing housekeeping 101. Kids can do the dishes. Seriously, do you want insects? Figuratively, the dirty dishes and neglected household chores are just a heap of unmade decisions. Putting off decisions is the essence of procrastination, and this is probably why I do it so much when I’m depressed.

During a depressive episode, something as simple as ordering an item from a menu can seem like an overwhelming decision. When I’m well, I find it easy to make decisions and keep them in perspective by asking myself questions like “will this matter five years from now? Is it the last choice you’ll ever make? How soon will you be making this decision again?” When I’m depressed, I can’t manage my self-talk in such a healthy way, which is bad enough, but even worse is the shame that goes with it. It’s the loss of an ability I depend on and I’m used to having.

In order not to procrastinate, you have to decide what needs to be done first. It’s easy for the depressed person to get stuck here, and if you live with someone who is depressed you may find yourself becoming impatient with this. If there’s even a small way you can reduce this person’s decision-making burden, it can be a huge help.

I remember the first time I was hospitalized and I was finally allowed to visit the cafeteria with my father. I spent an absurd amount of time staring at the menu. I had no idea what I wanted and everything seemed expensive. My father didn’t tell me to hurry or demand what was wrong. He just asked if I might want some toast and coffee. I remember feeling this overwhelming sense of relief, as if he had rescued me from a nasty explosion. I don’t remember anything about the toast and coffee — if it was burnt, if I put jam on it, if the coffee was strong, if I took it black or put cream in it — but I will never forget that feeling. It was the opposite of lonely.

He did the most simple thing. He saw I was struggling and he gave me a hand. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all do that for each other now and again? Procrastination isn’t a textbook sign of depression, and you don’t have to be depressed to procrastinate, but I think it’s one of the signs that gets missed. We rely on people and we have expectations of each other based on our relationships, so it’s easy to get fed up with what we perceive as someone’s laziness when they are actually slowly losing their ability to cope with everyday tasks.

If you see someone you know is falling behind in all things they’re usually on top of, please reach out. People don’t give up on their commitments, their homes or their dishes because things are going well, and by offering to help you’re giving someone a chance to open up.

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Thinkstock photo via gregory_lee

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