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What to Do When Your Brain Is Constantly Screaming ‘I Can’t’

Anyone with a chronic mental illness will tell you it is exhausting. It puts you in a fight with your body and brain every day. Pain tells you not to move, but you need to get up and out the door to get to work. Fatigue tells you to take a nap, but you need to make lunch for your kids. Depression tells you no one will care if you show up to your niece’s dance recital, but you go anyway. We fight and fight and fight.

My major fight is with my brain. I have bipolar I disorder, and it’s a beast. Some days it’s depression whispering things to me, telling me I’m a failure anyway, so why go on trying. Other days, anxiety takes the reins and it feels like every noise is too loud and every light is too bright. I scratch my skin compulsively, partly to keep my hands occupied; partly because I feel itchy and restless under my skin.

The medications I take to treat my disorder further complicate things. I take a relatively high dose of an atypical antipsychotic which is highly sedating, and I am tired all of the time. So, every day, I fight. Most days, I come out on top, having accomplished what I needed to accomplish. The result is often that I end the day tired, frustrated and overwhelmed because of the energy I had to expend. Or, on the good days, I find myself feeling content, fulfilled even, knowing I was able to go out into the world and be productive despite the battle inside of me.

But there are days that come to a full stop.

The depression, anxiety and fatigue are drowned out by an overwhelming sense of “I can’t.” I can’t go to work. I can’t attend the family gathering. I can’t go to school and write the midterm.  I can’t. I can’t. I can’t. It has a physical sensation. It cannot be ignored or pushed through. When my brain screams “I can’t,” it means it.

I’ve learned trying to deny the feeling or distract myself is largely ineffective in these moments. So now, I simply ask myself, “OK, what can you do?” When I ask myself this, I am both recognizing the power of this state of being and trying to work with it. Not to say that is easy at all. But it’s a starting point.

So OK, you can’t go to work – message received.  What can you do? What will make it slightly easier to be you today? Often, and I am not kidding, it means cleaning the toilet. It doesn’t take a lot of time or energy to clean a toilet. And in a few minutes, I have one spot of my world under control. White, glistening, smelling like “spring breeze” and under control. And at the end of the day, if I have accomplished nothing else, I have tangible evidence of something positive I did get done.

If the “I can’t” is something social or with my family, the “what can you do?” may be writing a letter to the girl I sponsor on the other side of the world. She has no idea who I am. So, I write about the weather, my cat, my job, whatever. It’s a tiny connection, but again, it can be enough to prove that I “did” something that day.

When you have any type of chronic mental illness, there will be days when either your brain or body firmly tell you, “I can’t.” And if we are going to take care of ourselves, sometimes we need to pay attention to those messages and not push ourselves beyond our breaking point. But having a small thing, an “I can,” to do on those days, can make the difference between ending the day feeling like a complete failure, or ending the day feeling slightly better, with a clean toilet.

Getty image by Sky_melody