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When My Psychiatrist Suggested a Way to Make Tasks Feel Less Daunting

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I sometimes feel like I have utterly failed. When my manic highs shoot me into euphoria and I make 15 plans for the week, only to come crashing down into depression shortly before the plans take place, it feels like I’ve failed. It feels like I fail epically when I am depressed. I can’t fight my anxiety enough to get out of the house — no matter how many times I convince myself I can do it beforehand.

The idea of not succeeding further deepens my self-loathing and self-doubt. I can’t finish my college classes, I can’t think.

But while it’s true I’ve not followed through, and while it is true I’ve not completed things, that doesn’t mean it must be this way forever as I battle my mental illness.

I sat in my psychiatrist’s office one day, describing my utter paranoia at not being able to finish my essays, make my appointments, and sometimes even go to the grocery store.

“Write your name,” he said.

I looked at him, confused.

“Write you name,” he repeated. “And if that is all you can do that day, that is OK. Just write your name and put the paper down. Come back to it the next day and write the title; if you can’t think of a title, write the date. The next day, write the first sentence, or the last sentence. Just put something on the paper. You will find that step by step, you can finish it — eventually. Slow and steady wins the race. Break things down one item at a time.”

I tried to process this as he talked. And now it’s something I apply to every task in my life — especially on the hard days. In my experience, completing small steps as a person with mental illness can feel like climbing mountains at times.

For example, when I have to go to the grocery store, I pick up my keys and start the car. I sit there for a minute while it runs. If I think that’s all I can do, then it’s OK for me to turn off the car and decide not to go yet. But if I can drive down the driveway, then I can drive to the corner, and then I can drive to the stoplight. If I get too anxious and need to turn around, I turn around and go home. But when I eventually get to the store, I take a deep breath and shut off my car. I walk to the store and grab a cart. I grab one thing I need. If that is all I can do, great. I’ve accomplished something. If I can do more, I grab the next item, and the next. I make it to the checkout line and take time to breathe while I wait. I’m almost done. Once I get back in my car, I go home and relax. I did it. Every step of the way, I did it. It’s the small things that matter at first.

Instead of looking at tasks like they are daunting and impossible to finish, I try to chip at them. Chip and chip away at your own pace. And you can get there. Just take your time and keep chipping. Drive one more mile, write one more sentence. If that is all you can do, take a break or stop for the day. Pull over and take some breaths. Little wonders, little accomplishments. You can do it. There is no “fail” if you reward yourself for getting the little things done.

You don’t have to clean your whole house. Start with the dishes. Stop. Sit down. If you feel like it, fold the laundry. Stop and congratulate yourself for getting little things done. Something as simple (yet so huge) as getting out of bed in the morning can start with opening your eyes and taking a breath. Then if you’re ready, pull one sheet off your upper body, then your legs. Sit up next, and just sit there. If that is all you can do for now, that is OK.

I know the torrents of mental illness and how it can make us feel. It can make us compare ourselves to others around us. But try not to look at things like that. Success is measured in many different ways, and right now it might help to think small. If the smallest things seem like mountains to you, think small. Because you can climb them, one hand at a time.

Editor’s note: This is based on one person’s experience and should not be considered medical advice. For any questions or concerns related to your health, consult a doctor or medical professional.

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Image via Thinkstock Images

Originally published: December 28, 2016
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