On Expectations and Motivation

Sometimes, my illness robs me of all motivation. I’ll wake up in the morning, with a to-do list full of things to accomplish and find myself with absolutely zero desire to get any of those things done. My illness having pilfered my drive to do even simple things like make myself a pot of coffee – I’ll just want to stay in bed all day. Nothing seems interesting, nothing is stimulating; the world is a flat, affectless plane.

It’s not an uncommon symptom, in fact it’s almost universal. It becomes next to impossible to get us to do anything. Activities that used to interest us no longer hold any fascination. Our level of apathy towards life, toward doing even the most mundane, necessary things can be legendary.

It was especially bad for me immediately after I’d completed my 6-month round of ECT. I had lost nearly everything. I was alone all day, carless – isolated from my friends by the 40-minute drive from Aurora to Denver. I couldn’t read, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t remember how to fix computers, and I had forgotten how to draw and paint. Relearning how to do everything I had once enjoyed was a daunting, seemingly impossible task and I was in a state of apathetic hopelessness. My life was ruined, I had screwed up, I was never going to regain my former life, and even the thought of trying seemed so overwhelming, so impossible, I didn’t even want to try. And so an utter lack of motivation took over me, enveloping me and defining my very existence.

What I remember most clearly from those days was lying on the couch with the TV playing a movie channel. It played the same movie over and over again all morning and well into the afternoon day after day, for weeks on end. I was so unmotivated I didn’t even want to change the channel, I was so apathetic I didn’t even watch the movie. I just laid on the couch, staring at the wall, waiting for my dad to come home for lunch.

I didn’t want to do anything, the things I was previously passionate about – painting, drawing, working on computers, reading, writing – were impossible for me to do. They each presented obstacles that seemed completely insurmountable. So I laid on the couch and watched time pass until dad came home for lunch and I had some human contact in my life.

My existence was defined by survival, I was a prisoner of my own head. I had hit the bottom of the cess pit and it seemed impossible to climb out.

And yet I did.

Eventually, I climbed out.

Eventually, I put my life back together again.

I can fix computers, I can read, I can write; I can even draw and paint, though I choose not to these days. It was by no means easy – it was fraught with errors and failures and missteps. In the process of climbing out of the cess pit, I went through a period of time where I got psychotic every day, sometimes multiple times a day. I became so delusional I started to hate my mom for absolutely no reason, forcing her to talk to me through my dad. The journey from the bottom of the cess pit to the top was painful and torturous and oftentimes overwhelming. But it was also completely worth it. I now have the kind of life I’d so desperately wished for when I was laying on the couch, willing time to pass all those years ago. Why is that?

I think it started with expectations.

I didn’t grow up with a lot of rules in my house, but there were expectations. I was expected to be kind, responsible, and self-controlled. I had no curfew, I had no set time to do my homework…my parents gave me a tremendous amount of freedom – but getting your homework done is part of being responsible and coming home at a reasonable time is part of being self-controlled. My parents didn’t demand a certain grade-point average out of me, but they did expect me to try my best.

I think because my parents’ expectations of me were reasonable and allowed me a lot of freedom it meant I started expecting things out of myself. I took their expectations of me seriously because they were far more reasonable than many of my friends whose parents seemed to inherently mistrust them. If I was going to be out past a certain time all I had to do was text my parents and tell them where I was and what time I expected to be home – they trusted me to be responsible and I took their trust seriously. And out of that relationship of trust, as an adult, I developed certain expectations of myself. I expect myself to always try my best, to be kind, responsible, and self-controlled, and to lead a God-fearing life. It proved invaluable when I found myself on the couch, my brain still sizzling from the electricity of ECT, faced with having to put my life back together again.

It’s a fine balance, with mental illness, between accepting your limitations and pushing yourself to do more. While it’s paramount that you not exasperate your illness, it’s also important to push yourself, it’s important to figure out ways to test your boundaries.

With severe depression, for instance, you might not want to even get out of bed, but that’s when it’s especially important to push yourself and get out of bed. It might not mean going through your entire morning routine of dressing and grooming yourself, it might not mean going to the bank or doing grocery shopping, it might just mean going to the living room and reading a book or watching TV. But getting out of bed is essential, pushing yourself in little ways to do a little bit more, go a little bit farther will help tremendously in improving your mental health. Pushing yourself doesn’t mean pushing yourself into being totally “normal” – it just means doing something beyond what you think you’re immediately capable of doing.

I found out the hard way what it means to push yourself too hard. The summer after ECT, I’d made great progress – I was going to church again, I was attending a weekly dinner put on by my friends, I was getting out of the house more and more and pushing myself to do more and more. I thought I ought to go to school again, though both my therapist and my psychiatrist were encouraging me not to and to instead apply for SSDI.

I made a compromise and said I’d take one class per semester until I had my degree. I had grand plans of getting a Ph.D and living in a huge house which I would rent out to traveling kids for a pittance, mostly to keep the house full. I was going to be successful, I was going to prove all of them (whoever ‘they’ were) wrong.

The first semester was easy because it didn’t require any reading and because it was a math class whose material I’d already covered thoroughly in high school and again at a different college – it was just review. I aced the class with little trouble and everyone thought it boded well for the next semester. But come fall semester, when I took Computer Science 1, everything fell apart. I know tons about computers – I’ve rarely met a computer I couldn’t fix, I was about ten years old the first time I was called out of class to fix a computer in school, computers are something I’ve mastered quite easily, but I’d never actually written any programs for a computer – I’m more of a car mechanic than a car designer.

The class was a terrible experience, I was inundated with terms I’d never heard of, deadlines that seemed unreasonable, a professor who didn’t seem to care about her students succeeding (and in fact gloated about the fact that most students failed her CS1 class). The stress of it saw me once again unable to read, I was becoming psychotic almost every night again. I started to get sick on the train ride home from church, I started to get sick even thinking about going to the weekly dinner I loved going to so much. My life started to unravel before me yet again and I worried I’d have to get ECT again; and so I dropped out of school again, for the last time, to save my sanity. I was devastated – my plan was ruined. I had pushed myself too hard and had to start over from the beginning.

So I applied for SSDI, and I went much more slowly, I learned to expect myself to be healthy; to be kind, responsible, and self-controlled. I modified my colloquially programmed notion of success – the Ph.D, the large house – and define my success by how good I’m doing at managing my illness, how positive my attitude is despite the hardships I face. I didn’t go back to the couch to stare at the wall while the movie played – I continued pushing myself, just in more practical ways.

Throughout all of this my parents stood ready for whatever I needed them to do. They gave me rides, they comforted me when I became psychotic, they went on walks with me, they were there to talk to me – anything I needed, they were there. They didn’t have any magic words to make me get off the couch, they didn’t do anything special. They just trusted I would eventually get up. And eventually I did.

The hard part of all this is that it’s up to the person with the mental illness – it has to come from them. You can certainly do your part to encourage them, but ultimately it’s their choice.

I listen to a song by This Bike is a Pipe Bomb when I’m depressed. It’s aptly titled Depression. There’s a line in the song that goes “There’s nothing wrong with a break before you get back up.” And I think that’s really good advice. ECT was a terrible, necessary thing – it hit the reset button on nearly every aspect of my life. Those weeks on the couch, staring at the wall, were my bit of a break, my gathering of my strength before I got back up and started climbing out of the cesspit I’d found myself in. Rest is necessary, but so is climbing, and that’s where this becomes tricky.

In dealing with my mental illness, only I know what I’m capable of, only I know my limits, and so only I can ultimately judge what I can and cannot do. I think you’re unlikely to find an illness more traumatizing, more emotionally and psychologically draining, more willpower-asphyxiating than mental illness. My brain has put me through some truly terrible times, my brain is apt to torture me whenever it sees fit and it’s important to keep this in mind. Just because it doesn’t look like someone is suffering doesn’t mean they aren’t.

There’s a fine line which must be walked between compassion and encouragement, between giving a person with a mental illness space to deal with their demons (to take a bit of a break) and pushing them to do better. Progress is slow at best most of the time, but it is inevitable.

I think the key is to instill the drive to do better, to push themselves; to have tangible goals, a plan to attain those goals, and an open enough mind to change them when and if those goals become unattainable. It starts with building trust, it starts with honest conversations, it starts in a place seemingly far removed from the objective of getting them out of bed, out of their bedroom. It starts with love, it starts with patience, it starts with listening.

It’s difficult to encourage someone with whom you have a strained relationship – but build the relationship and the expectations, and the motivation will come.

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