The week in words #12 – On gratitude and limitations

One of my favourite pages in It's All Absolutely Fine by Ruby Elliot

A bit over three weeks ago I downloaded a gratitude app. Every night at 9.30pm, it reminds me to note down three things about my day that I’m grateful for. Gratitude is said to improve mental and physical health, sleep, relationships and life in general, so it felt like something I should get on board with. (Brené Brown recommends finding something to be grateful to counter moments of shame and anxiety, which I can vouch for.) And I don't know if it’s the app and the daily practice, or if it’s just how life is currently going, but more and more often these days I stop and think, Damn. This is nice.

One of the things I’m grateful for these days is the energy I have. The dark months are coming to an end, and with the daylight has come headspace; my mind suddenly feels free to think and reflect and plan.

It can be difficult for those of us who deal with depression and other mental health problems. So often, we spend all our energy on coping; just existing. Weeks and months can go by like that. And it’s easy to beat ourselves up over not being productive, especially once the fog clears and we realise what we can be capable of, on good days.

I’m learning to be okay with my limitations. I’ve often looked at other people my age and the things they have achieved — companies started, money earned, awards won, partners married — and felt angry with myself. Why haven’t I been able to do that? And the answer is, I was busy with other things. I was busy not giving up on myself. For many years, that was my main task. (Other life things happen, too. I lost two years between 16 and 18 because of wrong epilepsy medication that turned me into a walking vegetable. I was a fiction writer before that, and over ten years later I still haven’t remotely recovered the level of passion and commitment I once had.)

My mental health journey often reminds me of the Sisyphus myth — the Greek king who is forced by the gods to push an enormous boulder up a hill, only for the boulder to roll back down as soon as it nears the top of the hill. ‘Sisyphusarbeit’ (Sisyphean work) is a common term where I come from for a task that's both laborious and futile, and often my head feels like that.

My point is, if someone is busy pushing a boulder three times their size up a hill, you can’t expect them to wave at you. Or, Susan Sontag: ‘It’s hard to talk while one is gritting one’s teeth.’

We’ve been brought up to only see work where there are impressive results. But those of us who deal with mental health problems, physical illness, or disability, or any other kind of obstacle we didn’t choose: we too work really fucking hard, sometimes just to get through the day.

None of this is a new concept; but it’s different when applied to oneself, at least for me. It’s really, really difficult to admit my own limitations. It’s difficult to admit that some days I just won’t be able to work on a passion project. Some days I won’t even be able to do the work I get paid for. And other days, I’m not able to go to the pub with my coworkers or community group friends, because my battery is drained and I can’t be the person they need me to be.

If I’m learning to be grateful for the good days, then that comes with accepting that the bad days/weeks/months/years happen, too.