We’re supposed to dream big, aim high, reach for the sky, and all that crap. But what about those days when your mental illness is kicking your butt and you barely have the energy, motivation, interest, or presence of mind to haul your a** out of bed, much less hold yourself up for the duration of a shower?
Setting yourself up for failure?
Let me be clear, setting goals is a good thing. Pushing yourself to do more than you think that you’re capable of can allow you to do things you thought you could only dream of… or it can knock you on your ass. The goals you set should still be realistic, and what’s realistic is going to change based on how your illness is currently affecting you. If you’re setting yourself up for failure, how is that doing you any favours?
When my depression is severe, just getting out of bed can be a gargantuan effort. If I were to try to go outside for a walk because that’s what you “should” do when you’re depressed, I probably wouldn’t make it beyond the front door. That would make me feel even more negative about myself, and reinforce the thoughts that I’m useless, pathetic, etc. I find that I don’t tend to devote a lot of energy to comparing myself to others (perhaps because I hate people when I’m depressed), but I do compare myself to my level of functioning when I’m well. Realistically, though, that’s not a fair comparison.
Spoon theory, originally developed by Christine Miserandino, uses spoons as a metaphor for managing energy and resources in chronic illness. You can only spend as many spoons as you’ve got, and what you have available to you each day (and how many spoons a given task takes) has a lot to do with what your illness is prepared to give you.
In the case of showering, if you’re doing well and your illness is in remission, a shower might use up one spoon out of a daily energy budget of 200 spoons. In that context, taking a shower isn’t much of an accomplishment. But if you only have 10 spoons available in a day because your illness is currently kicking your butt, and showering costs 6 spoons, because of both the physical energy required and the mental energy to overcome the mental block to hygiene that mental illness can so powerfully create, showering isn’t going to be doable very often.
It’s all relative
The way I try to look at it is that goals should be proportionate to the amount of energy you have and the amount of energy it would take to complete a task. If depression is sucking the life out of you and your energy level is so low that if it were a gas tank you’d be running on fumes, is it reasonable to plan on going for a 4-hour drive on that empty tank? Hmm, not so much.
So I say, if taking a shower when you’re severely depressed takes about the same amount of energy that it would take you to climb Mount Kilimanjaro when you’re well, then taking a shower is a huge goal and an accomplishment worth celebrating. The fact that showering when you’re well is easy is totally irrelevant. It’s not an apples to apples comparison or even an apples to watermelons comparison; it’s more of an apples to mountains comparison.
As I nurse, I try to tell both myself and my patients to aim low and dream small when feeling really unwell. Achieving a “small” goal will serve you better than failing at a bigger goal. And don’t forget to congratulate yourself for that mountain-summit-equivalent shower that you didn’t think you could do. You absolutely earned it.