If you struggle with depression like I do, and if you haven’t yet read M. Molly Backes’ viral twitter string about the Impossible Task, I highly recommend it as something to help put words to a common symptom of this insidious disease.
Depression commercials always talk about sadness but they never mention that sneaky symptom that everyone with depression knows all too well: the Impossible Task. (Other sneaky symptoms they don’t mention are numbness, anxiety, and inexplicable rage—just FYI for folks trying to figure this crap out. Depression comes in disguise, folks. It rarely announces itself via sadness.¯\_(ツ)_/¯ )
The Impossible Task is rarely actually difficult. It’s something you’ve done a thousand times. For this reason, it’s hard for outsiders to have sympathy. “Why don’t you just do it and get it over with” “It would take you like 20 minutes and then it would be done.” OH WE KNOW.
We DO know. And M. Molly Backes addresses this later in the string, but it’s not just hard for outsiders to have sympathy. This is also the whip those of us with depression use to flagellate ourselves again and again. “I can’t return that phone call; GOD, I AM SUCH A LAZY SACK.” “I just need to do ONE load of laundry, and I can’t get up from the couch. I AM SLOTH PERSONIFIED.” We are, in a few words, truly terrible friends to ourselves. These task SEEM so simple. But they are agonizing.
The Impossible Task could be anything: going to the bank, refilling a prescription, making your bed, checking your email, paying a bill. From the outside, its sudden impossibility makes ZERO sense.
And from the inside, too. It’s baffling, even to live it. It’s baffling, especially to live it. The cognitive dissonance is profound. Intellectually, one thing is clearly true — like, it takes less than three minutes, maybe less than one, to start the load of laundry. Experientially, the opposite is the case — the load of laundry is Mount Everest, and you’re at its base without the gear or training to summit. And the war of logic vs. reality is disconcerting to say the least.
In my time, I’ve had hundreds of Impossible Tasks, but I will tell you the biggest one—the most persistent and reliable of all the Impossible Tasks. The one that breathes down my neck and assaults me at night. The one that has the sharpest teeth. And it’s this:
The most Impossible Task is saying to someone else, “I’m not OK.”
Like the other Impossible Tasks, there’s no rhyme or reason to it. There’s no cause I can point to that makes sense. Depression is never about making sense, though; in fact, it’s effective at undermining us because it ignores logic entirely.
The most Impossible Task is saying to someone else, “I’m not OK.” And it’s not because I think no one will be kind. It’s not because I think no one will understand. It’s not because I think no one will help. Now that I’m an Experienced Depression Survivor, it’s not even because I’m embarrassed or afraid of appearing to be weak or in any way ashamed.
Still, the most Impossible Task is saying to someone else, “I’m not OK.” The idea of uttering those words makes me breathless every time. It makes my hands go clammy. It makes my heart beat molto allegro. It makes my body flush warm from my belly. It is exactly the same feeling I had standing on a platform 40 feet in the air and jumping for a trapeze ring; I was harnessed to a wire above my head; I knew in my mind I was safe; but my body was telling me otherwise, and there was a long while when I didn’t know which would win. It was, aptly, called the Leap of Faith. And I did it. I leaped. Just like I’ve managed, eventually, to leap each time depression has reared its head. But it hard, friends.
Saying “I’m not OK” is hard.
It takes Herculean strength.
It takes monumental effort.
And I want to say it gets easier with time, but I’m not sure that’s honest. I mean, I’ve been living with and battling depression for years, and I know things now I didn’t always. I have behavioral and coping strategies in place. I can recognize, given enough time, a downward spiral. I will notice myself picking at my skin or pulling bits of hair or staying up too late or wanting to sleep all day. I can see my frenetic, squirrelly nut-gathering and its foundation in panic.
But the idea of saying out loud, “I’m not OK” remains difficult in the extreme.
Saying, “I’m struggling” is, in and of itself, an overwhelming struggle.
Which is rough because the Most Impossible Task is, in my experience, the only way out of the hole. Telling someone is necessary to seek healing. Acknowledging the storm raging within is the only way to navigate a path away from it.
I had to say this week I wasn’t OK. I’m not OK. I’m not horrible. I’m not drowning. But, as my friend Heidi says, I am unable to can. I’ve cut All the Things from my calendar because I’m unable to can. I’m not returning phone calls because I’m unable to can. I have a list of To Do items on hold because I’m unable to can.
It’s the right choice to back away from the tasks for a bit. I have enough Depression Management under my belt to know this is a boundary I need in order to protect and repair my brain. I still hate it. I hate that, every so often, I have to send Cease and Desist letters my activities. But I also know intervening earlier on behalf of mental health is way, WAY better than waiting.
I just wanted to note, though, out loud, that the most Impossible Task is saying to someone else, “I’m not OK.”
And I wanted to say it important to take the leap anyway. Breathless and nervous, sweaty palms and all, it’s the most important thing to say.
Waving in the dark, friends,
If you currently have one or more Impossible Tasks in your life, be gentle with yourself. You’re not a screw up; depression is just an asshole. Impossible Tasks are usually so dumb that it’s embarrassing to asked for help, but the people who love you should be glad to lend a hand. ⬅️ Girlfriend knows what she’s talking about.
P.P.S. In behavioral therapy, I’ve learned when faced with Impossible Tasks to try to do one thing. It doesn’t have to be the Impossible Task. It can be Anything. I just have to try. Like, if I can’t make a phone call, maybe I can eat a bowl of cereal and try to give my body some energy. Not so I can make the phone call; just so I can accomplish One Healthy Thing. Just to do something kind and helpful for myself. I’ll tell you, friends, doing One Thing at a time—one gentle thing without reprimanding yourself and without a secret agenda to sneak in All the Things—can help illuminate the path back to health.