Last week I read a book about bipolar by Hilary Smith and came across this quote that summed up my predicament succinctly.
What is the meaning of life when an illness prevents you from doing many of the things your society values? What is the meaning of life when an…illness makes it hard for you to do the things you yourself value? To what extent is it important to cling to your goals and refuse to give up on them, and to what extent is it important to adapt to reality and accept it as it comes? Is it possible to do both?–Welcome to the Jungle, by Hilary Smith
It coincides with an exercise I did with my counsellor, where we listed some of the rules I live by. One of those rules is to be a functioning and contributing member of society.
How can I be a functioning member of society when, like recently, I’m only up for 8 hours a day? What even makes you a functioning member of society – when you have a job like a professor or a plumber? What happens when you can’t do those things – do you automatically become non-functioning? Or do you contribute in different ways?
I could argue that I am a functioning member of society because I write. I write about the environment, mental health, politics, and science communication. I share my thoughts via blog posts and some freelance work when I’m able.
But on days (or, as now, months) when I’m not doing well, my contribution drops accordingly. As Smith writes in her book, maybe it’s not as important to work towards being a functioning member of society, but to ditch the idea of what “functioning” means altogether. I can rethink functioning as being mindful and aiming to reach my own standards rather than the standards of society. I can focus on being present in the moment and looking after myself the best way I know how. I may not be a prof or a plumber, but I can live a life of meaning if I decouple myself from the treadmill of having to produce, produce, produce in order to be a functioning member of society.
Then there are my goals. I have ambitious goals but don’t always have the wherewithal to achieve them.
As Esmé Weijun Wang writes about her own mental illness,
“Eventually, I stabilized. I could rely on a certain level of illness every day. Many things in life changed, including my ability to think, get around, enjoy “ordinary” outings, and plan for the future. What didn’t change were my ferocious ambition & dreams for the future.”–Esmé Weijun Wang
I have lofty ambitions of writing a book (or two) and doing the Mount Robson Half Marathon. But when I feel like I have in the last eight months, and am barely keeping my head above water, I have to rethink those goals.
I don’t have a lot of personal initiative to keep up the work on my book, mostly because I get tired so easily and spend a lot of time sleeping. So do I give up on my book writing goal? Or do I revise that goal – maybe say I’ll have the revised proposal done in a month instead of in a few weeks? Is it even realistic to think that I could write a book, if my proposal was accepted and I had a year to write it? Would I be able to commit to that given my mental state? Is it wise to make that kind of commitment to a goal that you’re not sure you can deliver on?
Same with the Mount Robson Half Marathon. Sure I might be able to train for it if I get out of this depression I’m in and didn’t spend so much time sleeping. But would I have the ability to travel to the race and stay overnight for a couple of days along with doing the race itself? Do I have to give up my goal of one day doing this race just because of my mental condition? Or do I keep this goal as something to work towards when I feel I have more agency over my life?
Can I adapt my goals to something that is more doable? Not really. Writing a book and walking a half-marathon both require specific abilities that I don’t currently have. I managed to walk a half-marathon last year, when I had the initiative to do the training. Will I get that initiative again?
It’s almost as though I have to hold onto my goals and implement them during the times when I’m feeling better, but let them lie fallow during the times when I’m feeling terrible. So right now I’m feeling terrible, I won’t be doing the Mount Robson Marathon or even the local Lake-to-Lake Walk I did last year (both of which are cancelled this year, anyway). But when I’m feeling better (assuming that happens one day), I can dust off my goals and focus on them again. Maybe I just need a break right now from goal-setting and achieving and need to focus on maintaining equilibrium and keeping my head above water.
This is what I struggle with every day – what I *can* do versus what I *should* do. I need to realize that what I should do is only what I can do and not a bit more. If I look after myself now, chances are better that I will slowly improve and be able to dust off my goals and ambitions at some future date – yet to be determined.