There is a whole other vocabulary that comes with anxiety and depression, phrases that loved ones get used to hearing and friends learn to interpret. “I’m feeling panicky”, “There is no point”, “I’m too awake to sleep and to tired to be awake”, are phrases that can all be tossed out like lead weights and be intimidating and frustrating for those close to us to try and respond to. But I’m not here today to talk about anxiety-ridden declarations, or depressive pondering, I’m here to talk about a very, very simple statement: “I can’t”.
I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost touch with what the word “can’t” actually means. To start this off I thought I’d go look it up in a dictionary, then remembered it’s 2016 so I don’t own a dictionary, but anyway, Google defines “can’t”, as “cannot” -*sigh*, should have seen that one coming – and “cannot” is defined as “the negative form of can”. Okay, so not quite the powerful, carved in stone sort of definitions I was looking for, but I think we can all agree on what “can’t” means really. It means unable to. It’s not possible. It doesn’t mean “won’t”, it doesn’t mean “will not” and it doesn’t mean, “I’d rather not“, right?
A couple of times recently I’ve found myself being asked to do something (and I’m talking non-essential, more adulty-life things, not like “please move your car, you’re blocking the road” type situations.), and I’ve had to respond with “I can’t”. On every occasion the person has then responded with a number of rational, completely correct reasons as to why I should. Right, but that doesn’t matter, because I can’t. It wasn’t that I just wasn’t sure and now you’ve swayed me, and it’s not that I think you’re wrong and I think I know better it’s that it’s all completely irrelevant because I can’t.
For example, being able to predict the Lottery numbers for tonight is something that would benefit me: I’d win a fortune, never have to work again, could focus on my health, right? No arguments there, so why not predict the Lottery numbers then? Oh yeah, because I can’t. I appreciate that’s a pretty hyperbolic example but it gets the point across: no matter how great the possibilities would be if something could be (think teleportation, never-ending Pringles tubs and the return of Firefely) it doesn’t change the fact that it can’t be right now, and thinking and listing and planning for otherwise won’t make it so. In fact, it hurts.
That’s right, even though I think most often people feel they’re being encouraging when they list the reasons I should do something, as though giving me some incentives will help with my ‘lack of motivation’. The reality is, it hurts me when I know I am failing at something. When I’m letting my relationships slide, when I’m unemployed – I am not sitting here thinking I have everything under control and might just call it a day and chillax with a Kinder Bueno, trust me, every reason you are about to list as to why I should do something, I have already thought of. I am aware of my short comings, and that I’m letting people down, I am aware this is not where I should be at age 26 but you know what, I am doing everything I can to heal and to move forward if you find there is something I’m not doing, it’s because I can’t, and making me feel like I should be doing more, or should be doing differently, isn’t helping. At all.
If we’re sitting in a restaurant and I order the steak, you don’t turn to the waiter and say, “okay BUT, she’s mentally ill, she meant to say ‘chicken'”. You don’t second-guess me when I say I like that t-shirt or that I’m looking forward to Christmas, you don’t assume I’ve lost control of my vocabulary when I describe the current state of my cuticles as “ratchet” so why when I say “I can’t” would the appropriate response be, “okay, BUT…”.
“I can’t” is not short for “I can’t be bothered”, or “I can’t think of what to wear”, or “I can’t even“. It just means I can’t.
Having experienced mental health problems consistently for 20 years, I can honestly say I’ve spent a lot of time inside my head, working on and with myself. I’d wager that I know myself and my deep, scary inner thoughts, fear and abilities far better than most others in my age group – it is the silver lining of life with anxiety and depression and therefore, when you present me with a challenging situation or proposal and I process it all and respond with, “I can’t”, please, please trust me on this. It means “I can’t because I’m barely staying afloat right now and I can’t take anything else on”, or it means “I can’t because I know what’s best for me, what path I need to be on and this isn’t it”, or it just means “I can’t even begin to deal with this at the moment”.
I’m not brushing you off without much thought, I’m not turning down your invite flippantly, and I’m not expecting my illness or my actions to be well understood, but seriously, please listen; if I say I can’t, I mean it. Just assume that even though you can’t see the working for the equation, that this is the correct answer to it. You know I’m really not a big fan of writing posts with tips to guide those with anxiety through it, or help those close to them to figure it out – everyone’s experience is unique and far be it from me to imply I understand yours – but I feel I can confidently say that one thing that needs to happen to support someone who’s suffering with mental health issues is to listen to them.
It takes a lot of courage to suit up and go into battle, of course, but when you live with anxiety and depression you’re doing this every day and you get used to the fight, almost. One thing I’ve come to learn is that sometimes, it actually takes more courage to be standing on the battle-field, heart racing, war paint on and to realise that this isn’t a fight for you to face right now, to drop your sword on the ground and walk away. Saying you can do something is scary when you’re not sure if you’ll be able to psyche yourself up for it, but saying you can’t do something and knowing you’ll have to see the disappointment in a loved one’s face, hear the sadness in their voice, the judging, the worry, the coldness – I’m telling you, it’s not a whole lot of fun either.
I can see why, from the other side, it must be frustrating to have a loved one who all of a sudden can’t leave the house, and can’t make a phone call when you know fine well they can, heck, they’ve been doing it for years. But remember anxiety is a disorder, not a decision and much like someone who’s run 10 miles a day for years suddenly can’t if they break their leg, so too can someone who’s eaten in restaurants and gotten on trains and gone on holidays suddenly become unable to if something snaps.