I’ve battled depression at varying levels of severity through several years of school, four years of university, and I continue to struggle with it now, in my first year of working life.
One struggle I have faced at each stage is knowing how much to push myself. It is a constant battle of caring for myself but at the same time making sure that this doesn’t become my excuse to do nothing at all. It is always important to recognise that you are ill, and to know that keeping going ‘as normal’ just isn’t possible. But at the same time not pushing myself, doing what was easiest, rarely has a positive impact on my depression, but instead leads to a spiral of inaction, isolation and guilt.
I have never been great at motivating myself, and when I’m struggling most this only gets worse. Pushing myself becomes the last thing I want to do and something so simple as getting out of bed becomes almost impossible. But the reality is, whilst the thought of pushing myself might be terrifying, many more times than not it has definitely been worthwhile.
After being diagnosed with depression in my second year at university, I found myself incapable of doing even the minimum amount of work. Doing my degree became impossible so I took a year out. During this time, and with the help of my church family, I was able to get better, or at least well enough to start functioning again. As the next university year approached, I desperately didn’t want to go back. But, again with the help of others, and with strength that can only come from God, I pushed myself, I went back.
And it wasn’t easy. Five hours of lectures in one day still completely overwhelmed me, and just being in a group of students still caused anxiety to rumble inside me. But nevertheless, I tried to keep going. Granted, I missed half my lectures and managed about a tenth of the set reading, but somehow I wrote the essays, and with the glee of those who helped me through, I now have a degree.
Don’t worry, I’m not telling an inspiring success story. Finishing university for me only meant months of unemployment before I took a job as a kitchen porter. Yes, it’s a job, but I’m sure that most kitchen porters will confirm that it’s not exactly an enjoyable one. Honestly, I spend most hours at work grumbling silently to myself about how I should have a 'better' job, resenting the sixty rejections that I've received and starting to wonder if I really have any skills at all. My mental health has hardly benefited from the exhaustion of working into the early hours, or by the mundane nature of washing pots for eight hours a day.
But, for all its flaws, it does give me structure, a reason to get out of the house and people that will notice if I don’t turn up. Whereas structuring my own time allowed me to spend half the day in bed and the other half on the sofa without anyone challenging me, if I don’t go to work, the kitchen I work in will become a mess, I won’t get paid and I could be on my way to being fired. It forces me to push myself because there are now consequences if I don’t. That might seem brutal, but sometimes that is what I need.
In fact, I think the thing that has helped me the most in pushing myself is accountability. When I can find no reason to push myself for my sake it can be invaluable to have people around you that you can push yourself for instead, people who know what your aim is for each week, and who will ask how it is going. One of the things that helped me the most in my last couple of years at university was Pancake Thursday. It might sound a little ridiculous, but every Thursday morning I would go to a family from church’s flat for pancakes, they would ask me how I was doing, we would tell each other about our week, and they would make sure I left for my first lecture of the day. Knowing I would have this to look forward to each week motivated me to push myself during the rest of the week so that I could encourage them with what I had managed to do.
It's ok if the minimum is as much as you can do - no person is capable of everything. In fact, as human beings we are physically and mentally limited. Doing your best even when it's a low bar is important way of reflecting God. When people see you approaching your struggles with love and a desire to let Christ's strength rule in your weakness, they see the determination of someone who knows that God is strong and deserving of glory.
And know that it is ok when you don’t manage to push yourself, don’t let false guilt tell you otherwise. I am so blessed by those around me that challenge me to push myself but understand when I don’t manage to. And if you need to, don’t be afraid to take the time off, God cares for us in our illness, he doesn’t want us to run ourselves into the ground, and he doesn’t expect us to do more than we are capable of - he is a loving Father and does not wish to see his children broken and burnt out.
But if you feel able, whatever the struggle is that you face, why not have a go at pushing yourself? And if you fail, that’s ok. There should be no guilt in that. Look to God, rely on him and try again. God has given me the strength to get through each day, even if I couldn't see that in the moment. It is in him that we find the strength to push ourselves.