The Thieves In My Head
For the past 13 years, I’ve known about a pair of thieves that live inside me, rummaging through my things and stealing what I most care about. It’s been so long that it feels almost normal; that it feels impossible to rid myself of these unseen, unwanted, altogether intrusive guests.
Those thieves are named Anxiety and Depression. It’s something I’ve written about for as long as I’ve known the name to pin on them, working – in my own way – to fight against the stigma that pervades discussions about mental illness and causes a great deal of harm to so many people. What I haven’t written much about, however, is the way they affect me on a day-to-day basis.
Nearly every morning, Anxiety is the one to wake me. He tells me that I’ve slept through an important call for work, that I forgot to respond to that email, that today is the day I’m going to be fired because I’m a fraud (something I’ll get back to). I jerk awake and find that, in fact, none of those things were true, but that background level of fear is established for the day; once that happens, it’s impossible to bring it down again. When this happens, all sense of clarity, peace, or comfort that may have come from my night of sleep … it’s all gone. It’s been stolen from me, never to be given back. All I can do is hope that I’ve seen the worst of the day.
However, it generally doesn’t take long before Depression makes himself known. I’ll be sitting at my computer thinking about what I want to accomplish for the day, when I start to feel foggy and tired. Not the kind of tired that makes you want to sleep (that comes later) but the kind that makes thinking of doing anything take an order of magnitude more energy than it otherwise would. That email I wanted to take care of before lunch? It’s going to have to wait; Depression put an obstacle course between me and the reply button and I simply can’t conceive of making my way through it at that time.
But rather than just sitting idly by while I wait for this to pass over me, Anxiety shows up again. He tells me that it won’t pass and that I’ll be stuck in this forever; that no matter what I do, there’s no possible way I’ll catch up, when I’ve just spent 3 hours trying to respond to a single sentence.
These thieves don’t just steal my peace of mind, my motivation, or my happiness. They steal something that is perhaps most precious of all: time. It’s the one thing I can never get back, no matter how hard I try. My uninvited guests have a way of making me feel like I’m standing still while everyone else moves inexorably forward. The worst part is that they’re not wrong.
If you’re reading this and we’ve talked in the past, it’s very probable that you’ve failed to get a response from me for days, if not weeks or months. The reason for that is, in all likelihood, that I simply couldn’t make it to the reply button; that the idea of responding when I first got it was unfathomable. Unfortunately, with every minute, every hour, every day that passes, it becomes even less likely that I’ll be able to convince Anxiety that it’s worth risking a response after so long. The fear builds up a wall around the button and it requires exponentially more effort, the longer time goes on.
I used to think that I was lazy or that I put the ‘pro’ in procrastinate, and to an extent I’m sure that was – and is – true, but I’ve realized that there’s a far more fundamental issue: the only way I can get Anxiety and Depression to leave me alone and quiet my mind is to put myself under enormous pressure. When I’m working 80 hour weeks and I have three side projects going on, there’s no time for me to put anything off, even if the only thing I want to do is lay comatose in bed and listen to music. Even if I can’t stop Depression from building those mental obstacle courses, I can prevent Anxiety from getting any power with which to paralyze me. But no one can sustain that level of effort, even if it is the only thing that helps keep the time thieves at bay.
Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t possibly imagine how much these thieves have taken from me. The months where I wrote a kernel rather than building a web app – because it was the only thing I could convince myself to work on, since it kept me busy. The dozens of hours I lose every week to indecision and paralyzing fear, stopping me from getting out of bed (or getting into it). The relationships I destroyed due to indifference and apathy. The food I ate, and ate, and ate some more. These thieves have taken from me in every way and in every facet of my life. But I’m fighting back and I’ll likely be fighting back for the rest of my life.
I’m doing better now than I have in the last 13 years. They still steal immeasurable time and myriad other irreplaceable from me, but knowing what I know allows me to stack the deck for the highest probability of success. And in the end, that’s what’s important; it’s not the trials you go through that truly define you, but rather how you cope with them. I’ll get through this, come hell or high water. You will, too.