One of the deepest and oldest philosophical and psychological debates revolves around the concept of choice and free will. The question of whether we truly have control over our lives is something that comes up across all fields of human reasoning, from whether the universe is pre-determined to play out the way it does, to whether or not there is a god who gives us the perception or reality of choice.
These concepts are so basic that most people find themselves on one side or the other of the debate without really even knowing it, or understanding it. People are brought up with certain beliefs, and many of those beliefs – especially if they reinforce or are reinforced by the events in our lives – become indistinguishable from fact in our minds. The notion of god, or the concepts of organized religion, for example, survive by the very fact that they fit so well into the world-view of most of the world.
My wife, for example, was raised from an early age with the idea that you can do anything you put your mind to. She’s shared stories with my of her father teaching her and reinforcing these concepts, such as using ”elbow-grease” to clean the tub (which turned out, of course, to just be a great deal of physical effort, and not an actual cleaning product, much to her dismay). She learned from this, and it reinforced for her that with enough effort, you can succeed at almost anything. Indeed, her life and career has been largely successful, guided by this and other lessons learned from her youth.
I, on the other hand, was largely raised to believe that I was a success naturally, whether or not I put effort into something or not. I was praised as highly intelligent, as though somehow intelligence was in itself a success, and effort was rarely, if ever, rewarded. For that matter, many of the things I attempted as a child needed little effort, and through intellectualism I was often able to accomplish many great deeds. When I encountered something that I actually struggled with, I would more often than not simply give up, and was allowed to – moving on to something easier to achieve.
Just as much as my wife’s childhood led to her adult outlook on life, I’m sure my own influenced my current state of being, even to the extent of my mental disorders and never-ending depression. That doesn’t mean it’s any easier to break out of, any more than you could convince a life-long Christian that there is no god. But it also leads to conflicts – often between my wife and myself – around the ability to do things, given one’s state of mind.
For example, we had a minor argument the other night around doing the dishes. We had already eaten dinner, and all that was left was to clean up the kitchen. Something that, physically, I am perfectly capably of doing. However, I have been struggling over the past month with a very, very severe depression, and the honest truth is that there are many times when I simply cannot do something.
I said as much to my wife on the night in question, and her response, born partly out of frustration that the house is perpetually a mess and partly, I’m sure, out of frustration that I was behaving in what she saw as a lazy and unproductive manner, was: ”You can if you choose to.”
This is where the conflict sets in, both from our views on the world, our lived experiences, and probably our upbringing. To me, in a state of chronic depression, there is no choice in the matter. I might as well have no arms or legs; the task of washing up after dinner is absolutely impossible. To her, it’s all a question of mental will: if you want to do something enough, you’ll do it.
I mistakenly made a poor, in-the-moment analogy of a physical, chronic illness: I said that by that measure, you could cure yourself of cancer if you chose to. Poor taste, poor analogy, it didn’t go over well, and we kind of got into a minor shouting match.
In hindsight, there are better analogies I can think of; the reason I chose the one I did is simply because people so very often assume that mental illnesses are somehow less than physical ones, or that they shouldn’t stop you from performing in the way that a physical disease might. Instead, I think a better comparison would be trying to lift a boulder: you can ’want’ to all you like, you can ’choose’ to lift it, but if the boulder weighs three tons, you’re not going to be budging it.
It’s so terribly difficult to describe what it’s like to be depressed to the point of incapacitation to someone who’s never experienced it. It feels impossible to convey the weight of emptiness that takes hold of every waking thought, and the way in which it makes even the simplest of tasks insurmountable. When I say I ’can’t’ do the dishes, I don’t mean I’m choosing not to; I mean I literally can’t do it.
Lately, there’ve been a lot of things I can’t do. I realize this must be making me extremely difficult to live with, and the mess I leave behind me, unable to clean up, only makes it worse. For what it’s worth, I do try to minimize my impact, only using dishes when absolutely necessary, and mostly just lying in bed to avoid disrupting the rest of the house. But I can’t live without creating some kind of path, whether it be hair in the shower or dishes in the sink, and I feel awful and guilty for it, but it doesn’t change my ability – or inability – to do anything about it. (By the same token, I am often unable to go to work.)
I appreciate the efforts that the world is taking to liken mental illness to physical illness, inasmuch as trying to get people to take mental disorders seriously. They are just as incapacitating as physical illnesses, and oftentimes just as, if not more, difficult to overcome. But perhaps a better likening might actually be to compare a mental illness to a physical incapability. If you are missing an arm, or weigh 100 pounds, there are certain things you may simply not be able to do – at least not without help. Humans are, of course, adept at overcoming adversity, but there are some things that are impossible to overcome on one’s own, and a mental illness is one of those things.
So when I say I can’t do something, please don’t assume I’m taking an easy path, or being lazy, or simply ’choosing’ not to put in effort. I choose the word ’can’t’ very deliberately; it means what it means.
One day I’ll gain the strength to lift the boulder; for now, I am weak.