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With Mental Illness, Pushing Your Limits Is a Mistake

13 Jan 2022 12:44 PM | CSWA Administrator (Administrator)

Our society encourages people to push their limits, and there is no out for people with mental illness. Our society claims over and over that we must “push the envelope,” “take risks,” and “do what scares us.” There is no societal pressure to “respect your limits” or “live the way you feel comfortable.” And maybe that’s good for the general population, I can’t say, but what I can say is that it’s terrible advice for people with mental illness. With serious mental illness, pushing your limits is a mistake.

Pushing Your Limits

I don’t have anything against pushing your limits, in theory. I have done it many times. Jumping out of a plane, for example, pushes every limit I know. But while I had a mental illness at the time, I wasn’t nearly as sick as I am today. Today, I would be emotionally mauled by a skydive. Physically, sure, I could jump out of a plane, deploy the chute, and probably even land with ankles in-tact, but once I was done, it would affect my mental illness to no end. I suspect it would take a week to recover — and that’s assuming nothing really bad happened. If the skydive caused a mood episode, it’s anyone’s guess as to how long it would take to recover from that.

Now, maybe it’s the case no one would jump out of a plane without the message to “push your limits,” and maybe that’s okay — if you don’t have a serious mental illness.

Pushing Your Limits with a Mental Illness

If you have a mental illness, pushing your limits is a bad idea. Limits protect people with mental illness. Limits protect people with mental illness from their mental illness. They are extremely important. I know that my own limits relating to bipolar disorder include (but are not limited to):

  • Maintaining a strict sleep schedule every day
  • Eating regularly
  • Ensuring I reach out to others on a regular basis
  • Keeping all medical appointments
  • Always taking my medication as prescribed
  • Working limited hours
  • Avoiding stressful sitautions whenever possible
  • Staying away from drugs and alcohol

And make no mistake about it, if I push these limits, my mental illness will get worse. Maintaining a strict sleep schedule is the one that affects me the most and the fastest. If I veer from my schedule, my mood will destabilize within, maybe, two days. Depending on the severity of the limit-pushing, I might be sick the very next day. I know this. I have lived this. I have learned this the hard way.

I am not the only one, either. People with mental illness have told me over, and over that pushing their limits has done everything from harming them a little to putting them in the hospital. It’s a high-stakes game when you have a serious mental illness.

Pressure to Push Your Limits with a Mental Illness

The trouble is, as I said, society values pushing your limits. Society says we should “living on the edge, or we’re taking up too much space.” In spite of all the talk about self-care, society still eschews respecting personal limits. We are all supposed to be working 80-hour weeks, “playing hard,” and “having it all.”

People with mental illness cannot do those things, but that doesn’t mean we don’t feel the pressure to do them, just like everyone else.

This pressure tends to cause misery because if we bow to it, we get sick, but if we don’t, we feel like lazy losers not living up to our potential and missing out in life.

With Mental Illness, Pushing Your Limits Is a Mistake, No Matter What

So, understanding that we’re expected to push our limits, even with mental illness, and understanding that this pressure is a negative force for most of us, we need to be stronger than this societal message. Surviving mental illness demands that we be strong in a myriad of ways, and this is just one more. We have to be able to stand up to this pressure, and for ourselves, and state that our health is more important than this adrenaline-fueled, immature notion. We must remember and be clear about the fact that just because other people in this society can live that way, it doesn’t mean people with illnesses can do it right alongside them. I suppose it’s indicative of the fact that society is simply not built for disabled people. This is obvious. Its full impact on us, though, often isn’t.

It’s unfair that this is yet another way we must be strong, but it just is. It’s just what we must be in order to live our best lives. Because our goal needs to be living our best lives, not the best lives described by a society that doesn’t care about us.

P.S. As a quick note, sometimes gently brushing up against your limits is okay. Sometimes gently testing them is okay. This is not the same as the societal message, however, which suggests obliterating them.

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