There’s a myth that those of us who are productive, competent people can’t possibly be struggling with mental illness. But it’s important to remember that depression is not just sadness. For me, this diagnosis comes with self-blame and self-criticism, physical symptoms like pain and heaviness in my body, and most of all, unwillingness to ask for help or reach out to folks when I probably should! So, in honor of Depression Education and Awareness Month, I wanted to address a topic we don’t always acknowledge in conversations about depression, and one that leaves me feeling pretty vulnerable – “The Impossible Task.”
In 2018, Author M. Molly Backes, who writes young adult novels and lives with depression, started a thread on her Twitter feed about the concept of “The Impossible Task.” She wrote, “The Impossible Task is rarely actually difficult. It's something you've done a thousand times. For this reason, it's hard for outsiders to have sympathy. 'Why don't you just do it & get it over with?' 'It would take you like 20 minutes & then it would be done.' OH, WE KNOW." The thread went viral, and people began sharing their own Impossible Tasks – stuff like making a phone call, picking up the newspaper from their driveway, refilling a prescription, mailing a letter, going to the bank. The list was long and varied.
Let me give you an example from my life: At work, I meet my deadlines, I engage with my team, and what I produce is usually accurate and solid. At home, I take care of my 3 kids; I make sure they get homecooked meals, their homework is done, and that we do lots of fun things like playing board games, visiting museums, and making art together. If you look at my social media, it probably looks like I am doing well. But I’m going to let you in on a secret (even as I’m typing this, I have a knot in my stomach for fear of your judgment): I CANNOT CHECK MY PERSONAL EMAIL.
Checking my Gmail is my Impossible Task. It started years ago, during a particularly bad depressive episode. I didn’t check for days, and my unread emails began to pile up. I watched the number in the little red bubble next to the email icon on my phone’s home screen increase and increase; but it took every ounce of motivation I could muster to do more important tasks, like getting out of bed, brushing my teeth, and paying my bills. So I ignored the emails. When I finally emerged from the fog of that depression and began really living again, the task of checking my email seemed completely insurmountable. And now, almost a decade later, I have . . . (drumroll, please!) . . . 14,834 unread emails in my inbox! This is something that makes me feel ashamed every day. Every time I look at my phone, there is that glaring reminder of my failure. It has had impact on my life: I have missed birthday party invitations, shipping confirmations, notes from friends who want to catch up. And still, I can’t check.
So my point is this: if you want to support someone living with depression, one of the most overlooked opportunities to help may be to tackle their Impossible Tasks. It might look like calling to make a doctor’s appointment for them, organizing their prescriptions into a pill case, sorting their junk mail, picking up groceries, or pulling their trash cans in from the curb after trash day. The key is to get them to tell you what those Impossible Tasks are; to build the kind of rapport that allows them to share what often feels very shameful and vulnerable. And . . . most important of all: reserve judgment. Don’t say: “How is it possible that you can’t spend 10 minutes a day clearing your inbox? That would drive me crazy!” Instead say: “I can relate! There are things that are hard for me to do, too. Maybe I can help you clear your inbox?”
And for those of you who know exactly what I mean, who have your own version of 14,834 unread emails, please be kind to yourself. Please reach out to someone who cares about you and say, “There’s a thing I have trouble doing, and I’m wondering if you’d be willing to help.” We all have people who care about us, maybe even more than we know. And often those people struggle to know what to do to support us. So let’s help them out, and at the same time, give ourselves a little bit of much needed relief.