On motivation

A friend once asked me ‘What do you think motivation is?’. I thought it was just something people have, something that magically manifests itself in people who go to the gym regularly, or wake up at 6am every day and make breakfast for their whole family, or learn to play guitar, or don’t use drugs and alcohol to cope with how useless they feel. He replied that motivation is just habit. The more you do something the more you want to do it – become motivated to do it – purely because you’ve already been doing it.

Another friend explained to me that mental illness, at it’s core, corrodes motivation away. It destroys your habits and relationships (which, let’s face it, are just ‘habits with friends’) until your only habit, your only motivation, is to be depressed, anxious, paranoid, angry, or some combination of those. She told me the best way to overcome this is to rebuild the habits – essentially, to fake enjoying the things you used to enjoy until you actually enjoy them. You have to recreate yourself, or create a new version of yourself, by rediscovering what you enjoyed about being alive. In this way, you can keep yourself alive.

Actually, I lied. Both of those people were not friends. They were a cognitive behavioural therapist and a counselor. I did not strike up these conversations casually, they were conversations intended to help me recover, to keep me functioning and to keep me alive. I did not, at the time, listen to them or really understand what they were trying to tell me.

One of the worst things about mental illness in my experience is the terrible sense of loss. Loss of motivation. Loss of enjoyment of things I used to enjoy, like exercising, reading, singing, making art, and writing. A feeling that I have lost not only who I am but who I might have been, if only I was ‘better’. The other worse thing is realising that I might never be ‘better’, at least not in the way I had come to think about ‘better’ and what that meant. I will never gain back what I’ve lost, the time and the motivation and the energy which could have been used on so many things but was instead used on just trying to get out of bed every morning.

Shame is an essential part of mental illness, and, for me at least, one of the worst parts. I think about it like the sewing machine in a flat I used to share with an ex boyfriend. My mother had bought me the sewing machine for my birthday and had it shipped to me because I had been a sewing fiend when I was a teenager, making my own patterns and hand-sewing gifts for all my friends. It was very expensive and it took up a significant amount of space in our flat. One day, while he was walking home from work, my ex had spotted a skip full of pristine fabric samples that someone had thrown out, and he came home to get a bag before rushing back out to collect them for me. He was so excited about all the things I would be able to make and was clearly proud of himself for the find. I was so grateful for his thoughtfulness, but I was also deeply depressed. For some reason every time I started to thread the bobbin or sketch out a pattern I would start to feel so tired I would have to lie down. I had a miserable dead-end job, I was up to my neck in debt, and I was in the middle of a massive breakdown I now refer to lovingly as Quarter Life Crisis Phase 2 (I’ll let you know when Phase 5 is over). My ex, despite being deeply depressed himself, could not understand why I didn’t use the sewing machine. Every time I would talk about picking up a new hobby, he would mention it. Every time I wasted an hour staring at my phone or paying video games, he would mention it. Every time I had a mid-day nap or claimed to be bored. The sewing machine became one of those dug-in, never back down, trench warfare-type couple arguments that never gets resolved but inevitably gets brought up whenever you argue about anything. He couldn’t understand how depression was sapping my motivation, and I couldn’t explain it to him because I didn’t understand depression. The argument later came to include other things I wasn’t doing: I wasn’t bathing regularly. I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t even getting out of bed.

The webcomic Hyperbole and a Half once compared the effects of depression to childhood toys and games: they were once so interesting and important to you that you would spend hours on them, but one day you grow up and you find yourself looking at them an unable to understand how you could have gotten so much joy and entertainment from them. When I read that description I burst into tears. It was the sewing machine. It was exercise. It was writing on my blog.

I’ve repeated that anecdote about to motivation to many friends who also suffer from mental illness, and they almost always respond with something like ‘It’s not that simple’ or ‘You don’t know what it’s like for me’. I think both of those statements are both true and untrue. It is both ‘that simple’ and also not at all that simple. I know what it’s like, but I also don’t know what it’s like for anyone else. I could repeat the same thing back to them and we could both be right. I don’t know that we can ever understand what will help or get through to another person, or what will motivate them to pull themselves out of the hole they’re in. My ex was probably just saying what he thought he would need to hear, but for me the sewing machine became a symbol of everything I had lost and everything I am not. I don’t know what the solution is, and I still think motivation is 50% magic. I also still have the sewing machine in my storage unit, along with all the fabric swatches, which I have dragged around with me through multiple house moves. I haven’t touched it in years.

Photo by Volha Flaxeco on Unsplash

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