The Dark Side of Pushing Yourself to Success

Stressing yourself out to succeed when you live with mental illness can take a toll on your body and mind

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Twenty-four hours ago, I sat in this very spot at my little desk and wrote an essay called Tell Your Mood to F*ck Off, Push Your Mind Harder, and Create. I wrote it because I have been doing NaNoWriMo and having a battle with a mind that doesn’t want to cooperate.

My mind would rather procrastinate and watch boring election coverage. It wants to look at memes on Facebook rather than start typing the words I need to get to 50K by the end of the month. My mind would rather spiral into depression and seize-up in anxiety than do the work I need to be doing to make myself a success.

I push myself and get started writing like I’m doing now, but the effort it takes to drive my unwilling muse to perform daily is exhausting.

I’m not saying I’m going to quit. I still have good ideas rolling, and once I get started writing, I usually experience a flow state where the endorphins kick in and make me calm and happy. I’m saying that I’m getting tired from battling the voices screaming in my head and the intense noise bouncing around inside my skull.

I’m getting enough sleep, but I’m weary from fighting this depression too. I take my meds, but they don’t seem strong enough right now.

So instead of sitting there trying to put together 2000 words about blogging or entrepreneurship, with a mind that is protesting, I thought I would do a little writing therapy. I want to explore with you why this problem happens to us writers with mental illnesses and what to do about it.

I have schizoaffective disorder, which often gives me psychosis, anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. Eighteen years ago, a wet-behind-the-ears doctor told me I would be lucky if I didn’t spend my life in and out of mental hospitals, and I would never work again. But I have done everything in my power to prove him wrong. It’s not easy to push the cacophony in my head down into the darkness and lock it away so I can write, but I do it every day.

I have to push myself brutally, and after so many years of this, my body and mind are getting tired.

Why Do I Push Myself When it Causes Stress?

All this forcing causes constant stress, and says, “if our stress response is activated repeatedly, or it persists over time, the effects can result in wear and tear on the body and can cause us to feel permanently in a state of ‘fight or flight.’ Rather than helping us push through, this pressure can make us feel overwhelmed or unable to cope.

I do my best to deal with the effects of strain on my body. I eat well, take my medication and supplements, exercise frequently, and get enough sleep. I also do different activities that calm me, like listening to soft music while enjoying the scent of essential oils. I practice self-care, and I try to be mindful of what is happening in my body and mind at any given time.

Most doctors and medical journals say pushing yourself to stress too often is not good for you. But due to the nature of my illness, if I don’t push myself to stress, I cannot work and provide for my family. My mental health makes most things people take for granted harder, and in some cases, impossible.

“Living with a mental health condition can be taxing emotionally, physically, and mentally. Experts have found that good feelings can boost your ability to deal with stress, solve problems, think flexibly, and even fight disease. Taking care of your body emotionally, physically, and mentally through creating joy and satisfaction is an important part of living with or without a mental health condition.” — Mental Health America

I see an alternative to what I am doing to earn a living right now, but it’s not pretty. Even though I’m taking care of myself, the tension and strain of pushing my mind every day are taking a toll.

I have already lived the alternative in my 30s and early 40s. I gave into the psychosis, depression, and anxiety. I tried to cope with the extreme emotions by harming myself. I never left my house, had relationships, or tried to do anything to improve my situation. I wallowed in self-pity, collected my check, and didn’t try to help myself at all.

I knew life wasn’t worth living and tried to kill myself.

I finally realize that I was not living; I was existing. My life had no meaning. I had no goals or motivation.

But, I finally did something about it. I took my mind to task and learned how to control what was happening to me. But the control is tenuous, and often the barrier fails, and I crash down a spiral of darkness and don’t come up for weeks. It’s a constant cycle for me, but I haven’t found a way to make sure it never happens again.

Moving Forward in Life

For me, success means I can support my family and finally stop relying on Disability. Right this moment, success is financial because I have an extreme need to pull my family out of this hole we found ourselves in. The only way I can do that is by pushing myself to produce and create.

Thankfully, along with the work and stress, I feel a sense of fulfillment that I’m finally doing something to help myself despite my mental illness and mood. I am gratified that my family knows I’m working so hard to provide for them.

Above all, and despite everything, I am fortunate. Some people can’t manage to do what I do because their illnesses have taken over their lives, and they know only chaos, sorrow, and pain.

I can at least smile every day. I can feel satisfaction knowing that the things I write may help others cope with their own situations. I can feel great knowing I have figured out a way to coexist with something that was killing me a few years ago.

I can put up with the pressure and strain because I’m moving forward instead of standing still. I can rejuvenate myself knowing I succeeded where others have tried.

I feel great about myself.

How Did I Get on The Path to Success?

I’ve talked a lot about myself and the journey I’ve been on these past few years. But it’s not all about me. I understand you may be struggling and would love if I detailed how I went from a shut-in to where I am today.

My journey up the ladder, unfortunately, started with my suicide attempt six years ago. When I woke the next morning after taking a massive number of pills, I knew there was a reason I was still alive. I started working on my mind during the days of solitude in the hospital as I recovered.

I realized I had enough of the chaos and self-pity, and if there were a way I could fight it, I would find it. I decided in my mind, once and for all, that I would do whatever it took to get better and recover. I would never complain about the work involved because the alternative was death.

I started writing and talking to the people around me. My wife was a huge part of my support system, and we spent the next few years finding out every detail about each other.

I embraced realistic positivity and held on for all it was worth. Andrea Brandt, Ph.D. M.F.T., of, says, “realistic positivity is a mindset that helps us to grow better as we grow older and to create a life we love. Realistic positivity means we accept what is, but we don’t exaggerate our limitations or the obstacles we face, and we don’t underestimate our own capabilities.

It’s not about affirmations and walking around smiling like a Pollyanna. You have to accept yourself, your illness, and your capabilities. Thinking you can do it and knowing you can are two very different things.

Finally, you have to do the work. I did the job and realized I had to push myself to my limits if I wanted to be successful, even if that meant I would crash and have to recover once in a while. I accepted this would involve absorbing an extreme amount of stress to ensure I could produce and create.

What do you have to do to find your version of success? Do you have to push yourself, or do you need to slow down and take care of your mind and body?

Many times it’s a matter of practicing self-care. You have to eat, sleep, clean yourself, take medication, exercise, get the right vitamins and minerals, and be mindful of your moods and triggers.

Once you have your body and mind taken care of, it’s time to do the work and push yourself to take steps to move you forward on your journey.

Above all, make sure you work with your doctor or therapist, so they can monitor you and make sure you don’t push yourself off a cliff. Even if you have a confidant already, your doctor is an essential part of your support system.

The Canadian Mental Health Association says:

“Like many other health problems, it [mental illness] won’t just go away on its own. Left untreated, a mental illness may get worse, lead to other health problems, or last for a long time. With treatment, you may start to feel better relatively soon. Deciding to seek help for a mental illness is an important first step on your path to wellness.

Put all these things together and do the work. You may find, like me, that pushing yourself causes you strain or depression. But with a little support and self-care, you can get past that and find your own version of success.

You can do it.

Writer | Essayist | Video Content Creator | Future member of the two-comma club | Dreamer - I am doing it my way and it might take a bit longer. Don't wait up.

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