Breaking Free of the “List of Can’ts”

As I travel along my journey of recovery from anxiety disorders, I’ve been finding that a lot of my battle is about questioning the limits that I feel surrounded by, limits that feel fixed and impossible to overcome. For example, when my anxiety disorders kicked into high gear a few years ago, I found myself making a “list of can’ts” in my mind. This list was made up of the things that made me so anxious I couldn’t even contemplate attempting them. Things like “I can’t drive over that long, narrow bridge.” “I can’t drive on a busy highway.” “I can’t eat this food or that food” (that was an eating phobia thing). To me, these things didn’t feel like stuff I was choosing not to do – they were things I was truly incapable of doing. The possibility of doing them seemed as likely to me as slam dunking a basketball or performing an opera – it just wasn’t gonna happen. 

The experts say that avoidance is one of the most common ways of reacting to sources of anxiety. And it’s so easy to do, especially when you have an anxiety disorder. You don’t even necessarily realize you’re doing it. You’re just going through your day as best you can, like everyone else, and the idea of doing something that you believe will throw you into an anxiety tailspin is just something you don’t want to even think about. So you don’t. You just add that thing to your list of can’ts and get on with your life, while carefully avoiding that particular thing. It feels like the simplest solution at the time – the only solution, really. But as you have to go to greater and more complicated lengths to avoid the things on that list, it becomes far from simple (I’d drive far out of my way to avoid the bridge that scared me, for example). And the more often you avoid something, the less likely you are to consider attempting it.

Over time, as tends to happen with people who have untreated anxiety disorders, my list of can’ts grew. I added things like “I can’t go grocery shopping.” “I can’t travel.” “I can’t go into the basement” (that was a mouse phobia thing). And as my list got longer and longer, my world got smaller and smaller. I didn’t drive beyond the boundaries of my city. I stopped going to restaurants. I avoided socializing. I pretty much just went to work, came home, and stayed there as much as I could. Anything else just seemed too scary, too stressful, and too likely to end in frustration as I’d potentially discover yet another thing to add to my list of can’ts.

The length of my list of can’ts began to level off when I started to see my psychiatrist last year. I got on some meds and some good therapy, and bit by bit, I started to feel a little less anxious about the world, and a little more confident in myself. Last month, when I was talking to my psychiatrist, I referred to my “unsafe list,” ie. the list of things that felt unsafe to me (also known, of course, as my list of can’ts). My psychiatrist gently corrected me, pointing out that it’s not an “unsafe” list, it’s an “uncertain” list. There was, in truth, nothing inherently unsafe about any of these things, I just felt anxious or uncertain about attempting them. As obvious as that likely sounds, I occasionally need obvious things explained to me. My anxiety brain can do an impressive job of convincing me that certain things are true (and certain things are unsafe), things that, as I look back when I’m feeling a bit better, seem almost silly (though they sure as hell don’t feel silly at the time). So remembering that my “unsafe” list is actually just an “uncertain” list has been one of those little things that’s made a real impact on me.

So over the past couple of months, I’ve found myself having a go at some of the things on my list of can’ts – I guess my treatment has just reached the point where I’m starting to feel like I’m ready for those steps. Sometimes when I’m about to attempt something that’s on my list, I pump myself up by saying to myself, “We’ll do it live!” while picturing that YouTube video of Bill O’Reilly (from years ago) yelling that phrase repeatedly as he freaks out right before he goes on camera (it’s awesomely hilarious, though the language is definitely NSFW!). It sort of encapsulates how I’m trying to tackle these tricky things – no rehearsal, no planning, no chance to over-think it – just do it. If it goes well, great, if it doesn’t, no big deal – my recovery won’t succeed or fail based on how I do on this one thing on this one day (which was, too often, how I felt about trying new things in the past, putting way too much pressure on myself and making progress awfully difficult).

For example, one day recently I was running a bit late for an appointment (my psychiatrist, as it happens). I checked my Google Maps to see what the fastest route would be that day, and as always, it suggested a route that involved driving across that bridge I avoid. Usually I just automatically ignore that route as if it weren’t even there, and look for the second-fastest. But for some reason, on this day, I figured why not give it a try – I was going to be stressed driving to my appointment anyway, either from being worried about being late, or about driving across the bridge – so for once I might as well take the route that gets me there faster. So I cranked up the Wonder Woman soundtrack in my car (my current go-to music for psyching myself up for anything), and hooted my way across that bridge (I like whooping it up when I’m doing something scary, I try to kind of fool myself into believing that my pounding heart is from excitement instead of fear). And when I arrived on the other side, I felt really proud of myself that I’d done it. In that moment, I crossed something right off my list of can’ts, and my life got just a little easier.

I guess getting past my list of can’ts has been largely about confidence for me – the confidence that I can do new things (like when I recently managed to make a bracelet for myself for the first time in my life). And every time I do something I used to think I couldn’t do, my confidence goes up a bit more, and my previously-shrunken world gets a little bigger. I’ve started to understand that the limits I felt encircled by were only put there by anxiety, and they’re not real. Getting past them may seem difficult to me at first, sometimes nearly impossible – but I can do it.

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