Getting things done is often portrayed as equatable to success, even happiness. At Oxford this is magnified tenfold: you are what you achieve. Theoretically, this is very logical– submitting an essay should make you feel better, right? You should at least feel a weight lift and be able to finally tick one thing off today’s to-do list. But what happens when getting things done, even just the act of ‘doing’ itself, brings nothing but a hollow feeling? What happens when your own achievements stop feeling as if they are yours, and crumble into ash when you try to make sense of them? To do things should bring happiness and to do nothing the opposite, but when doing things creates a great vacuum of nothingness this logic falls to pieces. No matter how much I can tick off in a day it won’t entail me feeling better: depression can pick away at your productivity at a disturbing pace.

At my worst, doing things was still the main piece of advice. At the heart of the doing was the list that proved it. Write three things you’re proud of, write five things you’re grateful for and while I was at it write an essay plan. I can understand that with time these kinds of written affirmations can improve self-esteem, and maybe if I had kept them up for a few months there could have been tangible positive change. Unfortunately I was in an environment where I needed to feel better now; I could not dedicate a few months to feeling better and complete my work at the same time. The two things were mutually exclusive. I became incredibly frustrated with the fact that my doing (my runs and my reading and my social time) was not moulding me into a resilient student archetype. The fact that I wasn’t seeing results made me even more desperately sad: it led to outbursts, exhaustion and polite emails for essay extensions. The truth of the matter, in hindsight, was that my mental health was not going to be resolved by productivity. In my experience the level of depression I had during my second term was at a point where the main priority was to be safe. It is hard even now to communicate the psychotic aspects of depression, but let’s just say that for me they made any kind of ‘doing’ a frightening experience.

At this point, I start getting impulses for someone else to come save me and tell me exactly what it is I should be doing (Fleabag words this better). If I’m not careful it can become a form of non-existence, letting internal voices push me into doing things that are in the long run extremely unhelpful. Depression can allow me to become incredibly entangled in myself. On the one hand I know that it is helpful to do things, but on the other, doing things might be harmful for me because I do not always tell myself the ‘right’ things to do. Furthermore I cannot really tell which of my impulses to do something are right and which are wrong, so doing nothing always seems the safest bet. It took at least four months (and a fair amount of Citalopram) to figure out what I both wanted and needed to do for myself.

I never go into making a to-do list with the expectation that I will feel better. I have learnt the hard way that lists will never affirm that. The only thing I need a to-do list to affirm is my own existence. I want to do things not because they make me better, but because they make me feel a bit more real and keep me grounded. Just the act of writing down how I walked to the kitchen reaffirms the idea that I am really here, taking up real space. Below is a representative example of what goes on my to-do list for a day:

  1. Shower 
  2. Go Outside
  3. Make a Coffee 
  4. Make Toast
  5. Watch Friends
  6. Call family

This list certainly does not meet the typical productivity standards of an Oxford student, but I would rather have a day like this and feel relatively stable than feel anything close to how I was feeling in January. Droplets of shower water and sounds of crispy red leaves are the most effective in making me feel real; food and family always help to ground me in my humanness. Talking to people who know me in an unfiltered form, who understand me better than I understand myself, is something I need to keep myself rooted in reality. Finally, as far as reasoning goes for adding Friends to a to-do list, I guess it just makes me happy. One day I hope tutorials and essays will feel as real to me as they once did, but if they don’t, I think I can make peace with these things still left in my life. 

Ultimately, no level of productivity will result in an antidote to depression; it just doesn’t work like that for me. Instead, it is the mere persistence of me existing that softens a dark cloud. Whether I spend that existence achieving or hibernating, I don’t think it will affect my overall happiness. What is important is that I am okay with existing while I am doing: that on the whole what I do feels real to me. If I spend the rest of my life just breathing in and out, I don’t see it as wasted productivity. As long as I am letting in the sunshine, that is good enough. I am happy to leave the light untouched.