More than twenty years ago, I had my first writing-induced panic attack. A ninth grade English assignment about Oedipus Rex sent me into hysterics. The blind prophet could “See.” Oedipus was “blind” to his own fate. My teacher would say, “Tiresias can ‘see with a capital S.’” I had no idea what she was talking about.
On a Friday night that ninth grade year, sometime around 1991, the paper was going well. I wrote my introduction. I mapped out and wrote my three body paragraphs, each crowned by a topic sentence. I then faced the conclusion. If I could just write the conclusion, I would be finished. The conclusion, as it always is, was key.
But I couldn’t. There were too many options. Should I talk about “Truth with a capital T?” Should I talk more about Oedipus stabbing his eyes out? Should I talk about the meaning of the prophecy? I had no idea. My parents returned from wherever they were and, in the kitchen in front of our new PC desktop, I broke down into hysterical tears. My mother listened. With a pen in hand, she listened to me talk about what I wanted to write, and she wrote. In fact, she continued to help me write my conclusions all throughout high school. After so much work on the paper in its entirety, the conclusion was always what put me over the edge.
For those of you who have studied the five-paragraph essay, you know that the conclusion is the one part of the essay that’s not bound by any rules. After you restate your thesis, you can go on to do whatever you want. A new insight, or maybe a few. Eventually, in college, after dozens of writing-induced panic attacks, I managed to teach myself how to write a foolproof conclusion. I developed a formula that relied on one quotation I identified early on as the ‘wrap-up’ quote. I learned how to write and finish my own essays so well that I became an English teacher.
For me, writing is excruciating. Tonight, I was sure I would skip writing this blog post because the idea of sitting down and figuring out what I should write about was terrifying. I then received a notification for a meet-up group I signed up for a while ago where people—both friends and strangers—gather at a coffee shop and write together for one hour.
I realized that I could handle one hour. I’d think of a topic on the train and then I’d limit myself to 500 words. Just 500. That limitation paired with the security of a coffee shop gave me the freedom I needed to write something. Anything.
Limitations. They frustrate us to no end. We bemoan that we’re not taller or stronger or smarter or blessed by a better title at work. In Wicked, the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba, sings, “I’m limited.” Here, she’s talking about her green skin and her ‘secret powers’ that have made her a pariah. She’s also the most powerful person in Oz. Her limitations—an unusual skin color and those secret powers such as being able to defy gravity, or fly—have, in fact, given her strength.
My instinct is to avoid writing because I know it can push me over the edge. My instinct is to give up before I’ve even started. The reason I’m able to push through is because I put limits on myself—limits like “You are only allowed to write one short blog post. That’s it. One hour.”
And so here I am, in a coffee shop on the Upper West Side, surrounded by other writers who, like me, have committed to this hour.
Limitations, I am learning, actually help in every single facet of our lives.
Take yesterday. My best friend got married in a small town outside of Boston. I’ve only been out of a recent stint in the hospital for 10 days. I’m just starting to understand how to manage new medication. Socializing has felt impossible. But she’s my best friend. And so instead of not going, I worked on how to manage the challenge in one of my wellness groups. I spoke with my parents, who agreed to drive me to the wedding and then pick me up when I was ready to leave. I arrived. I reconnected with my friend’s family. I did a little mingling. I drank ginger ale. And then, about twenty minutes after the ceremony, I called my parents who came to get me.
I knew that being at a wedding sober and single and knowing almost no one would feel impossible, so I placed a limit on myself. No alcohol and no staying past what felt comfortable. I used this limitation for bravery, for strength, and as a way of coping.
I think the reason I’m succeeding in managing my illness is because I know how to use limitations. Yes, I’ve made mistakes. But I’ve also thrived because of limitations. I know that I need to leave the party at eleven. I know that I can’t drink more than one glass of wine. I know that I can’t drink caffeine after noon. I know that I need to be in bed by ten.
You can strive by placing limitations, but finding out where and how to apply them to your life is crucial. How can you place a limitation on yourself to enhance your life or your creativity? What can you do for one hour? Even if you are struggling with something as treacherous yet seemingly simple as cleaning your apartment, give yourself a limit. You will work on your closet for one hour. You will deal with that stack of papers on the bureau for one hour.
One hour is power. One hour is freeing. Pick an hour and get busy.