For anyone who struggles with depression you know how difficult it can be to break the cycle of darkness. You nap to pass the time and avoid most activities especially the ones that involve leaving the house. The longer you remain in that survival zone the harder it is to break out of it.
I think it’s safe to assume at this point that everyone knows that physical activity promotes positive mental health and decreases symptoms of depression. Despite knowing the facts, breaking that cycle still seems insurmountable. Sometimes we need to accept a little motivational push from those around us.
Tonight I planned to join a new neighbourhood running group. Two of my least favourite things merged into one activity, meeting new people and running. Half an hour before the group was set to start I messaged a friend i know in the group to say I wasn’t going. No made up excuses, I just didn’t want to go. It was cold outside and warm inside, decision made. Fortunately this friend encouraged me to come out despite my lack of motivation. The annoying benefit of joining a group is that you become accountable to others. Often times my own desire to change is simply not enough, I need others to give me a gentle nudge in the right direction. We all have times in our lives when we need the nudge and when we are the nudger. That’s the wonderful thing about humanity isn’t it? We are all connected to help each other when we need it most.
The outcome of the run was completely predictable. I survived it and felt good about myself afterwards. I wish I could bottle that feeling of positive empowerment and spritz it on myself when I need it most. And by spritz I mean bathe in it.
I guess I’ve now committed to this couch to 5k thing and to my new running buddies. I’m going to be one of those healthy people that I see on weekend mornings running in the rain while I shovel pancakes into my mouth and judge them for being better than me.
There are countless scientific studies showing that creativity increases happiness. It has a positive effect on our feelings of well-being and attitudes. So why in an era of adult colouring books and Pinterest boards are we still struggling with being creative?
The answer is simple, we don’t have the time, we don’t have the equipment or we don’t have the skills. At least those are the excuses that we tell ourselves. The excuse I most frequently tell myself is that I’m just not in a creative mood. As it happens I haven’t been in a creative mood for years now. It’s not that I don’t want to create lovely things, I really do, but I just can’t feel ready. I can’t feel ready to give something of myself and to open up and allow the process to flow. So what next? Force. I decided today that if I can’t feel ready, I will simply just begin. Begin without a plan and allow my mind and my body to work as one.
Over the years I have spent more money on art supplies than I care to admit. They sit in a closet that I wish I went into more often, waiting anxiously to be used. Forcing myself to enter the closet and begin was the start to my day. I had no plan, only supplies. After a couple of hours with a large canvas and paints, here is the result:
Do I like it? No, not really. I can’t see myself ever hanging this on my wall but I truly enjoyed the process. I enjoyed selecting the colours and the long and painful process of blending them all together. I enjoyed the pain that my arm felt after the countless brushstrokes I made. I enjoyed the juxtaposition between the dark and light colours and my attempts to soften them. I enjoyed the time that I spent focused on one task.
I can always paint over it when the creative mood really strikes me but for now I am content in process of creation.
As an aside, my spouse feels that this painting looks like a buttocks. If your buttocks looks like this, please seek medical attention.
There is evidence based research which has emerged in the last 10 years to show the incredible benefits that positivity can have on our lives. Positivity is like a nutrient rich soil, it is the foundation for healthy growth be it for flowers or for building personal resilience. It’s easy to maintain a positive outlook when things are going well but when unexpected changes hit is, feeling positive seems like a daunting task.
My spouse was told this week that due to re-structuring he will be losing his job of 17 years. For individuals struggling with anxiety like me, stress and change can be triggers. I spent much of the first 24 hours in a mild panic attack. Constant heart palpitations, inability to sit still or sleep and a whole lot of fidgeting. Looking at the situation with a positive lense was completely out of the question, my brain was more interested in thinking about worst case scenarios.
After a day had passed, it provided me with some time to accept this news and to re-visit my reactions. Times of stress and change are when we need positivity the most. My feelings of anxiety were valid and appropriate but ultimately useless. Feeling anxious about a situation does not change the outcome, nor does it provide any helpful solutions. I have made a concious effort to re-frame the situation and focus on the positives. Here are the ones I’ve come up with so far:
- We are fortunate to have a connection to lawyers to review documentation (as luck would have it the lawyer we could connect with had a conflict because they represented the company that laid-off my spouse) so this is no longer a positive. Pretend you didn’t read this bullet point.
- We have good friends that check in with us and support us
- We have caring family that checks in and supports us
- The severance will provide my spouse the opportunity to pursue work that is more meaningful to him
- I am now the sole provider of financial stability for the family…. surely the jokes will be endless and the laundry regularly done.
Perhaps not the lengthiest of lists however one cannot put enough emphasis on the importance of finding work that provides meaning and value to our lives.
Re-framing our perspectives provides comfort and contentment to otherwise stressful situations. Change your mind, change the outcome.
Five years ago when my children were four and six years old my spouse and I bought them iPads. They didn’t receive them as a gift for an occasion, it was simply that we spent too long in the Apple store waiting for a genius to repair my phone. While we waited the children played on the iPads and were smitten. When I think of it, the store concept is quite ingenious from a marketing and sales perspective. As parents we told ourselves that we would be doing our children a favour by giving them access to countless educational apps and getting them a head-start on becoming tech savvy. Retrospectively of course we were ridiculously delusional for ever thinking that way.
Fast-forward (do children now days even know what fast-forward means?!) five years and my children are entitled assholes. Monsters even. Their patience is non-existent. Want that new game? You’ve got it in seconds. They can’t spell, that’s what auto-correct is for. Their printing is virtually illegible because they usually type. Imagination is a thing of the past, they watch adults on YouTube opening boxes of new toys instead of playing with their own toys. They are lazy from spending all their spare time in a seated position. I can’t blame Apple exclusively, after all, I bought those iPads.
You might be wondering how all of this has any relevance to my own happiness, well friends let me tell you. Every day my household is a battleground. It’s parents vs children in a war for respect, cleanliness and completion of basic necessities of home management. Today for example I asked one of my children to shovel the snow. That simple request was replied to like this: “WHY DON”T YOU DO IT YOURSELF?” and continued on from there for longer than I care to admit. Had I ever spoken to my parents in such a manner an ass-whooping would have been imminent. Living in a war zone where every request is an argument and no one helps anyone with anything becomes exhausting. The heaviness of negativity is weighing down our house. I am tired. I am unhappy.
So what’s a parent to do to undo five years of entitlement? Take hold of the wheel and steer that ship straight into the storm. It’s going to be exhausting for awhile and quite honestly very unpleasant but it needs to be done. The children will need to earn their privileges through respectful words and hard work. We’re going back in time to farm-style. Do you want to eat? Then you had better help with the preparation. Do you want to play with your friends? Then you had better make sure the house is clean. Do you want to watch tv? Then be respectful and do as your told. Sadly it’s come to this and it will surely be met with resistance. I accept the blame for being too accommodating and accept my punishment. It will be misery for everyone but in the end I will be happier when they start to listen and they stop being assholes. One day they will speak to me kindly, in full sentence form and do chores without being asked first. At least that’s the hope.
I wonder if this happens to every generation of parents. In 1880 did conversations go like this?
“George, I really want to get electricity because it will make things so much easier for us.”
“Martha, I’m sorry but the answer is no. If we get electricity the children will forget how to light a lantern and start thinking they can stay up past sunset”
I’ve recently finished reading The Power of Meaning *crafting a life that matters by Emily Esfahani Smith. The purpose of this post is not to provide a book review but I think a synopsis is important to provide some insight as to how I’ve come to recognize that happiness lies in a meaningful life.
This book is packed with anecdotal evidence and scientific research about happiness, meaning and the difference between the two. The evidence is clear, there is no secret to happiness, but those who have meaning in their lives are more likely to be happy. Although the particulars of meaningfulness is different for everyone, the short version is being kind and helpful to others provides meaning and in turn happiness.
Some people find meaning in providing a good life for their children. While that is important to me, that is simply a part of my everyday life. Others find meaning in the work that they do. I find great meaning in my work and am fortunate to know that the job that I do has a significant and positive impact every single day to improve the lives of others. Many people don’t have the opportunity to feel so fulfilled in the work that they do, and I am forever grateful that I have chosen a path that serves others. My work provides me with meaning, but it’s not enough. I have the capacity and strength to do so much more and to help so many more people. I simply have not yet discovered the great work that I know my life will bring. I know I can do more and I will do more.
Yesterday I watched a video of Portia giving Ellen her 60th birthday gift. Firstly I cannot believe that Ellen is 60, she has the energy and spirit of someone much younger. The gift that Portia gave Ellen has so much meaning and I hope that one day I will be able to give someone else such a wonderful gift, and I hope to be able to give myself such a wonderful gift. If you haven’t seen it yet I highly recommend it.
Watch Portia’s 60th birthday gift to Ellen here
Did you cry? I cried. What an amazing way to give back to the world and provide such incredible meaning to your own life. When each of us have gone from this world we will be remembered for something different. How do you want to be remembered? I want to be remembered for helping and changing the lives of others. How I’m going to accomplish that is still to be determined and in the end isn’t that the wonderful part of life? The choices we have and the unknown of what lies ahead.
We are people pleasers. We want to make other people happy and in order to do that we agree to do a lot of things. Making people feel happy and helping people succeed feels good. Because of that, we say yes to a lot of people and a lot of things that we know we don’t want to do. We have a problem saying no. I have a problem saying no.
My work is meaningful and has a huge effect on the lives and happiness of others. Every single day the words I choose and the services I provide have the ability to make the lives of others better. In retrospect it is a large burden to bear, holding the happiness and success of others in your hand. If I am not available, people don’t receive the same service, they won’t get the help that they need and deserve. That weighs on me every single time I am sick, every single time I feel like I don’t have the energy to keep going. I have to keep going because others depend on me. It’s exhausting. Sometimes I feel like I just can’t keep going. I can’t talk about your rape one more time, I can’t talk about that murder you saw happen, I can’t talk about that time your dad tightened a belt around your neck and made you watch as he raped your sister. I am tired. I can’t take it anymore and each story weighs on me. I lay on the ground as I absorb your weight and get sucked further underground.
As much as I know my work is important I need to to recognize that my ability to help others lies in my ability to keep myself safe and healthy. Have you ever gone on a trip and listened to the flight attendant tell you that you have to put on your own oxygen mask before you help others put on theirs? It’s a truth that we need to remember every single day of our lives. If I can’t help myself, I can’t help you. Sometimes helping myself means that I have to put boundaries in place to protect myself. Sometimes I have to call in sick because I need a day to myself to rest, relax and ground myself. A mental health day is just as if not more important than a physical sick day. Sometimes I just have to say “no, I’m not coming in to work today” or “no, I can’t take on that extra project”. It’s not that I want to lay on the couch all day watching Netflix, but know that if I don’t, I’m going to sink further underground with your story until I can’t be dug out again.
We need to learn how to say no. We need to say no to projects we can’t finish without feeling stressed. We need to learn to say no to that friend that wants us to go to their Tupperware party. I want to make my boss happy and I want to make my friends happy but the reality is that if I say yes to everyone I will slip so far underground that I can’t breathe anymore let alone be helpful to anyone.
We can’t please everyone and if we don’t put ourselves first we won’t be able to please anyone let alone ourselves. It’s okay to say no and sometimes it takes practice to feel comfortable with it.
Say it with me….. “NO!”
When you suffer from depression and anxiety sometimes it feels like pursuing happiness is a fruitless labour. It feels like no matter the effort you put in, sometimes that faceless monster storms into your life and takes over. The road to hell is paved to good intentions. Hell is your bed and you’re stuck in it wishing for sleep to guide you from one day to the next in a blur of nothingness. You don’t want that nothingness, but it’s the best you can do.
I want to be happy. I want to be productive and accomplish things. I want people to be proud of me and most of all I want to be proud of myself. When that depression monster is pinning you down your hopes and dreams become distant memories. Those distant memories fade into a fog that seems impossible to push through, but push through you must. It’s an exhausting process but pushing your way through is the only way to get out.
Some days I think I can’t make it out of bed let alone get dressed and be functional at work. Those are the days that I have to talk myself through one step at a time. I tell myself that I’ll just shower and see how it goes. From there I tell myself I’ll just get dressed and if at any point it becomes too much I can go back to bed. Next I’ll get myself to work, if I have to leave so be it. Usually it ends up that step by step, I’ve successfully made it through another day. Did I get home and cook an amazing meal? Probably not. Did I come home and clean the house? Yeah right. But make it through the day I did and sometimes that is all we can hope for and that is enough.
No one is happy all the time and sometimes the best we can get is simply to survive and that is okay. Rather than focusing on the things I did not accomplish that day, I choose to focus on the things that I did.
Maybe there’s a load of laundry on my bed but at least I washed it. Maybe there’s a pile of dirty dishes on the counter but at least I made a meal. Sometimes we need to allow ourselves permission to accept that we can’t do everything. Feeling guilty about the things that weren’t accomplished will not lead to feelings of success but understanding and accepting that there are times when whatever minimal tasks we did manage to accomplish is absolutely okay will allow us to feel at peace with ourselves.
Today is survival, tomorrow is fame and fortune. Just kidding, tomorrow is simply better than today and that is enough.