How do you define happiness?
Yesterday, for about five seconds, I was happy for the first time in roughly a month. After a wonderful breakdown toward the start of January, I crumbled under a mountain of stress, guilt, and anxiety that I had let build-up for years. That’s not to say I’ve not been happy once in all that time, but when your default mood is apathy, those few seconds of genuine glee should be cherished for as long as possible.
Obviously, as soon as I realised I was in a good mood, I immediately went into my introspective behaviour and spent the next few hours wondering why I was happy, how I could stay that way for longer, feeling guilty for not being happy more often and so on.
People often assume if you’re not happy, you must be sad. But that’s not entirely true, they are not mutually exclusive. I would love to be sad. If I was sad, I could locate specific issues and problems, and try to resolve them. But when you feel nothing, when you have no emotional response to people or situations, it’s so much worse than being sad. And that’s the side of depression many people don’t fully understand.
If you’re familiar with depression, anxiety, paranoia, you’ll know about the endless, sleepless nights, the sudden mood swings, the crying, and the physical and mental pain of it all. But there’s also this void, it’s an indescribable feeling of nothingness. This void is where you no longer have any sort of response to what’s happening around you. You don’t want to do anything. The things you use to enjoy are now exhausting. You wake up, and you just think about the day ending, counting the seconds away. It’s a hole that can’t be filled, and leaves you feeling guilty, empty, and contempt for yourself.
Anhedonia. That’s the word for when you no longer find socialising, exercising, hobbies etc enjoyable. I find it helps to be able to name or label something in order to overcome it. In therapy, you learn that when you feel this, sometimes the action of doing, comes before wanting to do. You have to trick yourself into going out, even if you don’t want to, before you understand that going out is helpful and beneficial to yourself. So, my advice is, even if you really don’t want to go to the gym, walk the dog, eat something, do it anyway. And if you’re not enjoying it after five minutes? Change it, find something else. That’s true courage, not the absence of fear, but acknowledging that fear and carrying on despite it.
I think a large part of why more and more people are feeling this, is that no-one ever tells you it’s okay to not be okay, until it’s too late. The focus is on medication and not prevention.
It’s a subliminal, almost unconscious word everyone uses daily. Someone asks how you’re doing. You respond “okay“. That’s the end of that transaction of feeling. It’s easier to whittle down your complex emotions and behaviors into two syllables, than to explain what’s going on to an acquaintance or co-worker who more than likely doesn’t really care and was just being polite for the sake of being polite.
And you say the word “okay” multiple times throughout the day, every day, for as long as you can remember. And suddenly the small lie you tell everyone else becomes a truth to yourself. If I really wasn’t okay, I wouldn’t be telling everyone I am, right? I’m just being hysterical, I’m exaggerating, I’m being selfish. Suddenly I’ve convinced myself that my problem isn’t a problem, it’s just an inconvenience. It’s not that serious.
We live in a culture that values relentless optimism, to not be okay is to be weak, to be judged, at least that’s what I thought.
I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum. When I was younger, I kept emotions hidden and bottled up, I didn’t want people and friends to see me cry, to see me be afraid. That’s a natural outlook for a child or young teenager, but it’s not healthy. Now that I’m older, I obsess over what I’m feeling, to the point of the aforementioned breakdown. I couldn’t handle or process the thousands of different thoughts and feelings I had spiralling around my head. That’s rumination, obsessing over the effects of my depression, focusing on the causes and consequences, opposed to the solutions. That is also not healthy.
But perhaps we shouldn’t prevent this sort of reaction. Certainly, we shouldn’t hide emotions, but I’ve learned that a breakdown leads to a breakthrough. It takes a while, but that negative experience can be used for a greater purpose.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned during therapy, is that having an extreme emotional response to something is good. I cried for hours after I let a friend down, I felt sick that I had ruined a friendship, and I couldn’t sleep for days. And I felt guilty for having those responses. But they’re beneficial. Those deep, emotional responses and behaviours mean you care about someone or something, they are signals that you have compassion. That’s healthy! They are to be harnessed, not sheltered, or forgotten about. We judge ourselves for having these “bad” emotions, and in turn we judge others who do too, but we should be sympathetic. Kindness is courage. We shame people out of these emotions, but we shouldn’t, because they are valuable.
Another lesson I’ve learned from therapy, is that when you suppress an emotion, it becomes much stronger. They call it amplification. This internal pain always manages to find an outlet, be it through our actions or words, towards friends or loved ones. Tough emotions are part of our contract with life. To say you don’t want to feel sad, or disappointed, or to not cry or feel pain, is to have “dead people goals”. Only dead people never get unwanted or inconvenienced by their feelings. Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.
I am not a person of faith, but I have the utmost respect for those who do, because whatever comes after all this chaos terrifies me. The idea of nothing, is a horrifying thought, but can you remember the time when you weren’t alive? Obviously not. So, I don’t stress over the thought of what comes after. This, is the anomaly. Being alive is the odd bit of our existence, you will not exist far longer than you’ll ever exist. So, make the most of it and remember the first law of thermodynamics. No energy in the universe is created and none is destroyed. Every part of you will one day become a part of something else, so give the current version of yourself the best life possible.
Self-care isn’t always spoiling yourself, self-care can be as simple as getting out of bed in the morning and rewarding yourself for that accomplishment. The small goals make the difference, regardless of the long-term ones. Set ones that stretch you, not overwhelm you. It’s easy to give up, we’ve all done it at some point in our lives, but if the plan isn’t working, for whatever you’re trying to accomplish, don’t change the goal, change the plan. You can’t expect change to happen if you never make one yourself.
Therapy has taught me that I will never be 100% ready for the things I want or the things I’m waiting for, and it’s never going to be the “right time”, because every moment is the right moment. If you want something, go, and get it, and live for today, not a tomorrow that isn’t guaranteed.
You should never be ashamed of your condition, do not be ashamed of yourself. Your mental health is as equally important as your physical health, and you should see a doctor or your GP to help you through it. Don’t listen to people who say, “get over it” or “man up”, as if telling someone who had their arm cut off to “stop bleeding” would help. Do not let anyone make you feel ashamed or judged for what you’re going through, your condition is completely valid. Cut the people who make you feel bad out of your life, or anyone who isn’t prepared to help you. Even if or when you start to feel better, cut out all the negative energy that surrounds you. Toxic friends, attitudes, behaviours, news feeds. If you let yourself embrace the good in life, you will begin to filter it back out. But most importantly, do not forget about what you’ve been through. As painful as it is, building the future and keeping the past alive are one and the same thing.
If you’re reading this, you have survived 100% of your worst days, and I’m proud of you for that.
For those that know me, if you are suffering from depression, or its side effects, I am always available to listen what you’re going through.
For those that don’t, there is always someone out there who cares about what you’re going through.
So how do I define happiness? For today, it’s as simple as the warmth of the sun on my face. Little everyday joys all lined up in a row.
Heal yourself first, the rest will come later.
Feel like giving up? Remind yourself of these things.
It is not the end, no matter how bad it feels. Whether you’re 15 or 50, there’s always a way forward. “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
It’s okay if you fall down and lose your spark, just make sure that when you get back up, you rise as the whole damn fire.
Don’t feel stupid for not liking what everyone else pretends to love.
Always look how far you’ve come instead of how far you still need to go. The situation you’re in but you think you won’t survive? Think back to last year when you didn’t think you’d get through the year, or the year before that, or the year before that. You will always surprise yourself and you will always make it through. Turning that page is so important, because there’s so much more to the book than the page you were stuck on.
Never compare yourself to others and feel inadequate, no-one’s journey is the same. Their success does not mean you’re a failure.
Don’t confuse sadness with weakness.
Sometimes you just need to ask for help, and you’ll be surprised by how many people wish to help.
Not getting what you wanted is sometimes a blessing in disguise.
Fear will stop you from trying, but try anyway and fear will step back.
You are not lucky. You are smart, and you are talented, and you work hard to achieve your goals and dreams. You’re not lucky. You’re a warrior.