This box has been laying around our living room (the way things tend to around here) for the past couple days, and I never really paid attention to it, just passing it by as the empty box to someone else in my family’s bizarre Christmas gift. But just now it registered to me what the message on the front says: Choose happy. And I got pissed off.
Now, as a disclaimer, I should say I’ve been in a funk the past couple weeks, and it’s only gotten worse recently, especially tonight. So quite frankly I was just looking for something to get me even more riled up against humanity. But since I see phrases like this so often, I think it’s worth commenting on, because it really does hit on a misguided belief that permeates our culture, which is that you can fix psychological struggles simply by choosing to be better.
Exeter Cathedral, England
Maybe for some people that’s true. God bless them. I envy them. But there are also a lot of people out there, myself included, who find themselves unable to magically fix the bleak outlook, the impermeable loneliness, the grey fog that settles on the mind, the unshakable discouragement that at times overtakes us, spreading to heart, soul, and body and settling in like storm clouds blocking out any inch of sunlight before a celestial downpour.
Depression is suffocating, oppressive, indefinable, inexplicable. It’s been with me over a decade, since I was about eleven, so I’m not even sure what it’s like to live without it. During the times when the clouds lift, it feels surreal, even scary. I wonder if this is what life can really be like for most of the world. I worry about when the darkness will return, because I know it will.
Depression makes me wonder if I can achieve the career I want. If I can ever find a significant other who will weather the tough times with me. If I should have children since they will probably suffer the same way I do. It makes me wonder if I can heal, be happy, live a full life. Sometimes it’s all I can do to just survive.
cloudy skies in Exeter Cathedral, England
I can never fully describe what depression feels like to people. Most of the time, I don’t even bother, because unless they’ve been there, most people don’t get it. Sometimes they look at me with pity and offer to pray for me, but it just feels like they’re talking down to me. Sometimes they feel uncomfortable and change the subject or end the conversation. Sometimes they impatiently suggest I just get a hobby or find more friends. Occasionally — thank goodness for these people — they listen and nod and say, “I’m sorry. You don’t deserve this. Let me help you through this. Let me remind you why you belong here. Let me remind you you are loved.”
For all my trying, I can’t seem to choose happiness. Depression keeps coming back. I’ve lost friends because of it. I’ve had to turn down career and academic opportunities. I’ve lost time spent lying in bed, trying to ride out the storm and recover. Money spent on therapy and pills. Because of depression, I’ve spent good portions of social events crying in bathrooms instead of connecting with friends. I have had my religious faith, once the bedrock of my life and upbringing, shaken to its core unalterably (cue huge ongoing identity crisis.) I took time off of school and eventually had to transfer because of it. Most of all, I’ve missed out on just plain being happy, enjoying life and some of the amazing opportunities its brought my way because of this. So believe me, I would love to choose happiness. But for some of us, that just isn’t possible.
What we can choose, however, is how we react to these dark times in our lives. For some, depression is persistent. For others it may be for only a season of their life. Either way, there are healthy and unhealthy ways to cope. It’s easy to feel powerless when such a powerful force overtakes your mind and changes your life, sometimes in a matter of days. So I want you to know that you do have a choice, you do have power over this darkness. Maybe you can’t choose to just flip a switch and feel happy again, the same way a person who just got out of surgery after a major car accident can’t just get up and walk out of the hospital, go home, and resume their normal life. But that doesn’t mean you can’t recover, or at least improve your life.
When we are overwhelmed by depression or other psychological hurt or mental illness, we can choose the way we respond. I have not always responded well. I still don’t. I tell myself how stupid and worthless I am, how nobody wants me, perpetuating the lies my mind has gotten sick from. I shut people out who mean well and nurse bitterness over how other people treat me without bothering to tell them. I continue in relationships and habits that are unhealthy to my self-worth. I pity myself and paint other people the victim.
For about a year, my internal pain was so unbearable, I even took to injuring myself externally. Some people turn to drugs and/or alcohol to numb the pain. I’ve seen the appeal of doing this, so much so that I made a pact with myself when I was 19 never to drink because of it. Other people use thrill-seeking or unhealthy dependence on relationships or validation from others or workaholism, even bullying, using, and abusing others…There’s all manner of unhealthy ways to respond to hurt. It’s easy to turn to them because we aren’t typically taught what healthy responses there are, and society and the media often perpetuate unhealthy ones.
still Exeter, England
But we can also choose to seek help, to make changes that promote healing. We can choose to work on ourselves and face our demons. We praise people who suffer physical injuries for their persistence and perseverance in slowly, slowly building their strength and ability back up, day by day, exercise by exercise. Going to doctors and physical therapy and pushing themselves forward. Let’s also praise the people who take up the difficult task of looking inward, examining themselves, asking for help, putting time into therapy and self-care, standing up to the bullies inside and out, cutting off toxic relationships, learning to stand up for themselves, and learning to love themselves.
Opening up, being vulnerable, talking about things that we say you should keep hidden, admitting you’re struggling, seeking help. These are all difficult tasks that we’ve been trained over the course of our lives not to do. If you have done any of the above, be proud. It’s easy to feel embarrassed, especially if the person you open up to just doesn’t get it or there are repercussions in your career or relationships. But it’s the start not just of changing yourself, but also of changing society and the way we deal with these previously taboo emotions and issues.
The road to improving yourself is long and confusing and there’s lots of backtracking and feeling like you’re going nowhere. Just this week I’ve been thinking to myself, “Shit. Am I really in this same place again? Have I really not resolved these issues yet? Do I really keep making these same mistakes in relationships? Wasn’t I in this same place a month ago?” I’ve been in therapy over three years now, with three different therapists, some mediocre, one great. Sometimes it’s exciting and I feel like I’m changing everything, others But it really is a long-term project, a journey. This is my fourth cycle of doing therapy and I keep breaking new ground, turning corners, realizing new ways to look at things. Of course, I also keep uncovering new things to work on, which can get discouraging, but I’m not one to give up on a fight.
Exeter Cathedral, England
You may not be able to choose happy. And let’s not pressure other people into being happy if they’re not. But you can choose to fight, to be healthy. To reevaluate your life and yourself and your ways of thinking instead of just going with the flow or accepting what people have always told you.
If you can’t seem to choose happy, you’re not weak. I feel weak and powerless sometimes because of this struggle, but it has forced me to to work and examine myself and try to help other people in a way that I doubt I would have had I not struggled. No matter how powerless you feel, with relapses in your own mental state or going back to bad coping mechanisms, you are not any less of a strong person. You are just human. A human who is struggling under enormous pressure.
For all of you fighting to choose a better life every day, know you are strong and press on, in spite of any judgment, relapse, or stigma you may face.
As an ending note…Someone posted this photo of me on social media once. I don’t think anybody realized I was at one of the lowest points in my life here — 20 years old and heartbroken, lonely, exhausted, on medication that I didn’t know was destroying me. I was suicidal the night this picture was taken, drifting in and out of the bathroom during a social gathering I couldn’t leave. I made a choice after that to, 1) take care of myself by leaving a toxic environment (the school I was in), 2) start distancing myself from people who didn’t support me, 3) take a break from school until I was healthier, 4) go to therapy again, 5) use writing to process my experiences and give ownership to my emotions, and 6) to be an advocate for mental health awareness by sharing my own struggles. I don’t regret any of those choices.