There’s one pervasive element which affects my mood that I have avoided writing about for a year. This isn’t a depression thing, it’s a living in a society that values appearance over anything of actual worth and importance thing. Yeah, it’s my weight.
And I’ve avoided it, because if talking about how my body gets me down makes me want to roll my eyes as hard as I’m doing right now, imagine how you, reader, must feel. It’s tedious. It’s predictable. It’s shallow? Nobody wants to talk about it and nobody wants to hear about it. But I’ve realised this is exactly why I should probably be breaking it down, on this blog I’ve created for the purpose of uncomfortable levels of honesty.
So – I feel fat. That’s not your cue to jump in and correct me, because you can’t. You can’t tell me what I feel, and you can’t change my mind by dismissing those feelings. You know you can’t, because the same is true when you feel fat and someone tells you that you’re being ridiculous. Which they will. Because they have to. It’s this minefield of a catch-22, in which we’re constantly reassuring each other that we’re no worse a human specimen than we were before those fifteen crème eggs in a week; but the fact we have to insist on this every damn time suggests that, well, actually, we are. Heaven forbid any of us should gain a few pounds, right? Fluctuating in weight is a fact of life for most of us, but please make sure you never once fail to deny this.
I don’t know, maybe some people are talked right out of their body woes by their friends and family berating them for voicing them out loud. Maybe I actually have comparatively high body confidence if I’m able to mention in a conversation that I’ve got heavier without expecting any denials. Maybe I need to just shut up altogether if I’m not looking to be made delusional about this simple truth.
But this is what’s so sucky about feeling fat – the truth is simple; the emotions are anything but. I know that I still average out as slender just as well as I know that slender is an arbitrary standard and nothing to be proud of. I know that if I’ve gained and lost weight before, it can and probably will happen again. And I know that just because I’ve noticed it, doesn’t mean everyone else has. In short, my rational mind is aware that none of this shit matters, and yet my state of mind is taking a sizable hit over this. I would go as far as to call my relationship with my body one of the big influences on my ups and downs.
If the baseline for such neuroses wasn’t so skewed, this might qualify as a cause for concern. As it is, I doubt this comes as any surprise at all. Look at what our perceptions of our appearance can do to a person’s mental health. Anorexia is a killer. Disordered eating passes for just ‘eating’ for legions of us at some time or another. I read an article a few weeks ago that suggested chewing a tablespoon of chia seeds for breakfast on the go. No, really.
I guess it comes back to something I wrote about months ago, about how we value ourselves based on how we think other people value us. Our outward appearance is the first indicator of who we are, after all, even if it’s a poor one in a lot of ways. Granted, we choose factors like our wardrobe and the way we style our hair, and that can say a lot about how we want to be perceived. But it’s the fear of being judged on the other things – like the fact our thighs touch or the blotchiness of our skin; the things we all know full well have no bearing on how interesting, intelligent, witty and kind we are – that’s causing us to lie awake at night regretting crème eggs. This is a travesty. One should never regret a crème egg.
The hilarious and tragic thing is that the older I get, the more remote the idea of thinking a mean thought about somebody else’s body becomes – even if I notice that yes, they have in fact gained weight – so why do I imagine anyone is thinking that way about me? Through no discernible effort, I think I’m maybe getting too wise to be convinced by Instagram or a magazine that there’s one ideal body shape, and that the rest of us are all somewhere on a scale of perfection oriented around it. It’s happening slowly, and periods of low body confidence like this one set me back, but I’m starting to see a distant future in which my mood is free to flourish and wilt only in positive correlation to excessive numbers of crème eggs. By which point I’ll have wrinkles and grey hairs to agonise over instead HA.
Pop quiz: what does today – the third Monday in January; supposedly the single most depressing day of the year – have in common with Marmite? Take a second.
I bet your mind went straight to the love/hate thing, right? And you’re wrong, but you’re not wrong. What Blue Monday and Marmite have in common is a discourse that has slipped into the public consciousness, but was actually invented by a PR company. In the case of Blue Monday, it’s a thing that originally existed to sell you a holiday; preferably from Sky Travel, who claimed to have calculated the date using an equation which factored in the weather, your bank balance, the time since Christmas, and a need to take control of your situation, among other things. As for the Marmite thing? I guess they had to throw their hands up and admit you might hate it, because they had no other way of selling you a salty, black goop made from a single-cell fungus (for the record, I am #teamyeahmarmiteisokayiguess. Take that, consumerism).
But yes, it’s a difficult time of year. You’ve put on weight, you’re probably getting less sunshine than you need, and I’m sure Sky Travel weren’t wrong when they figured we were packing in our New Year’s resolutions right around now. One of mine was to practise yoga regularly, and I could count my practises so far on one hand even if I didn’t have fingers. But I take issue with today being labelled the most depressing for several reasons. Firstly – and I hope my sarcasm translates here – oh here’s a great idea, just in case there’s anyone out there doubting what a heap of trash this freezing, debt-filled, non-festive working Monday is, let’s go ahead and make a big deal about how it literally does not get worse than this. I mean, is there anything more depressing than the most depressing day of the entire year? You don’t need to answer that.
And secondly, please accept my sworn guarantee that this will not be the most depressing day of your year. Okay, you have a one in three hundred and sixty-five chance that it is, but I like those odds. Because life is going to happen to you. There’ll be tears. There’ll be bad news and awful fights and crushing disappointments. You will get ill. You will log on to Twitter and see another heartbreaking hashtag, or a news story that makes you want to punch a wall. And maybe some days, the sun will be shining, your wallet will be heavy, your summer holiday will be booked, your workload will be your bitch, and it’ll still be your Blue Monday. Because whether or not you’re in sterling mental health, the human experience is more complex than an equation about money and the weather. You are more complex than that equation.
Let’s bring this back to me being a massive New Year’s Nerd, because my third point is that this time of year gets a bad rep. I don’t want to be the loser who loves January, but I have got it’s back when people start hating. This is your clean slate, and I get it: it’s hard to swallow when you first scuff it up a bit, or when all the build-up is over you’re still just you, in the same place and the same job, with the same character flaws. But just like all this unexpected bad stuff is going to hit you over the course of 2017, so is the good. Things change – they can change in a second, like the year. Your new beginning doesn’t have to be January first.
In a few short months you’ll be wondering how the year has passed you by, so enjoy January for being the only time all the stuff you’re looking forward to is yet to come. Here, I made a list:
Your birthday, most probably
Valentine’s Day, if you’re gross
All those bank holidays crammed into May
Pink, shirtless men with muffin tops and cans of Carling the first day it’s fifteen degrees outside
Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast, out March 17. No, I’m not sponsored, I’ve just had it in my diary since 2015.
Daffodils, boys and girls. DAFFODILS!
The protagonist and narrator of the novel I’m writing suffers from depression. It’s about the only thing I have in common with her, and yet somehow one of the hardest parts to write. And I don’t mean emotionally. There may be some scenes to come that hit close to home or leave me feeling a little exposed, but this would almost be a blessing given the situation I’m currently in, which is this: I don’t know how to write her as recognisably depressed without her depression becoming a parody.
Because whatever I intend her to be, meaning happens at the reader’s end and not mine. Most of the time we’re told that we can’t know what another person is or isn’t going through, and never to make assumptions just because a person’s behaviour doesn’t read in your mind as depressed. But I can’t ask my reader to suspend any scepticism and just try to understand; it’s my job to make them. I’m inviting people into her mind, all of it, and if they don’t believe in her depression, I’ve failed.
I have several options here. I could semi-autobiography this thing and write all the quirks of her mental health like it’s my own, but this isn’t as easy or convenient as it sounds. As I said, we have nothing else in common. Her depression doesn’t come from the same place as mine. The things that test her limits aren’t the ones that test mine. It would take a serious and undesirable rewrite to make this work.
Or, I could ham it up with a lot of in depth description of her state of mind. This doesn’t appeal either, as this is how I risk her sounding like a stereotype – or even a caricature – of a depressed person (not to mention the fact that this isn’t what the novel’s about; my character’s mental illness is a fact of her life, not the driving force of her story). But writing someone else’s mental illness kind of feels like just that.
I’d like to think I’ve written some suitably rounded and believable characters in the past, but there’s so much more responsibility this time. Depression is so misunderstood by so many people, and it’s not like I’m trying to write a manual for your insensitive second cousin, but his understanding of this one person and her singular struggle is kind of essential. But when I can’t even understand someone else’s mental illness when it reads on the bottle as the same as mine, how is he supposed to?
Because, in reality, depression is just a messy and bizarre smorgasbord of unknowns. Boxing it up neatly with a diagnosis lets us assign treatment based on a set of visible and measurable symptoms. It’s not just helpful to call something depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder, it’s necessary if those suffering with mental illness are to have any sort of outside intervention. But the fact is, we can never really know what goes on inside another person’s mind. How do you compare one person’s depression to another?
My mum says this thing about autism: that if you know one person with autism, you know just one person with autism, and it’s the same deal with depression. The diagnosis doesn’t account for everything else the individual’s mind is made of; like the things that comfort and antagonise them; the memories and habits informing how they experience the now; and the connections and assumptions they don’t even realise they’re making. Depression or no depression, we all have these things in common, and at the same time, all we really have in common is that each of us has a completely unique and personal perspective.
This is what makes creating characters so fun, but they all have to come from something inside the writer, so my challenge is to write her in a way that’s respectful of the fact depression is all kinds of things, and most of them I can’t even imagine.
I guess I won’t know if I’ve succeeded until somebody reads it. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and it ain’t gonna be cooked any time soon if all I do is whine about it, so BYE x
In the space of a week or so this spring, I blazed through seasons one and two of You’re the Worst, and have now (unfortunately) caught up in time to poodle along at the rate of one episodes per week of season three. Sad face.
And I am utterly obsessed. I picked it up as something light to watch in bitesize twenty-two minute chunks, but soon found that as LOLingly hilarious as it is, it’s also bitingly real. It’s real-life romantic instead of rom-com romantic AKA close to zero romance, but still tender in all the right ways. It features a very realistic number of CARBS. But mainly, the characters. The emotionally-stunted, self-involved, fucked-up characters. For the purpose of this post, let’s talk about Gretchen, played by Aya Cash.
Gretchen’s clinical depression isn’t introduced until season two, when she starts sneaking out in the middle of the night to cry in her car (while playing snake on her burner phone; she likes to play snake while she cries, so what?). Are you saying, a whole season in, they just dropped in a storyline about the main character being ‘suddenly’ depressed? Err, yeah, and it was great, and honest. She’s had it for forever, she tells Jimmy. Because depression can come and go, and it doesn’t always manifest as crying in your car, or lying in the foetal position like Gretchen does for large chunks of season two. Perhaps she just reached crisis point, and had actually been in a bad place all along. And perhaps it came out of nowhere and mowed her down. Either way, a storyline like this featuring so heavily in what is essentially a comedy is something I just had to talk about, because I friggin’ love it.
Comedy is funny for being real; for taking circumstances and situations we can all recognise – or at least imagine – and picking the lens through which we see them. You’ve got one of these lenses yourself, called your perspective, but despite the number of times you’ve probably been told that it’s the (not so) secret of happiness and the only thing that matters, it’s not such a doddle to control. Don’t feel bad. Everyone’s too close to their own problems, and I would bet you anything the ones who tell you to ‘turn that frown around’ in a faux helpful/low-key passive-aggressive way are the biggest messes when they’re having a bad day.
My point is, anyway, that film and television present a way of being able to examine the circumstances of our own lives from one step removed, and in whichever light the creators choose. And it’s safe to engage wholly and passionately with these narratives – and you know you’ve cried over the fake pains of fake people – precisely because they’re not real, and yet at the same time they’re more intimately told to us than those of the real people in our lives.
Because as the adage goes, ‘you’ve got to laugh’. Maybe not at yourself. Definitely not at other people. But whether you’re clinically depressed or just premenstrual, if you find yourself sobbing inconsolably because you hairsprayed your underarms and doused your ‘do in deodorant, know there’s a giggle in there somewhere. It’s ok if you can’t see it – that’s what TV’s for.
What’s more, anything that frames mental illness as something other than scary/potentially dangerous/awkward to acknowledge or deal with head on/contagious maybe??? is a very, very good thing. Take it from someone who knows that speaking openly about your depression can garner any number of responses, and many of them are less than chill. And that’s tough. My depression is a huge part of my story, especially as far as explaining my current circumstances goes, and if I can’t introduce it into conversation even passingly without being seen to be ‘oversharing’, it kind of puts me in a bind. I end up using euphemisms like ‘burnt out’ or ‘struggling’ or even the splendidly ambiguous ‘learning to be easier on myself’.
I can recommend You’re the Worst on so many levels, but in particular the level on which they handle mental illness without kid gloves and squeamishness. Besides Gretchen, the character of Edger is an Iraq veteran and PTSD sufferer, and as of the beginning of season three he’s made the decision to come off his meds – uh oh. I have everything crossed that they handle this story arc as classily as they have done Gretchen’s.
I sprained my ankle three weeks ago, and I’ve gone full Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window; peering covetously out at the mobile world, blinds drawn against the sweltering heat. Remember that summer I was so desperate for? Yeah, it’s happened and I’m missing it all.
For the most part, it’s been fine. A blessing, almost. Being bound to my desk with my foot up on a cushion has been good for my productivity at a really crucial time, when I’m trying to market my e-book all by myself. But it also fucking sucks. I’m going to be a bridesmaid in September and I was supposed to have a supermodel physique by now. Instead I’m slowly getting squishier, like the contents of the butter dish – just replace ‘hot weather’ with ‘consolatory Dairy Milk’. Also, I’m not sleeping well. It’s hard to get tuckered out when your biggest exertion over the course of the day is hopping one-footed up and down the stairs.
But my biggest complaint isn’t my lack of ‘thigh gap’ or the quality of my sleep. It’s that exercise is as good for my mind as it is for my body, and for a while I’m going without.
Let’s get one thing straight: the idea that you can put on your running shoes and go cure yourself of depression is ignorant and misguided on so many levels. For a start, it implies that depression is a symptom of laziness or inertia; that it’s a character flaw of sorts. Suggesting a simple, one size fits all solution that reduces a potentially life-threatening illness to a matter of lifestyle is, to put it mildly, unhelpful.
Maybe you know a depressed person whose exercise is limited to shuffling between the sofa and the fridge, and you’re thinking ‘but of course getting up and about would make them feel better! That’s how endorphins work!’ And perhaps you’re right. It’s just science, after all. It’s also nearly entirely beside the point. Let’s imagine you have polio. Your muscles have degenerated to nothingness, and you can barely stand. That’s not to say you wouldn’t get a boost of endorphins from a little jogging, and who wouldn’t benefit from that? You should do it; it’ll be good for you. Yeah, that’s pretty much what you’re saying to your friend with depression.
Your depressed friend probably knows that if they could pull themselves out of bed and get their heart rate up a little, then sure, maybe they’d feel a bit better for a while. And maybe they wouldn’t. Don’t assume. Don’t assume that they don’t want to. Don’t assume that they haven’t spent all their mental energy that day just working up to the idea. Don’t assume they never put their running shoes on, and get as far as the front door before they’re hit with the heart breaking fact that they’re kidding themselves; that their body and their mind don’t care what they want; that they’re just not capable.
And if you’re not sure, then don’t assume your depressed friend isn’t even more active than you are. Save from these last few weeks, I work out three to five times a week, and guess what? Still not cured. In my case – ‘recovering’ is guess you could say – I can usually find it in me to get moving, and it’s as useful as part of maintaining a routine and personal confidence as it is for my brain chemicals.
It’s never comfortable to make changes like this one when I don’t know what the effect will be on my precarious health, but you know what? I’m fine. I think I’m as good as I’ve been all year. Maybe I’d be even better if I was still routinely working out, but I think it just goes to show that there’s nothing make or break about a little cardio; that you can’t cure yourself with exercise any more than you can induce clinical depression by skipping it; and that you should probably watch where you’re stepping if you don’t want to spend your summer imagining the murderous plotting of your shady neighbours.
I’ve been doing well recently. I don’t think much about the dread, and for the first time in months and months I’ve been genuinely busy prepping to launch my e-book. The fact that it’s summer helps, although this year the British weather is endeavouring to be very little help at all. As if to spite me, it has started thundering at this very moment.
It’s no secret that sunny days are good for everyone’s mood, whether you suffer from depression or are just feeling a little blue, but no one fully understands why. It’s often chalked up to getting more sunlight, or some residual evolutionary function that has us winding down in colder months, kind of like hibernation.
Here are some unscientific observations on other things I think help:
Spending more time outdoors, surrounded by nature, instead of inside glued to a screen
Wearing fewer clothes, which makes us physically lighter (AND SEXIER)
Brighter colours, courtesy of blue skies and rapeseed flowers. Think Kansas versus Oz.
Ice cream – the universal comfort food. It’s like mood medicine.
Unfortunately, this year I’ve spent more days in slippers and cardigans than I have out of them, the rainclouds are casting a near-constant gloom, and ice cream just doesn’t appeal when simply glancing skywards is enough to make me shiver OK FINE I JUST ATE HALF A TUB OF HAAGEN-DAZS.
I confess, I am a hopeless victim of the seasons. I know it’s not an affliction specific to people with depression, but when you’re already teetering that much closer to the brink of cowering under your duvet in the foetal position, then like me, you may feel a little like summer 2016 is shitting all over you. This is meant to be my sweet spot; the annual genesis of enough inspiration and cheer to see me through the December-February danger zone. You could say I’m solar-charged, and I’m running low on juice.
The unfortunate truth is that for as long as I can remember, I get as much as 70% of my work done in the summer months. I know, it’s a joke. Why does a beautiful sunny day inspire me to hole myself away and write? But it’s true. And this year, I’ll be lucky to be a third as productive. If I’m totally honest, it’s only now that I’m getting around to publishing my e-book because I’m trying to distract from the fact I’m barely writing at all. Just look how spaced out these posts are getting!
I’m on edge. I feel I might trigger my own downward spiral by waiting a little to eagerly on a good stretch of summery weather; by convincing myself I need it.
I don’t need it. I need the people who love me. I need my creative outlet. I need my medication. The rest just helps. Besides, there will be other mood boosters. There will be other mood villains too. The key to handling my depression is to find ways to cope with both, without seesawing dramatically between rain and shine, like this terrible, terrible summer.
As if Kristen Bell and I didn’t already have so much in common, she has recently opened up about dealing with depression and anxiety. In an interview on Off Camera with Sam Jones, Bell talks about how both her mother and her grandmother before her struggled with mental illness, and how she compensates for her anxiety and depression with bubbliness and cheer.
Not only does this level of candidness from someone in the public eye have an invaluable impact on our perception of mental illness, it’s also incredibly courageous. The fear when opening up about your mental health is that it will change the way somebody sees you, and Bell is facing that possibility three-billion-fold – in other words, the number of people worldwide with internet access – for the sake of letting us know that she is not ashamed.
Up until the last year, most of my closest friends had no idea I had dealt with depression. Neither did my employer. I was in my final semester of university before I brought it up with my housemate and close friend of nearly three years, and perhaps most oddly, I had never even discussed it openly with my brother, sister or father.
Because I was ashamed – and though I try hard not to be, I think in some ways I still am. Sometimes I wonder if depression is just weakness. Sometimes I worry that a person will think I’m faking because they can’t tell, or will be wary of me because they can. And sometimes I just plain can’t handle anyone’s well-meaning concern.
It’s all because of a double standard when it comes to mental illness versus physical illness; a double standard Bell addresses in a comparison I hear from other sufferers all the time: the diabetes and insulin analogy. Whilst depression is arguably more complex, and our understanding of it less complete, than diabetes, the reason this comparison is effective is down to how cut-and-dry diabetes is. People get diabetes. They know it needs treating and there’s no argument to be had about it. You can live with it, you can manage it, but you have to take it seriously.
Kristen Bell has a successful career, is a mother, a wife and – let’s not forget – a Disney princess. When someone living as publicly as her can be frank about her struggles, it works to demystify depression. It teaches us not to make assumptions about what our co-workers may or may not be capable of; not to judge the legitimacy of our friends’ illness based on how weepy they appear; and not to be afraid that our children’s personalities will be irrevocably altered by the treatment that could save their life.
In conclusion, I love Kristen Bell and she makes me want to be braver. I love her pragmatism and her lack of bullshit. I love that she’s not afraid to take care of herself and not afraid to talk about it. Oh and I also love sloths.
Writing this post feels a little more intimate than any other so far. It’s easy enough to talk abstractly about how I sometimes feel, or give you a retrospective account of the ugly bits. Writing it down – instead of saying it out loud – feels like one big safe step removed from total honesty, and doing so after the fact feels like two. But I didn’t start this blog just to cop out when the subject matter – my life, the light and dark – gets uncomfortable to talk about. I wanted to say things that were difficult to say, so, today, WE’RE LIVE from my parents’ dining room, where I’m feeling like a kite in a storm.
The thing is, I haven’t written a word of my novel in nearly two weeks. I haven’t told anybody that.
If you read my inaugural post last month, you may remember these are circumstances I am very not cool with. In fact, I don’t think I can exaggerate how much failing to write fucks with my head. I’m a pragmatic person and when I’m feeling like me, my self-esteem is pretty healthy. But at times like this, all that I am disintegrates, until my self-worth comes downs to one thing – one thing I’m failing at.
I try to tell myself kind things, whether or not I listen. But as days pass and word counts stay fixed, a sort of amnesia sets in. I know the positives are there, I’m sure there was something I was meant to be clinging to, something other than my novel, but it’s lost in the fog. The only thoughts I can still see clearly are mean and shitty.
So now I’m up nights, ridden with anxiety. I won’t go into the wild, paradoxical clusterfuck that is depression and anxiety being such tight buddies, at least not today. Suffice to say they are the most unlikely of friends, and I am not wholly convinced they even like each other. They would be much better off parting ways, and finding friends with whom they have more in common, like, for example, lethargy and mania respectively. But I digress.
My anxious thoughts start with ‘why can’t I write?’ and quickly progress through my joblessness, my lack of exercise, my fibre intake, the laundry I haven’t done, right down to the email I didn’t send and the call to the doctors I didn’t make. I can’t quite remember how this patch of dry skin on my face became so fucking important; all I know is I can’t stop thinking about it. Most of these things probably sound like problems I could solve to you. Yep. They sound that way to me too.
Now I haven’t even opened the word document in days. I’m afraid to. Afraid of freezing again when I reach for the keys. Afraid of such a disconnect with my own work that I don’t feel like the next sentence is mine to write. Afraid of realising I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking, and that I’m not actually a writer at all.
This is my depression. It’s tangled up in a sort of ‘achievement’ compulsion I don’t know how to control. Other peoples’ may be tangled in something far denser, more unknowable, and perhaps so widespread, so pandemic, that it touches every part of their life and every thought in their mind. I used to feel like that – like I was swallowed up – but I don’t anymore, which is why I believe this too will pass; that I’ll be okay.
This is only a snapshot. It’s not the whole picture, which is far too complex for me to unravel in a blog post. Besides, I can’t see it all myself. I can recognise my patterns and my triggers, the negative thoughts that help put me where I am now, and I can try and make sense of it. But the truth is, I don’t know why I have depression when other people don’t, and that fact is painful in ways I can’t describe.
It just so happens it is Depression Awareness Week, so consider this post my contribution to the cause. If there’s one thing I hope you take away from it, it’s this: depression doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t care how good or bad things are. It doesn’t care that you’ve written half of your novel and you should be so frickin’ proud of yourself. It’s the product of a broken mind, one which can receive all the correct data – a perfect Sunday, a feel-good film, your words of encouragement – but will process it through whichever faulty channel it chooses that day. You cannot reason somebody out of their depression, but you can try to understand, and that will make all the difference.
It is often said that a sound predictor of unhappiness is having expectations life fails to fulfil. And sure, that makes sense. It holds a lot of wisdom about gratitude and finding fulfilment in what you have, and warns against the dangers of modelling your life after anything from a Disney movie or Keeping Up With The Kardashians. The truth is, I put a lot of the self-doubt and despondency that feeds my depression down to the fact I’m scrambling after difficult to obtain things. But something about the idea doesn’t sit right with me and I’ve been thinking about why.
I haven’t quite worked it out yet. Expectation is an abstruse and unattractive fella. He is hope’s even more optimistic brother. His head’s not fastened on. He can be unreasonable. He’s no good at contingency plans. He never stops to count his blessings. At least these are the things I imagine when I hear the word ‘expectation’. But both brothers are after something they don’t have. Both are prone to disappointment.
I definitely have hopes. I hope to be successful as a writer. I hope to be critically well-received. I hope to touch people. I expect that these things are possibilities, not eventualities, and this is where lines blur and your dreams risk becoming nightmares.
The thing is, I don’t believe happiness and wanting more are mutually exclusive. In fact, I would argue the opposite. I’m in the conflicting camp of clichés which tell us goals give us something to live for. But they’re not everything. You have a real life, and real blessings, and happiness isn’t something the things you think you want will give you.
I’m at risk of paraphrasing Miley Cyrus here but fuck it, this post is basically ‘The Climb’ minus the throaty southern twang. Enjoy the journey, is what I’m trying to say. When you reach the top, the only way is down, and I think maybe this is how people with too many expectations find themselves unfulfilled. They forget to take in the scenery (somebody please stop me).
If you asked me whether I would trade my big dreams and pesky ambition for the contentment of already being where I want to be, I would say no. My problem isn’t my ambition, it’s something else; something I’m still looking for, and hell if I know how it sits snug against my big dreams like happy little yin and yang buddies, but I really, truly believe that it does.
So I say go ahead, aim higher, as long as you remember it ain’t about how fast you get there, or whatever.
You’ve played Candy Crush, right? You’ve probably completed a few hundred levels, and worn that number like a badge of honour (read: shame) in front of your less accomplished friends. It’s probably got more competitive than you ever imagined rearranging confectionary could. Unlocking those next ten levels has been like the frickin holy grail. You’ve strategized; you’ve thought as many as six or seven moves ahead to try and get that five in a row. You’ve experienced the anxiety of waiting to see if your set piece plays out like you hope it will, when you have one move left on a level you’ve failed sixty-three times already. You’ve lusted for the old days, the simpler times of level twenty-eight, when you still knew that joyous satisfaction of watching glossy little candies pop and rain down. Because the truth is, it stopped being fun two hundred odd levels ago. Now you just have to get higher up that map.
Well, Candy Crush is everything mindfulness is not. Delete it, and send all records of your progress to the data graveyard.
Because when you’re constantly thinking about your next ten moves and looking ahead to those higher levels, you’re missing this moment, and you can’t enjoy what you’re not present for. Mindfulness is about matching to goings on in your mind with the goings on around you. It’s about bringing yourself into the present. It’s about sitting down and just eating the candy, because dammit, that’s what it’s there for.
Meditation is like deleting the Candy Crush in your brain – the unending stream of ‘what’s next’; the backlog of spent emotions over what’s already in the past – so that all you have left is the candy. Pretty sweet (I’ll see myself out).
Or, that’s the idea. If you read my March 29 post, you will know it was around this time last year that my depression came back. I was on the home stretch of editing my novel, and my self-imposed deadlines were chipping away at me as they flew by. Stress, anxiety and an unshakeable sense of failure had me feeling like I was falling apart. As well as prescribing medication, my doctor signed me off work with explicit instructions to frickin take it easy.
I had to learn how to stop. Stop doing everything I enforced upon myself to feel like I was achieving something, and be okay with it. I had to learn to be in the moment. So I started meditating.
We are told a lot how mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation are good ways to manage stress and improve our overall mood, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) has been used to help sufferers of recurring depression understand and manage the ways their own thoughts and other stimuli impact their state of mind. Can’t hurt, right? I figured I’d give it a go. With the help of this no bullshit guide from life coach Leo Gura, I started meditating for twenty minutes every day (okay, I’ve missed somewhere between five and eight practices), and here are the findings of my brief, poorly executed, and not the least bit scientific dalliance with meditation.
I’m an assistant deputy in my own brain
I’d like to think the one place I’m in charge is inside my own head. Practically, I know that’s not true, or I wouldn’t have spent three hours playing geography quizzes on Sporcle before I got to writing this post. Nor would I still be mad about the tea bag left in the sink four days ago. But it’s not until I sit down to meditate, and ask nicely if I can take the wheel for twenty minutes, that I realise how little clout I hold up there. Sometimes my mind has been wandering for minutes before I even notice I’ve lost concentration. A lifetime of bad habits is ridiculously hard to break, and it makes me wonder how much more productive, engaged and centred I would be if I could shut off all that noise.
I could use my time more effectively
This revelation probably has little to do with the meditation itself, but is invaluable all the same. If I can find twenty minutes a day to do nothing but stare at the inside of my eyelids, what else could I find time for? Learning French? Running daily? When I think about how little of my day I put to any use whatsoever it makes me cringe. I’ve never missed those twenty minutes. I probably wouldn’t miss another dozen such chunks of time. Have I used them? LOL OF COURSE I HAVEN’T (see previous point).
It’s its own reward
MRI scans have shown changes in brain function after as little as eleven hours of meditation. Well, by this point I’m up to one hundred and twentyish hours, and I don’t feel any different. Or maybe I do. If I was better at being mindful I could tell you for sure.
Either way, I can’t complain about an activity the only objective of which is – essentially – to quit worrying. When I shake out my limbs after a good practice I feel contented and calm, even if it only lasts the five minutes before I get back to work.
I guess I think we should maybe all be doing it?
After twenty-five years of not practising meditation, a year isn’t much to go by. I can’t say I’m underwhelmed by the effects, because I had no expectations. But if I’ve not yet seen the myriad benefits advocates like Gura rave about, at least I’ve learned I have a definite need for what it’s trying to accomplish, and you probably do too. I like it, and I will keep doing it. So, yes, I suppose, to meditation.