Here’s a comic I drew this morning to illustrate how my resistance to sadness often perpetuates the constant and terrifying feeling of being bound by it. Of it haunting my days and nights.
If you are busy putting your energy into avoiding sadness then it will run your life. But if you stop and look at it and acknowledge its presence you make peace with it. You can be a friend to every part of yourself. You can experience life without being distracted by your fear of what will arise, and instead enjoy the moment as it comes.
When I don’t hold space for my feelings, no matter what they are, I am not being present to myself. When I don’t witness my sadness, I suppress a part of my experience. When I censor personally my experiences I deny myself the opportunity to grow and learn about myself. Telling myself to not feel something when I do is denying what makes me human.
Holding space for sadness can make me aware of many things. It can tell me whether I’m being triggered by something. It can tell me if I’m not enjoying myself and feel disconnected to where I am or who I’m with. It can indicate a deep dissatisfaction with what I am doing. It can inspire me to make a change.
When I was a child I was often told to not feel sad even when that was what I was feeling. My parents love me and wanted to protect me. I was told I was “too sensitive”. With messages like these, it is easy to learn to resist the feeling when it comes. Now I am responsible for telling myself these things. I say, “Go away! You’re not a good feeling. I’m not going to see or listen to you. Why am I so sensitive?”
It’s important to know that sadness isn’t a bad feeling. It’s not good or bad. It just is. It’s a temporary, passing feeling. It is not who you are. You feel sadness. You are not sadness. Happiness isn’t better. It just is. If you start judging your feelings, you set yourself up to feel shame when you experience the “bad” ones.
No matter what you will feel sad at times. To not feel sad when the moment calls for it is to disrespect the moment and yourself. Exercise honoring the parts of yourself that feel sad. For example, when you grieve you’re likely to feel sad among all the other feelings (like, anger or guilt). To hold space for your sadness acknowledges that the loss you have felt is significant and meaningful to you.
“What you resist will persist.” I’ve heard this recently and it really struck me. In the past, I’ve resisted sadness to the point of having a mental breakdown. Then I was forced to look at my feelings because I had no other choice. I advise that you don’t wait that long to face your feelings.
Meditation and mindfulness has really helped me to learn how to check in with myself and to be aware of my feelings when they come up. It’s not easy though. I get frustrated at myself for feeling sad and ask myself, “Why can’t I just be happy?”
I’ve carried sadness around with me like a blanket a child gets when they’re young. I’ve suppressed my sadness so I wouldn’t burden anyone. I’ve avoided parts of myself so I could fit in and be likeable. I’ve told myself that no one wants to be friends with someone who is sad. Now I’m realizing that by being vulnerable with others I share myself in a way that others can relate. If there are people who turn away when you are vulnerable you can’t worry about them. They’re dealing with their own stuff.
It’s up to you to accept yourself along with your sadness. You can’t wait to be accepted by everyone else because that will never happen. As Buddha says, “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.” I strive to live this every day.
Not in the U.S? Go here for a complete list of crisis centers around the world.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.
We’re nearing the end of May, which is Mental Health Month, and I’ve been thinking a lot about my recovery from a debilitating depressive low I experienced late last year. Thankfully, I’ve since recovered.
In the darkest moments, I struggled to get out of the continuous, negative, self-hating way of thinking I slipped into. I wanted to harm myself and just leave it all behind. It seemed like nothing could get me to stop thinking about self-harming. But there were some things that helped.
1. Text/call the crisis hotline.
Thinking about harming yourself is no joke. You may be used to feeling that way because it feels like it’s all the time, but don’t let the frequency of your thoughts dictate the seriousness with which you observe them. If you seriously feel like cutting yourself, or jumping in front of a car, or starving yourself over the weekend, know that there is help for you that will make you feel better.
Above, I’ve provided links to crisis centers that are working 24/7 to help people going through hell. Call/text them right now if you feel like hurting yourself.
Sometimes simply thinking about calling or texting the hotline scares you into action away from your terrible thoughts. One time, I called a suicidal crisis hotline and spoke to someone on the phone for ten minutes. It was clear by the questions he asked that he was waiting for the green light to send the ambulance over. The weight of the situation finally hit me.
Oh my god. I don’t want an ambulance to come. What the hell?
I remember jumping out of my seat. I had been on the edge looking down, so to speak, and now I had retreated away from the cliff to a safer place.
Of course, some people may actually want to go to the hospital. One time after work I dragged a co-worker, who happened to be a social worker, into a conference room and told her just how bad I felt. She asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital. Part of it was so appealing to me at the time. I was sure it would provide great relief. Another part seemed terrifying. I’d have to tell my parents I was that bad. I’d be ‘admitted’. It would be on my record. She said it was okay to go to the hospital, but eventually, she managed to calm me down and I said I was fine. Well enough to get to a friend’s place. She directed me to get my favorite food for dinner, get on the train, and go to my friend’s place. I did that, in every single step she had me repeat back to her.
If you think you need to go to the hospital, please go. If you need to chat to someone, text/call the crisis hotline. Don’t think you’re making a fuss. Please. Your life is 1000% worth making a fuss about.
2. Call a loved one or friend. Better yet, meet up with them.
If the thought of talking to a stranger makes you feel uncomfortable, call a friend.
This seems like an obvious thing to do when you’re feeling really shitty, but when you’re locked in the prison of bad thoughts it seems like you’re all alone. Even when surrounded by roommates, coworkers, and friends, we can feel like no one cares.
I remember thinking that my depression was so obvious in the workplace. I wondered why people didn’t just reach out and help me. Much to my disbelief, I found out later from a coworker that I had been putting up a good facade of happiness as I went about my day. Some people just thought I was having a bad week or a bad month or that I was going through something difficult. Everyone has problems, right? Well, I certainly did. And they weren’t just problems. They were severe life-threatening problems.
(Side note: Some people think that having a little stress and worrying is the same as having anxiety or being depressed. No, it’s not. Depression is far worse! Stress is kind of normal. We all have our worries. Having depression is not about having worries or thinking too much. It’s a chemical imbalance in your brain. It’s a condition that prevents you from being happy in the moment and prevents you from living your day as you’d like to. It’s an illness.)
Reach out to a loved one or a friend. Please remember that there is someone who cares about you. Call them. Call whoever pops into your head. Ask them to come round to your place. Ask them to meet you at the coffee shop down the road. Nothing too big or fancy. Just a small outing. Tell them you really need them right now. If they’re a real friend, they will come.
3. Go for a walk. Preferably outside.
I’ve realized that getting fresh air is so important for my mental health. Much more important than I understood when I was living in a tiny apartment in New York City. I thought I could live off of love, books, money, good meals, and music. It wasn’t until I moved away to Florida that I noticed how much fresh air, trees, and water improved my mind. It was an instant change. Almost overnight.
People love to tell you that if you have problems now, you’ll have problems wherever you go; that it’s in your head. I totally and wholeheartedly disagree. They often say it to validate their own life and their choices about their lifestyle, job, and family. Please be discerning around these people. Environment plays a huge part in affecting our energy. We’re humans, which means we have bodies and these bodies take up space. That’s why the space in which we take up space is so important. We’re in direct contact with it all our lives.
Going for a five-minute walk can do wonders to your mind. You might see a baby struggling to walk. You might feel the wind in your hair. You might see a dog wagging its tail. You might see the light of a streetlamp reflected in a puddle. You might hear a distant song or hear someone say something funny.
Sometimes these things can jolt us back into life. Give us a lifeline to hang onto. Remind you that you want kids or that you always wanted to get a dog. Other times these things might cause even more pain, which isn’t good. After a breakup, whenever I saw a redheaded child (my ex is a redhead) on the subway it felt like someone had punched my stomach. Once, while on a walk, I heard the siren of an ambulance and it triggered me into full panic mode.
If walking outside if too much, just get up off your bed, couch, chair, and walk to the bathroom. Walk to the kitchen. Walk down the stairs. Lift your legs up. Do handstands. Do a sad dance to your favorite song. Baby steps. Just get your body moving. Remind yourself you’re capable of movement. Your body is worthy of this thing called life.
4. Listen to/watch something.
I don’t think I need to say this but music can be very therapeutic. If you instantly smile when you hear a certain song, then play it! That’s a no-brainer. If you’re not smiling at it like you usually do, don’t beat yourself up over it. And please avoid sad music. For a year I couldn’t listen to Adele. If I was in a store and she started playing, I would drop the things I was going to buy and run outside. Either that or I’d grit my teeth and bury myself into something else to distract me long enough for the song to finish.
Have you tried podcasts? There are a ton of great ones out there. If they bore you, that’s fine. You might not want to hear some gutsy, high energy person chat into your tired ears.
Have any movie favorites? For me, it’s any Studio Ghibli movie. I have to be careful, though. Sometimes, if I’m feeling really vulnerable, they can trigger happy, nostalgic memories that take me back into the past. Then, it’s a downward spiral from there. Be aware of how you’re feeling and what makes you feel worse or better, and go from there.
I can’t count the number of shitty poems I’ve written when I’ve felt overwhelmed. Write it out. Get that crap out of your head. You can make the page look ugly. You don’t have to show anyone. It’s yours. And for all those high achievers out there: you do not have to create a work of art. You don’t have to submit it to be published. Give yourself a break. Your head isn’t making sense right now, so don’t expect your writing to either.
Writing can make you realize things about yourself that your soul knew but you hadn’t yet registered. One day, I decided to go through my journal from the last year. What did I notice? I was writing about how much I wanted to leave New York about twice a month. I read the entries and wondered how I had been so blind. When we are really lost we can’t hear our soul crying. Writing is the soul cries made visible. It’s easier to dismiss a thought than a sentence glaring at you from the page.
Write and you’ll be surprised at what comes out. I believe wisdom is inside all of us. It’s right there right now. We just need to chisel it away like a six pack or a statue out of stone.
6. Play a computer game.
When I was at my lowest and living with a friend of mine, he said why don’t you try playing a computer game? Initially, I scoffed. I wasn’t about to drown my sorrows in fantastical storylines and armor. Surely, playing computer games was a suppression of my sadness and that, in turn, was a sign of weakness. I was so wrong. Don’t let society’s stigma of nerdy gamers get you down.
I started playing a game every day. It was a life saver. When you don’t want to live anymore and a game makes you want to live, you sure as hell play it. I dived into designing my character, choosing a class, a race, and got playing. It was addictive, and usually, someone would say that’s bad. But I realized that if I happened to be addicted to computer games, that was totally 100% fine. I was alive, goddammit. At that time, I didn’t feel like I was going to last the week, let alone a month. Playing a computer game for a couple of hours meant I was alive for a couple more hours. As sad as that sounds, it gave me something to look forward to, and that wasn’t sad at all.
7. Read a book.
There are way too many books that I haven’t read yet, so that means I really need to stay alive to read them. This is a real thought I’ve had. Simply thinking about the sheer volume of books and wisdom and words out there can make my heart ache in a very good way. Reading is medicine. It’s an anti-depressant.
I’m currently on a self-help book escapade. When you survive the dark night, you are forever a seeker of the light. I’m taking in a load of teachings in books written by others who have gone through hell and back. I’m also not taking in some teachings. What I’m learning about the self-help industry is that if someone tells you there’s a one-size-fits-all way to heal yourself, they’re lying. I’m discovering that some methods work better than others.
I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs, too. It’s strange to say this but it makes me feel better when I read about how someone else dealt with their suffering. It makes me feel less alone and puts my life in perspective. That’s not to say that you should compare your suffering to others (never!) but that by reading how others have overcome obstacles in their life you can better equip yourself to overcome your own.
Some words meet our pain and unlock our suffering. When we hear that our ‘failures’ aren’t the end of us, it’s a revolution for our mental health.
8. Have a shower.
What is better than having water fall on your body? If you feel really bad and you already had a shower, have another one. Seriously, no one is going to notice. You can have another shower. Go ahead.
Wash your body slowly. Pour yourself a bath. Lie in some Epsom salts. Light some candles. Play some tunes.
Feel the pain rub off your body with the soap. Run the shower and lie down in the bathtub if you want. Lean against the tiles and feel the coolness of them on your warm skin.
Avoid your shaver. Avoid anything that will hurt you. Do not hold your breath under water.
Play with the water. Take a plastic cup in with you. Feel how gentle the external world can be.
9. Make some food.
When was the last time you ate? When was the last time you ate something that nourished you? I’m asking for people who avoid food and those who overeat when they’re struggling. It applies to both.
Nourish your body. It’s so important. There are a million studies out there showing how good food is good for the body and good for the mind. Just google around online and you’ll find loads of healthy recipes. But don’t let all those voices get you down. You know what I mean. The cacophony of health nuts, gym goers, and medical experts can be so damn draining. I’m not telling you to go crazy, I’m just saying sprinkle a little honey on that buttered toast you’re eating.
When I make something to eat, whether it’s as simple as a bowl of yogurt with strawberries or a coconut shrimp curry, it makes me feel compassionate towards myself. I am directly responsible for feeding my body. It feels like a reward for living. It’s an act of loving kindness, and if you’re feeling terrible, it can do wonders to take care of yourself. You must take care of yourself now and always.
Plus, it gives you something to focus on for ten minutes or a couple of hours.
Sometimes the thought of going into the kitchen to make food gave me a huge headache. If going into the kitchen means going to have a look at the various utensils that could cause damage to your body and thinking about ways to self-harm, avoid the kitchen! Take a few minutes to order delivery. Or go get some take-out. The walk to the restaurant might help you.
And if the thought of healthy food is making you reel, go get that blueberry muffin or mac n cheese dinner that you love. Treat yourself. A good friend of mine told me that if I ever wanted to harm myself, I should go out and buy a cookie. Let’s just say I ate a lot of cookies from Starbucks (of all places!) for awhile. Comfort food is called comfort for a reason. Worry about the calories later. You’re eating something yummy right now and you’re alive.
10. Go to the gym. Or the swimming pool. Or the yoga studio. Or the park. ANYWHERE.
If you’re looking at this last suggestion and you’re thinking there is NO WAY that I can do any form of exercise, I totally understand. When I was at my lowest, the thought of anyone telling me to exercise made me want to crumble away. When my ex-boyfriend took me to the gym, I walked around the interior running track and cried most of the time. I had to go to the bathroom to cry on more than one occasion. I hated everyone there. I hated every woman who looked fit and healthy. I hated their matching top and bottoms, and their perfect ponytails. I hated even their sweat. I was seething rage and sadness all at the same time.
And that’s fine. Hate away. You won’t always see the world this way. You won’t always feel so much hate towards strangers. You won’t always hate yourself. Give yourself time.
Start small. Go for a walk. Meditate in a quiet place for three minutes. Go for a ten-minute jog. Try doing yoga at home. Just be kind to yourself.
Don’t think you’re a failure because you can’t go the gym. Don’t beat yourself up about it. You might not be able to run as far as you used to. You might not be able to swim because your anxiety makes you avoid water. It’s okay. Just do what is enough for you right now and know that one day you’ll feel better.
It’s hard to do the things I’ve listed above. It’s really difficult dragging your body onto the yoga mat. If reading self-help books isn’t helping, and you start comparing yourself to the authors, stop reading. Read a sci-fi book set on another planet that you can’t hate because you’ve never been there before. If a seemingly innocent thirty minutes spent on Instagram looking at how other people “live”, makes you want to poke your eyes out, stop looking at your phone. If something makes you feel worse and makes your heart so sore it seems like it’s just going to stop and you don’t mind if it does, lie down on the floor with your legs up. Do weird shit. Draw an ugly face or weird dots on a piece of paper. Spit on the sidewalk. Throw some coffee on a canvas. Just please be safe. Don’t hurt yourself. Don’t hurt anyone.
If you feel like self-harming, please know that I want you to live. There are friends out there you haven’t even made yet. There are things out there you haven’t seen yet that want to be seen by your eyes. You matter.
Today is World Health Day, celebrated to mark the anniversary of the founding of the World Health Organization. The theme for 2017 is depression, and it’s no surprise that this is the focus since suicide is now the second leading cause of death for 15-29-year-olds. This is a staggering statistic and one that needs to change.
This change will only come about if we have open talks about depression and other mental illnesses, which would remove the stigma associated with them, and if we continue to invest in organizations that help people who are struggling.
People with mental health issues are often judged by others who make huge assumptions about these people based on fear and ignorance. And sadly, sometimes the people who we go to for help are the ones who can make us feel worse.
The Bad News: The Doctors Who Make You Feel Like Shit
A few weeks ago, I visited a new psychiatrist since I’ve recently moved to a new state and needed to change doctors. In the span of forty-five minutes, during my first session, I was analyzed in a brutal and basic way. I was told that my father was an alcoholic and my mother was an “uneducated pussycat” for putting up with him. I was told that men had let me down and that I “pick the wrong ones all the time”. I was told that “women just want to get married, have children, and settle down”, which implied that I was depressed because I didn’t have a man that was going to provide that for me. I was told that I didn’t have anxiety or general depression, but that I had bipolar disorder since my brother had it. And I was told that my father probably suffered from bipolar disorder as well since it was a “genetic disease”.
I wanted to say she could fuck off and see how she liked that for some spontaneity.
I walked away feeling bruised, confused, and very upset. When my dad asked me how it had gone, I told him, and of course, it made him feel sad too. We didn’t talk to each other for a day because we were dealing with it. Now, I look back and see it for what it was: a load of rubbish.
Another psychiatrist told me that I had lived a privileged life and was lucky to have traveled around the world during my childhood. She made it sound like the rootlessness, dislocation, and uprooting were not valid reasons to feel broken inside. That I should be grateful for the experience, which of course I was, but that didn’t mean I didn’t feel trauma about it. This is a whole other issue to discuss that would require another post: the joys and traumas of the third culture kid experience and how most people don’t get it. After knowing that I’d traveled the world and was both American and British, the psychiatrist had the guts to correct my English when I pronounced something in the British way instead of the American way. And when I told her I had visited Edinburgh over the holidays, she asked, “Where’s that?” Go figure.
She also asked me if I had always been “that calm”. She asked me if I ever expressed “spontaneous joy”. I was almost too shocked to reply to her. I wanted to say she could fuck off and see how she liked that for some spontaneity. Instead, I said, “when I’m with people I enjoy being around, I express joy. Sometimes I dance around my room naked.” I also added that I felt more British in the expression of my emotions: more reserved, not as loud as some Americans are, having a drier and more sarcastic sense of humor, more observant. She told me that I could work on being more animated around her and others. She told me that being British didn’t mean I had to be miserable. I mentally noted that sentence and promised I would make a caricature of her one day in one of my future books. No darling, it doesn’t.
If I got outside and walked a block, it was a triumph.
About four months ago, I visited a GP after I was told I should probably see if there was anything “wrong with my body” that would explain the anxiety and depression. People are a lot more comfortable knowing you have a bodily injury or illness rather than a mind-based affliction. I sat down in the doctor’s office and explained why I was there in a nutshell. When I mentioned I had been having suicidal thoughts, I saw the doctor visibly flinch and the medical intern in the corner of the room shuffle her feet and stare at the floor. I understand that depression is difficult to talk about, but why don’t people squirm in the same way when you tell them you have a kidney stone or a broken arm? (Who knows, maybe they do.)
After measuring my height and weight, and taking my blood pressure, it seemed like she didn’t know what to do with me. She asked me questions like “are you sleeping okay?” and “are you exercising?”. To which I replied, yes and no. She then recommended that I find the time to exercise. I replied that I would find the time to exercise if I wasn’t thinking about cutting myself half of the time or if I managed to find the energy inside left over from the continual grieving and suffering to lift my limbs. She didn’t know what to say in response. The last time I had tried exercising, I rolled out my yoga mat in the living room and attempted a few sun salutations. I managed to do a few downward dogs, and then I flopped onto the mat and cried with my face squashed into the ground. If I got outside and walked a block, it was a triumph.
The Good News: Finding an Ear to Listen
Am I saying that you shouldn’t go to seek professional help when you feel like hurting yourself or if you’re struggling? Hell no! Of course you should. You must. You can’t do this journey alone and your loved ones can’t bear the brunt of it for you. I’m not saying you’re a burden—you’re not—but having more people help to lift the weight is easier for everyone. And yes, sadness has weight. It is so heavy, isn’t it?
What I’m saying is that finding the right mental health professional for you is a process. If you find the right psychiatrist or therapist straight away then that’s great! But if it takes a while to find the right fit, do not be discouraged. Do not let the system get you down. And do not let anyone, with an MD at the end of their name or otherwise, tell you who you are. You know who you are. Even if the depression is making every day a struggle, you know who you are. You know. You know what you like and don’t like. Listen to the way your body trembles. It’s speaking to you.
If you’re booking an appointment with a psychiatrist, you’re a badass.
If you don’t like your psychiatrist or therapist, find a new one. There are others out there. You’re not a failure for wanting to change. It doesn’t mean you’re weak or picky. If your parents or friends tell you you’re running from the truth by changing doctors, tell yourself you’re doing anything but that. You’re confronting it. A lot of people don’t even admit they have a problem, and funnily enough, it’s the people who have issues that like to judge you for yours. If you’re booking an appointment with a psychiatrist, you’re a badass.
Moving Forward: It Takes Time
Now, after some false starts, I’m happily in therapy with a wonderful therapist who listens to me, asks me important questions, and doesn’t judge me at all. I’ve spoken with her about my bad experiences with other mental health professionals and she’s been very empathetic and admitted that the profession can attract weird types of people.
I’m still trying to find a psychiatrist, but I’m comforted by the knowledge that I’ll find one eventually. The good thing about psychiatrists is you don’t have to see them very often; only about once a month on average since any medication takes some time to kick in. I think it’s far more important to find a therapist to work with because they’re the ones who will work with you on things, get deep into the hurting, and not just prescribe pills to fix everything. The best combination is having a psychiatrist and a therapist. At least, that’s what has worked for me.
I believe that when people want to hurt themselves it’s a cry to reconnect to their body.
I’ve also started exercising and meditating regularly. Waking up every morning at a set time and hitting the pavement to go for a walk or to the gym is helping me so much. You’re probably wondering what changed and how I managed to motivate myself to do this. Well, I had a really difficult conversation with myself. I asked myself how I wanted to feel during my day. I replied: expansive, powerful, strong. I knew that I needed to reconnect with my body in order to do this, the same body that I had been hating, the body that I had wanted to hurt.
I believe that when people want to hurt themselves it’s a cry to reconnect to their body. The negative thoughts banish us to a dark place where we can’t even feel our body anymore. It’s a weird feeling to have, to feel so much pain and to not be able to feel your body at the same time. It doesn’t really make much sense. The self-hatred shakes the bond with our body. It is a deep yearning that only we can answer for ourselves. Thankfully, I no longer feel like hurting myself. I need this body to walk. I need it to see the animals. I need it to breathe the air. I need it to do so many things I want to do. Hell, I need it because I need me. I am.
If you can live the three minutes for a quick meditation, I bet you can live another three minutes, another ten, another twenty.
I looked to the past and recognized the fact that I had been happiest when I was rooted in my body. I realized after a lot of tears that this reconnection had to involve nature. So I made a pact with myself that I would get outside and go for walks to hear the birds and see the squirrels in the neighborhood. Soon I was going to sleep thinking about the next morning and how I was so lucky to wake up and go outside to see the living creatures walking around. This is hope. This is how hope is born.
Another way to live in the body is by training the mind through meditating. Meditating is a life saver because it quietens my mind’s obsession with thought. I used to roll my eyes at people who spouted the benefits of living in the moment and letting go of the ego. It sounded like exclusive living to me. Something only those who are graced with the light of spirituality can experience (by the way, we all are). But once I shifted my mindset and viewed meditation as an exercise like walking or going to the gym, I started viewing it in a different, less overwhelming way. I just do ten minutes a day, twenty minutes max. I started with three minutes. I downloaded a few meditation apps (Stop, Breathe, and Think and Calm) to help me along and willed myself to sit still. If you can live the three minutes for a quick meditation, I bet you can live another three minutes, another ten, another twenty. I sure hope you do.