That is how long it has been.
Two years ago I experienced the worst depression of my life. Sometimes it feels like it’s been 10 years and other times it feels like just yesterday. Depression and mental illness is an ever-living reality for me, just like it is for many people. Recovery is something that I invest time in every day because relationships, exercise, self-acceptance and meaningful action IS my recovery.
Sometime I will write a post about the five things that tanked my mental health. But for today, here are four things I have learned that have contributed to my recovery:
1. Healing does not mean that the memories won’t come back… or that you won’t feel the pain anymore. I used to believe that healing meant having peaceful-happy feelings and experiencing no-more-pain. Rather, I have learned that healing means that you are now able to experience (rather than restrict) the full range of feelings that life throws your way. You are open, rather than rigid. You are connected (to yourself, your present, and to those who love you) rather than isolated.
My father was an alcoholic. Growing up with him seemed to prime my system to be on high alert for threats to my personal boundaries. At times, I have interpreted things that my wife and other friends said as threats to my safety. I have learned to listen for the heart (the intent of the other person) even when the words or situation feels uncomfortable. I watch their behavior and how the other person treats me. If they treat me with respect, then I can trust their words.
Sometimes I still get angry. I still feel on edge now and then. Other times, I still feel stuck in anxious or depressed thought patterns. And receiving love can be difficult. I have learned to breathe and welcome the image, the pain, the anxiety or whatever the moment presents to me. Memories, pain and emotional turmoil might be uncomfortable and even painful. But it is not too difficult to endure. That was just what my mind told me.
2. I have also learned to love myself, for the first time. I’m over 50 and I have spent a great deal of time loathing myself. It took me a long time to like my reflection in the mirror or to see much good in myself. I spent years trying to change myself, organize my time, reinvent myself, become an author, become super-fit, and save others. It was exhausting and nearly ended me.
I have abandoned self-help and that was the most helpful thing I could ever have done. In fact, I can say that I like who I am and I don’t want to fix myself anymore. Sure, I have goals and I am working to have a better life… but I know that won’t make me any happier than I already am.
A friend of mine, Steve Austin, recently told me in a podcast interview that his wife was advised by her Psychiatrist to get rid of all of her self-help, parenting and relationship books. One of the unintended byproducts of fix-yourself books is that you will end up feeling never good-enough. There is no point when you feel you can breath and accept yourself. In fact, the message of Self-Help is that you are not okay. One of the greatest things I have learned is to accept myself, my past, my wounds, my needs, my boundaries, my baggage. Acceptance does not mean laziness or avoiding work. It means the opposite: making room for all of who you are – what you can change, what you cannot and all of the rest. And it means accepting that you can do something and then you do it.
Even men experience feelings of self-loathing. Society sends messages all of the time that our bodies are not okay. Just look at any fitness magazine. Slick pages full of smiling shirtless six-packs. Is happiness really found in a six pack? Nope. But it sure sells magazines and fitness memberships.
3. I have abandoned goal setting. For me, setting goals and building ‘big dreams’ led to wishful thinking and avoidance of the hard work that life, relationships and maturity involve. I spent years chasing my dreams while avoiding my marriage, my need to heal and anything that involved difficult discussions. Goal-setting was simply a way for me to try and fix or fixate on myself… rather than accept myself and the work that I needed to do. Instead of goals, I find that understanding and pursuing your values… or your life-themes has been freeing.
I have given up thinking “I will be happy when…” because the “when” never comes. There is always another goal, a better habit or something else to fix. You may have a set of home fix-it projects, but you are not a fix-it project. Fixing yourself won’t lead to loving yourself… it will just lead you to one more thing (or 10 more things!?!) that needs to be fixed. To me the important thing is beginning with a belief of loving and caring for yourself, rather than trying to fix yourself before you feel good about yourself.
One of the practices that supports me to care for and love myself is meditation. Learning to be with myself, all of my thoughts and experiences, has changed me. There are many helpful resources on meditation and I encourage you to investigate it for yourself.
My values or life themes guide my decision making. For a set of worksheets that can help you to understand your values, click here.
4. I have learned that what makes life worth living is pursuing what is life-giving for you. It may be art, music, nature, volunteering, pets, fitness or whatever. For me, “life-giving” experiences mean creativity, honest connection, wearing hats, writing, loving my family, being regularly active, and learning to have a healthy relationship with food.
Life-giving means listening and really seeing. It means observing deeply and sensing. It means feeling and accepting love. It means talking about conflict, pain, misunderstanding, tension and other hard stuff. It means creating something genuine. And it means letting go of expectations.
Every day I work to be life-giving and to experience what is life-giving. Sometimes this means that I do things that I feel very anxious about, or that push me out of my comfort zone. Speaking in public, doing a podcast interview, standing up for what I believe are things that challenge me. Just because you feel anxious does not mean that you should avoid something.
Every day is valuable. One of the greatest gifts that you have is this moment, right now. In fact, it is really all that you have. Chester Bennington’s recent suicide reminds me of the importance of living now, and finding happiness in the everyday.
There is an adventure to life: When we are open to our experience, to love, to hurt, to knowing, and to discovery. Every day is a world, each person is a world. Adventure is not necessarily found 1000 miles from home. It can be found no further than our doorstep or front yard.
If you enjoyed this article, I welcome you to read some of my other related work:
I write articles that talk about the kind of changes I am trying to make in my own life. I hope that my writing also helps you. My topics include addiction and mental health recovery, relationships, and personal growth. I work as an Addiction Therapist, an Editor for the Good Men Project and freelance writer, and Adjunct Professor at City University, Edmonton. But what is most important is that I have a family and I am in recovery from depression and anxiety. My mental health experiences are part of my personal University degree, but they do not define me.
I hope to inspire you, to inform you and on occasion to entertain you. But most of all, I want to connect with you. Sign up for my blog if you want to receive the latest and best of my writing. If you like what I have to say, please share my work with your friends.
If you like my writing, you can click here to vote for my page on Psych Central’s list of mental health blogs.
Keep it Real
Photo by Georgie Pauwels