2016 has been a very interesting and revelatory year for me. I started the year out filled with hope and a standard list of New Years resolutions aimed at making a more engaging and prosperous new year. But I was quickly sidelined from these plans when I suffered from a severe depressive low.
My battle with depression dates back over a decade and I’ve suffered on and off over the years. Around July 2015 I started to notice some changes in my behaviour that are generally reflective of depression but I thought they’d subside. However, I was sadly mistaken. Instead, the depression got worse culminating in some very dark times in my life come January, when I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.
For those who aren’t quite as familiar, Bipolar Disorder is a mood disorder that is characterized by significant and elevated mood swings. These mood swings can take the form of hyper or hypo-mania, in which you exhibit increased energy and may appear to be overly happy. Doesn’t sound so bad, right? In fact, a lot of people who suffer from Bipolar Disorder struggle to seek help or stay on their medications because they don’t want to give up their manic episodes. It’s like a high. You feel greater than great, and sometimes you have grandiose thoughts and feelings of invincibility.
However, the longer mania lasts the more taxing it becomes. Your sleeping schedule becomes erratic and you start to need less and less sleep, oftentimes relying on 2-3 hours per night at best. You begin to make impulsive and reckless decisions without regard for consequences. But sadly, consequence always rear it’s ugly head, leading to a negative flow of emotions that lead to a depressive low.
Depressive lows for someone with Bipolar Disorder can be incredibly intense. The low generally follows extended episodes of mania when you start to deal with the fallout of your actions. Suddenly you are no longer invincible or special, instead you start to question your worth and your merit as a friend, co-worker or partner.
Slowly you start to withdraw from what you love because you don’t want to have to fake happiness around others. This leads to feeling further segregated and isolated from your regular life, adding to the negative cycle of thoughts and feelings, skewing your perception of yourself and others. You start to think that you are a burden to those around you and that they’re better off without you.
These thoughts of self-deprecation begin to ruminate and cycle through your brain unbroken. No matter how many times people try to tell you to just think differently, or to remind yourself that this is a temporary thought, you can’t do anything to break it. It simply overwhelms you and you cannot take any other train of thought into consideration. And finally there comes a point where you no longer care to make it better, you just want it to get worse and worse.
To me this depressive low feels like being trapped under water. It is very suffocating and it feels like the world is shrinking around you until you are the only thing left. In my case, the situation got much worse. Without going into specifics, I got to a place where the only thing left, in my mind, was to end my suffering on my own terms. And the worst part of it was that this thought came about so calmly and so logically. It didn’t feel out of place. It just seemed like the natural course of action that had to be taken.
In March, during my lowest low, I attempted to end my own life. Thankfully, some good friends intervened and saved my life.
What followed for the first couple days after I was released from hospital was anger. People would tell me how important I was to them and how I needed to be there for them, and this actually hurt me. I felt like people weren’t seeing the pain and weren’t understanding the unbearable anguish that they were asking me to endure.
But slowly, as I came off a medication that was negatively impacting my mood and started to rise above this low, I began to realize how grateful I was to my friends and how grateful I was to just be alive.
And so I arrive at my updated point of view – is my happiness a social construct?
This came about to me because I realized that a lot of the factors that lead me to my depression and that continued to ruminate inside of me were thoughts and questions of my success, or lack thereof, and where I was at in this juncture of my adult life versus where I wanted to be and where society thought I should be.
Just think about how you measure your happiness? What considerations do you take into account to ascertain your happiness and your worth as a productive and engaged member of your family or your community?
I bet the first thing you did was think about a list of accomplishments that align to where you are in life and how old you are and compared it to where similar people are in their lives. We often look to others and our community to determine our successes in adulthood. And this is where we fall into a negative cycle of living by someone else’s standards and abandoning our own.
Sure, everyone wants certain successes in life and certain securities, such as, owning a home, a car, and having financial stability. But these things come at different points in people’s lives. Not all these things are checked off by 30, for example. Some of these goals may be met a bit later in life. And that’s okay.
If we are to move away from socially constructed happiness and embrace our own intrinsic needs of fulfillment and joy, we need to really take a step back and think about what happiness truly is for us on an individualistic basis. We need to focus on what brings us – and us alone – pleasure in our lives. And amazingly we might start to realize that happiness can be found in the smallest of places.
Today, for example, I ventured out into the city with nothing more than my leather bound notebook and a pen. I spent time alone just writing down my thoughts and releasing some of my long held emotional baggage. It was very cathartic and it took a weight off my shoulder. The moment I realized that I had finally rid myself of some thoughts that were deeply embedded in my mind for the past few months I realized that I was able to smile, truthfully, without forcing it. It came naturally. And in that moment I realized I was experiencing a moment of happiness that was specific for me and just for me. It was awesome!
“I remember one morning getting up at dawn, there was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling? And I remember thinking to myself: So, this is the beginning of happiness. This is where it starts. And of course there will always be more. It never occurred to me it wasn’t the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment. Right then”
The above quote has resonated with me a lot over the years and its meaning has recently circled back around in my life. The idea that we’re always searching for happiness and always waiting for it to arrive in our lives but yet we often overlook that what we’re living, in the here and now, can be happiness.
Honestly, taking control of my own happiness and reminding myself that it can be found even in the quietest moments has helped release me from some of the darkness that I felt within. It’s taking these small moments – these little victories – and savouring them that allows me to feel better about myself and in charge of my happiness.
I have to acknowledge, however, that this isn’t always easy. Those of us suffering from mental illness aren’t always able to hold onto this control. Sometimes the negative thoughts and emotions can be so overwhelming that we feel we have no control. It has taken me countless hours of therapy, several different combinations of medications, and adopting a healthier lifestyle that has allowed me to regain control. And it wasn’t easy.
As this is Mental Health Week in Canada, I want to remind everyone the importance of seeking help when needed. And to remind people that don’t suffer from a mental illness, the best thing you can do is be open and receptive to your loved ones who are experiencing issues. Opening up the dialogue and ending the stigma of mental illness can do a world of wonder for those who are suffering with it. You could even be unknowingly saving someone’s life!
So this week, please use the hashtag #MentalHealthWeek on social media to share your support or your experiences with mental illness and be more open and inviting to others to help stimulate the conversation in your families, communities and workplaces.
And remember, we all deserve happiness and it is ours for the taking!