For the past year or so, I’ve been losing myself. I’ve always found this saying curious, because it’s not like I’m walking down the street one day and drop myself, or forget where I put myself like keys. But I’ve been gradually losing a sense of who I am, along with my values, passions, and so on. This is partly because for so long, I’ve been living in some sort of alternate reality. A reality that I don’t even know is reality, and that if it is, it’s a skewed, distorted and out of balance perception of it. Basically like the first German Expressionist films (just watch The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, 1920 — its disproportionate, twisted world is subjective to that of the tormented, unstable characters, and I relate to it). I talk more about my detachment/dissociation in my previous blog post here.
Anyway, I have found myself retreating so deeply into this tenebrous, clouded cage that I really haven’t been living a life. Now this isn’t new, it’s been happening since 2008 and I’ve almost killed myself because of it. However, although I’m always in that dark, clouded cage, it’s like fragments of myself have been insidiously breaking off and falling through the bars to crumble into non-existence. Hence, I’ve been losing parts of myself for so long, that it was only a few weeks ago when I realised that I was almost completely gone.
The good thing about being stripped back until you feel like you’ve reached the bottom is that you’re faced with a decision: You can either let yourself continue to rot until you die (which I was doing), unless you quickly kill yourself to end whatever this illusion of life is (which I’ve almost done many times), OR you can decide that it’s gone too far, the only way now is up, and only you have the power to make that happen. Now, I’ve made this last decision more times than I’ve made the decision to end my life. And I reckon that’s worth being noted, because it’s no small feat and I intend to keep making that decision for as long as possible.
The Optimism Bias and Gratitude
After having an overdue breakdown the other week (that needed to happen for me to realise I need to pick myself up, make a change and move forward), the next day I attempted to ‘embrace positivity’. I tried an affirmation, saying out loud, “I love my life.” Wow… I could hardly even get the last word out, it was the biggest lie I had ever uttered (right up there with “I’m fine”). So, I’m going to change this affirmation to, “I love some parts of my life.” And go from there. No one can ever love every aspect of their life anyway, surely. Saying I love parts of my life prompts me to think about those parts, which in turn prompts the Reticular Activating System (RAS, a kind of ‘filter’) in my brain to be more attuned to positive thinking, prioritising information with positive aspects and making this the pattern, rather than the default mode of negative thinking. It doesn’t have to be big things, and I don’t even have to love some of those things, I can just like them.
Obviously it goes without saying that I love my family. That is a big one, and one I am very lucky to have. I also love being surrounded by, and having easy access to music (having my family made up of musicians). I love having the ability to play music if I feel like it. I love being able to write, whether it be something like this, songs, poems, letters, musings, or just in my journal. And then it comes to things we usually take for granted like loving being able to see. If I couldn’t see, I couldn’t see my family or people’s smiles, I couldn’t see the way the afternoon sun shines through the windows, or the moonlight, I couldn’t see the words I’m typing, the funny things my cats do, or Jamie from Outlander 😉, I couldn’t see the ocean, or even just the colour blue — the list is infinite. I love being able to hear, so I can hear music, people’s voices, and the funny expressions little kids come out with. I love having essential oils to smell and loved ones to hold, as well as access to clean water and quality food to taste and nourish. I love having a roof over my head, and the list goes on. I may not love my life as a whole or enjoy it, but that simple statement of loving parts of my life, opens up another whole dimension that I need to focus on more than I do, which is a step towards loving my life. Because I really am incredibly lucky. And I may be sick, but I do have some beautiful people helping me.
It’s easy to say I hate my life because of how much pain and discomfort I’m in constantly, because I’m not well enough to do the things I’ve been waiting to do for 11 years; and to pick out the negatives — like even though I can see, my eyes still give me difficulties; my gut can’t tolerate most foods; hearing gives me headaches and I have tinnitus which I’d prefer not to hear; I have a family but I’m a burden to them, so I shouldn’t inflict myself on them, etc. etc. etc., I could go on for hours. But it is not productive in the least and leads to incredibly detrimental long-term states.
Living in the past, regretting events or even replaying and picking apart fleeting conversations causes depression, shame and in my case, self-hatred. I have to keep reminding myself that living back there in anguish is stopping me from getting the most out of life now. We all have to do the best with what we’ve got, and adapt to our individual situations. Thinking of what you love and are grateful for, not just occasionally, but every day, is one of the most important ways to get to that happier state of mind and health. I have a little gratitude journal, but if I do remember about it, I often don’t find myself with the energy before bed to write in it. So if using a gratitude journal isn’t for you, then as cheesy as it may be, try putting small reminders around or in your room to think about the things you love and are grateful for, like photos, quotes, etc. Even if it’s thinking of a type of plant or bird, something nice someone said, a movie, an artwork, a colour, a song, a cat video, your favourite food, a phase of the moon or a comfy jumper on a cold day; they’re shifting your mind to having that optimism bias. There is nothing too small to be grateful for. See how small you can go, and you’ll find yourself loving and appreciating way more parts of your life than you knew possible.
(Note: to do this, it’s a good idea to take a break from screens and social media, and let yourself go for a walk or just sit without your phone for a while. You don’t always need a distraction!)
I was recently at the beach for a short break away, and while I was there, if someone had told me I could go anywhere in the world that I wanted right then, I would have chosen to stay right where I was. That was where I 100% wanted to be in that moment, and I am so grateful for that feeling.
I’m also trying to shift my mindset around medical appointments. Instead of going there and associating it with illness, thinking, “I’m here because I’m sick,” I’ll associate it with health, thinking instead, “I’m here because I’m getting well. I’m going to be healthy.”
Breaking away from the “sick girl” image, and building self–confidence
For many years, I’ve tried to make the conscious effort to not let my illness define me. But when my days are consumed with nothing but constantly feeling ill and in pain, and filled with medications and medical appointments, it can happen whether I’m making that conscious effort or not. And I’m not going to beat myself up about it, it’s understandable, and I’ve made efforts to change it. My illness is a reality. However, I felt more needed to be done so that I wasn’t identified by others as well as myself as “the sick girl.” So earlier this year, I decided that although I have to put up with feeling shitty on the inside (for now), I have control over how I look and present myself. Over the years, I’ve taken on the “sick person” persona partly by the way I dressed generally. Obviously, there’s no problem with that because the reality is that I am sick, and my body is intensely uncomfortable, so I want to make it as comfortable as possible on the outside, seeing as I have control of that part. I still dressed up if I went somewhere for a more social occasion, but that’s very rare.
Taking a little bit more pride in my appearance doesn’t mean being uncomfortable, though. I still make sure I’m as comfortable as possible, because that is the priority. But I often wished I could look a bit nicer just in my everyday; and it took me ages to realise that I actually can. I don’t “dress up” – I just make a little more effort. And I still don’t make the effort everyday. But when I do, it’s my little act of self-love for myself, to help with my confidence and ridding myself of that “sick girl” image. I don’t plan on being sick forever, I have plans for my twenties and don’t want my illness to take over this decade of my life, too. If I dress more positively, I might appear as more positive, feel more positive, make others feel more positive, and just generally attract more positive, non-illness aspects in my life. It may be a long shot, but anything is worth a try. Because I do care what I think of myself, and that I don’t just sink into this hole of illness, as it is way too easy to do. I plan on getting out of the mud, and if I cake myself in it, I’ll just be engulfed faster. So instead I plan on getting the positives out of the mud (see my post about things I’ve learned on my journey here), and use it as a, I don’t know, healing bath or rejuvenating face mask instead of a toxic sinking swamp!
I’m not going to lie, making more of an effort with my appearance didn’t help my physical symptoms, not that I expected it to. However, it has made me feel like a bit more of a human being. Someone who could potentially be a part of society rather than hidden away as an insignificant sick person. I feel like people might pity me less, which is always nice; but most importantly, it has helped me not just accept illness as a defining trait. Instead of dressing to accommodate my illness, I’m dressing more to accomodate my style — the style that I have as part of being a person who is so much more than a disease. Because I am strong, and although illness has made me weaker, ironically, it has made me so much stronger.
I am always doing so much work internally to ensure my authentic self/identity, confidence, integrity and self-love is true to the core, so this surface-level factor is the last to emerge.
Give yourself a break
When my symptoms feel all too overwhelming and I just can’t function, it’s frustrating, but I need to tell myself it’s okay. When my pain or anxiety, for example, become too intense, taking all my attention and stopping me from being able to do anything at all, I breathe and tell myself that I’m so used to it that I can handle anything. I don’t stress out about it, making it worse. I find it’s best to just accept it and say calmly, “Okay, my pain is crippling. Hello pain, you old chum. You’re not going to be with me forever, but for now, I’ll do my best to deal with you.” Sometimes it can help to address the pain and focus on it going away, channeling healing energy into it, but I also like to take myself away from the situation.
Often, it consumes me so that I can’t do anything, and just have to brave the storm. But if I can, I close my eyes, breathe in and out through the nose into my tummy slowly, and go to my calm, happy place. For me, I go to the ocean when there’s a wave coming towards me, and I dive underneath it. Suddenly the crashing sounds from above are silenced and everything is still. I hold onto this precious moment and just suspend, body stretched out in blue tranquility, underneath and away from everything that’s going on above. I feel the smoothness of the water and how it supports my body, and I take in the peaceful, undisturbed seclusion… A little longer. There’s no measure of time here. Then I push off the sand below me and let my body float up towards the surface of the water. This is the next best part, as I raise my head up, open my eyes and see the blue sky rippling just beyond the water. It’s being ruffled by the water in front of it, as if I’m looking at it through crystal. Looking up from down here, everything is glistening from the light of the sun. Now my head emerges through the surface where the ocean meets the sky, and everywhere is clear. I’m lying on a soft blanket of blue, surrounded by another blanket of blue, and I breathe in the fresh salt air. That’s the place I go to calm myself.
…Or take an Epsom salts bath. If there’s anything that helps, do it. Just make sure you bathe in warm water and magnesium and not your sorrows. At least not every time. As I like to say when things are especially bad, “You’ve been through this many times before, and you can do it again.” I wish there weren’t so many “agains”, but there you have it.
Important: less pressure for positivity
I spend so long wondering things like, “Why do I have to feel this way?”, “Why can’t I feel happy?”, “Why does nothing help me and why can’t anyone help me?” It’s not even self-pity, it’s just honest questions. And after a while, sometimes endless months, I always come back to the fact that the only person who can help me, get me out of the rut and who ultimately has control over my feelings and happiness, is me. And I am self-sabotaging. If I am the only person who can help myself, why would I impede that?
Well, it’s true there are subconscious negative thought patterns that have made themselves at home inside my brain. But, there are also conscious things I can do to help take control.
Now, I can already feel myself internally rolling my eyes. I have thought all this stuff before, and whenever I’m reminded of anything along these nauseating “positivity”, or “hopeful” lines when I’m not in the right headspace, it angers me to the point of toxic internal rage. Then it just depresses me more because I just can’t make myself feel that way. And so I feel worse. My logic is this: if I have done all this “positivity” stuff before, made a grand declaration that “I control my happiness, and I choose to be happy – it’s that simple”, but then it only lasts a few days tops and I’m back to suicidal depression, guilt, angst, etc., then I figured trying to “stay positive” (ugh) was a lost cause. Dare someone say, “You just need to stay positive!”, may they Rest In Peace.
But I was putting too much pressure on myself. I always do this. It’s all or nothing for these kinds of things with me. If I’m going to do it, it needs to be perfect. If I make a decision, I want to make it happen there and then. If I decide on a new routine to help with my sleep and feeling more like a person, I have to start and succeed immediately, no room for the slightest slip-up or adjustment. If I decide I need to pull myself out of the toxic mud swamp I’m drowning in, then I need to do it right away, to make the most of that headspace while it’s there, and then it needs to stay that way. And when it doesn’t, it means I didn’t do a good enough job, I was hopeless to think I could try anyway, why would I bother when it’s obvious I can’t be helped, and I spiral back down into depression, shame and self-deprecation. The thing is, because I can be an “all or nothing” type, I also feel that I have to be really happy, or not at all. And that if my happiness doesn’t last, then I’ve failed.
I’ve learnt that if we doggedly try to pursue happiness, it can sometimes just set us up for disappointment.
But, I realised that I can be content for now with just not feeling like I don’t deserve to live. Sure I can decide to be happy, but after so many years of depression, it’s never going to happen overnight or even over months. The depression isn’t even going to go away completely. I have to accept this if I want any chance at happiness. Depression will always be there, but if I can start with not feeling suicidal, that’s a really important, positive, big step forward. And I need to give myself credit for that. Still feeling depressed, even deeply, is OKAY. It doesn’t mean that I’ve failed if I didn’t go from suicidal to happy overnight or that it didn’t stick. Of course it’s not going to! And, that’s OKAY. It’s a process. All I have to do is a little something, no matter how small, everyday to inch myself closer to long-term happiness and self-love. And if I have a bad day and can’t bring myself to do that, then I’ll let it be and won’t beat myself up about it. But even if it’s just making myself listen to a positive or semi-positive song when I don’t really feel like it, that’s something. Self-love is a constant journey that we’re on all our lives. We don’t “achieve it” and then stop. Rather, the longer we’re on the journey, and on the right track of the journey, the better we get to know the roads, and the more comfortable we feel.
Just like jumping into bed with someone at first superficial glance is hardly going to make for a healthy long-term relationship, our relationship with happiness and self-love can’t be on the quick, superficial level either. Relationships take time and work if you want them to last, and you’ve got to put the effort in from the inside out. And, just like fights happen in relationships, so do bad days with positivity. You get the picture. One fight doesn’t end in divorce, and one (or even 10) bad days doesn’t mean a failed “positivity mission.” It’s not about having no bad days, it’s about gradually increasing the amount of good days. I’m not going to beat myself up for having a bad day, or week, or month. These things happen, happiness and a positive attitude is just a work in progress. But at least it is progress, no matter how slow. And it’s about pulling yourself back up after that bad day or month. That is what matters.
Here are some other little things you can do each day to inch yourself closer to a better tomorrow. (Key word being “better”, not “best”. And if it’s not “better”, a better day will come):
1. Go for a stroll – with no distractions – just breathe deeply and take in your surroundings. Choose ten things you can see, five things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and something you can taste. Or do more of each. Just be present in each exact moment. Take note of your footsteps and how the ground feels, how the air feels, what the textures and colours look like. There’s so much beauty that we’re missing out on everyday.
2. While being present is so important (and an everyday struggle for everyone), having goals and aspirations for the future, and visualising what you want, is also crucial. Think about what you want to achieve, whether it’s travel or career based, etc. Then, write an affirmative note simply stating the fact that this thing is going to happen. At the end, write “no doubts” and place the note somewhere you’ll see it often, like on a window. Now you’ll have it on your mind and be able to visualise it coming to fruition everyday, without leaving the present for a while as you spend time trying to think about the future you want and perhaps even stressing about it. You can see the note each time you walk by, feel positive about it, and continue on with your day. Things like this also help your RAS in the brain allow you to see more information that’s relevant to this dream, thus opening more opportunities.
3. Embrace alone time – getting to know, love and accept yourself. Start loving your flaws, quirks, awkwardness, vulnerability, etc. Understand yourself, and it doesn’t matter if others don’t understand you. Because if you’re just being yourself – the self that you love – you will feel fulfilled.
4. Remind yourself to smile and laugh, and also to stand upright. Posture and facial expressions have more of an impact than we realise, even if it’s subconscious.
5. Write a letter or postcard to a friend or loved one. They’ll appreciate it – not enough letters are sent from person to person anymore – and you’ll feel good doing it.
6. Or write a letter to yourself! Just like you’d tell someone else their attributes and boost them up, tell yourself what you love about you, the things you’ve accomplished or endured with strength, your attributes and talents, etc. Then you can refer back to it and read it when you’re having a bad day and need that friend to boost your spirits.
7. Do something generous for someone else without expecting anything in return. All parties involved get an oxytocin and dopamine release! Science is showing generosity is the biggest positive emotional response for someone to rewire that limbic/amygdala wound-up part of the brain (emotional/primal area associated with things like anxiety, fear, etc.).
8. Use colours to create a map of your emotions on paper. Be compassionate towards yourself. Any emotion you have is worth your attention.
9. Write a list, of anything (positive). Your favourite films or songs, a list of blue things, things you’re grateful for, interesting words, things you find beautiful, things about yourself you love, things about others you love, or even a list about potential lists you could make!
10. Make a playlist of music that makes you happy. Choose pieces from a happy time in your life, linked to good memories. Music that makes you smile, and dance. I know I can’t stand the thought of playing happy music when I’m really low. But if you start with a neutral song/piece, then gradually work up the happiness factor, it will help!
11. Make a playlist on YouTube of videos that make you laugh, then refer back. You can’t go wrong with cat videos, but I’ve got a suggestion: type in “cockatiel singing Totoro”, and you won’t be disappointed. Or just watch the film Totoro; but the bird singing the theme tune will make your day.
12. Essential oils. I use dōTERRA oils and love them. Find your favourites and rub them on pressure points and diffuse them.
13. Watch a funny, lighthearted TV show
14. If you can, play a musical instrument as often as possible. Sing! Teach yourself a piece on the piano. Or do something else you love, like baking, art, reading, sewing, etc. Just make time for yourself.
15. Last but definitely not least, put some time aside to go somewhere with a mirror by yourself. Take your time, breathe deeply and look yourself directly in the eyes. Now, put your hand on your chest just under your throat and say to yourself while looking into your eyes, “I love you.” This is a self-love practice from Louise Hay’s book Mirror Work. It may feel strange or silly, but keep going, keeping eye contact with yourself. It’s normal to feel uncomfortable, as well as any other emotions that arise. Now see yourself as a child. Envision your sweet, innocent child self in front of you in the mirror, who is impossible not to love and have empathy for. Breathe deeply and say again, “I love you.” Whatever you feel, whether you laugh or you’re angry or even in tears, let yourself feel that with love, and without judgement. This is a practice to come back to and keep doing until you can see your authentic self, and love and accept that person.
So through practicing self-love, gratitude and generosity, I’m trying to teach myself to live with the optimism bias, changing my internal dialogue. We’ve all heard it before and perhaps even rolled our eyes. Because it is way easier said than done. But just because I’ve tried before and failed, doesn’t mean I won’t keep keeping at it. It can’t happen overnight — changing thought patterns is a long and difficult process with ups and downs.
Perhaps what I’ve said here is old news, but it never hurts to have a reminder. And if this has helped even just one person, then that’s something big, and positive that I can be grateful for.
It is worth noting that I wrote most of this article a few weeks ago on a positive whim after a long and serious, even suicidal, depressive low. I hadn’t felt “positive” in as long as I could remember. But even within that day, the positivity didn’t last. There is a never a day that goes by where I don’t feel depression, anxiety and anger. But on this day, I had more positivity than I had had in a long time. However, the next day it had diminished significantly, and a day or so after that, I had an issue with the port implanted in my chest when I was getting it flushed. It was about exactly something that I get anxiety about, and so this sent me on a downward spiral of intense anxiety of course, but also depression. As they always do, my thoughts automatically went to the fact that just as I had managed to try and pick myself up and make a change in my mindset, of course something like this had to happen. That was just my luck, it happens every single time. I felt stupid for ever writing this article, like everything I had said was a lie. I tried to tell myself the things I have written to help, but I felt it didn’t apply to me in some way.
However, there was a tiny glimpse in the back of my mind of the fact that being able to be positive is knowing that you can’t feel like that all the time. It’s giving yourself permission to have bad days, but knowing that they will pass. So I let myself be. I felt horrible, and for valid reasons. And that lasted almost a week, when I felt that wave of positivity again. Then it went away again, and in the afternoon I tried to sleep it off. I woke up in the evening and felt so incredibly angry about everything, and anxious. But I eventually found my way back to a mostly happy mind and attitude again. And as I say, that is what counts. And that’s life. I didn’t feel like I could post this article before now, because I thought it wouldn’t have been genuine if I posted it when I didn’t believe what I had written.
But it will always be genuine, because we are all constantly exploring the ups and downs of positivity, with the aim of achieving more ups than downs. Now I know that those parts of me that I “lost”, needed to go in order for me to grow back other parts. And I can choose which parts I want to grow and nurture, building the person who I want to be, and, as always, needing the darkness in order to see the light.
Who knows what tomorrow will bring, but I will do what I can each day to keep an optimism bias and fill myself with self-love and gratitude. It’s a long process, but so worth it. So here’s to that, for all of us.