ONE BODY, NOW ONE SOUL: HOW I FOUND HAPPINESS AMIDST A MAZE OF DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY
From: Mental Health For Millennials Vol 3: On Happiness. Published by Book Hub Publishing, Galway, Ireland (2019).
What life says we have to live but one dream?
What life says we must trek down one trail? Who says we must?
A darkened heart and dampened soul, A beat-less pulse,
A stiffened smile.
But a deeper meaning, A stronger quest,
A lust for living.
One body now one soul.
One mind now a dozen dreams.
A grey horizon now a shimmering gold.
The sky is bright. The boreen long.
The shoes are filled.
The blood running strong
A Poetic Sensibility
The above poem was first published in my 2018 memoir, Broken Love. I used to wake up and feel awful, I didn’t want to leave the safe haven of my four walls: I didn’t like the tea I made, my car was slow to start and my day would manifest into this utter mess leaving me exhausted, angry and depleted. It wasn’t until I started to read and study books on grief and mental health that I realised that the cause of all this hardship and unpleasantness was me.
When it came to finding the right books on grief, I simply walked into my college library (at the time), searched the computer system and meandered the stacks collecting whatever I could find on the subject. There are a plethora of insightful, informative and engaging books out there that opened both my mind and my heart. I’ve included a bibliography at the end of this chapter to help others who may be on a similar journey. No matter what books I read, it became apparent that before I could heal, I had to change my perspective.
As someone who suffered from anxiety, it often felt like I was in constant fight or flight mode. It was a real struggle to retrain my mind and redirect my thought process. But I did it! One day at a time, until it became my new routine. I would drive to town and repeat out loud what I was grateful for. When I felt myself slip back to negative thoughts, I would remind myself of my family, my friends, my animals, the roof over my head, and the food on my table—everyday things we often take for granted.
The final stage of grief, according to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, is acceptance. Acceptance of what has happened. It’s a relief point, a turning point, if you will. All your hard work on personal development, all those tears shed and dark days amount to the moment you accept that things have changed. Your mind is clearer after that. You’ve a better understanding of what happened, as well as why it happened. When I reached this stage, I felt a genuine sense of pride. I’d finally achieved what I thought impossible. Now, I could actually smile again and mean it. I felt real happiness…that’s when I could begin to rebuild my life out of the rubble left behind by grief and loss.
To give some insight, when I was 15, my older brother, Marcus, was killed in a car accident. A year later, at 16, my dad, Maxie, passed away, too. Losing the most influential men in my life during those formative years was like being tossed out of the safety of a boat and into the unpredictable waves of the stormy sea. It felt like I was drowning at times as I tried to desperately swim and save myself, gasping for air, looking to grab hold of something, anything to keep me afloat. As a young teen, I thought I could swim to safety on my own. But the reality is, we all need to be thrown a line and pulled ashore in the midst of a storm.
It was clear I needed help. But I’d spent years in denial, pretending to be okay when I wasn’t. The day I asked for help, I felt hopeless and helpless. I felt weak, too, like I’d been defeated somehow. But I wasn’t hopeless or helpless. An inner strength rose up, giving me the power to finally say, “I am not okay.”
My life changed drastically after that moment. My mother reminded me that what I was experiencing was not a breakdown (which I thought was happening), instead, I was having a breakthrough. Of all my many fears, the biggest of all was grief. I had to travel that long, dark road where all my fears and loss lay—it was the route I had been avoiding for so long, but it was the road I was meant to take. Google Maps was fed up with re-routing!
My journey through loss and grief was tough, and tougher than I expected. Days were long, tears seemed never-ending and the feeling of desperation was hard to shift but I worked hard on myself. I wrote everyday about what I was feeling, I got professional help and read as much material about grief as I could get my hands on. Ten years after losing my brother and father, I finally felt a sense acceptance. Hallelujah!
Breaking the Cycle
Recently, I felt myself slip back into the darkness. It seemed almost instantaneous. As if I just woke up one morning and had taken 100 steps backwards. The low happened after returning from a magical trip to New York City with my mother. It was wonderful—one of those holidays I will never forget. When I came home, the jet lag was horrendous. I’d be wide awake in the middle of the night. All the feelings I thought I’d dealt with—the emptiness, loneliness and grief— came back again in a torrent of crushing sadness. I rang a friend one morning and started weeping uncontrollably, “I feel like I’m back to that awful place again.”
My heart was heavy. I was depressed, as if a dark cloud loomed over my very being. In 2012, when I first experienced a similar low, I was studying for my Masters but couldn’t face going into a lecture hall full of people. It felt as though my shattered heart was on the outside of my body, visible for all to see. There was an unmitigated sense of useless, failure, as if the whole world was against me. And, every day was the same—empty, angry. Those negative emotions seemed to be manifesting and spreading at an unreasonable rate. That’s when I got help.
I went to counsellors and began opening up about my struggle to those around me. The hardest person to tell is always the person you love the most. For me, that was my mother. But there was an instant relief when I finally shared my feelings with her. From there forward, my mother became an important ally in building me back up. But others eventually became part of my support system, too. Opening up in an honest, engaging way was something I resisted for so long, yet, it was the very thing that helped me heal.
Using my love of communications, I found the best way to reach out was by writing a blog. Talking face to face was difficult and frightening; sharing my hidden pain on the internet felt safer somehow. There was a kind of anonymity to it. Almost a dissociation. It was me, but also, not me. I remember nervously hitting “Post” for the first time in March of 2012 and being completely surprised by the veritable flood of supportive messages from friends and peers—even those I didn’t know. So many understood my grief and were living with similar challenges. It gave me perspective and helped to create a safe haven for mutual understanding. Walking through the hallways of my alma mater, there was a sudden shift. The usual, “Hey, how are you?” now had a greater meaning. That smile as we would swiftly cross paths conveyed a stronger message, too.
I spent the next few years rebuilding my sense of self while also building my career. When depression threatened to creep in again, I was afraid that taking a step back would mean missed opportunities. It became a circus—juggling work and my mental health. When I felt myself slipping, I’d try and catch myself before hitting that bottom through writing and meditation. These coping strategies became vital on my road to acceptance, while also attempting to meet deadlines and attend work events. I had to learn to balance them all. And, it wasn’t always easy as you can probably guess.
Change Your Mind, Change Your Life!
In 2018, I published my first book, Broken Love. It was an account of my journey through loss and grief—a narrative account of losing my brother and father during my teenage years and how those traumas affected my life in the years that followed. Writing the book was cathartic. That’s why I was surprised to feel myself slipping again in 2019. My anxiety returned at such a rapid rate; it became almost uncontrollable. A rash broke out all over my body. My reasoning, overshadowed by the emptiness and loneliness I felt once before in 2012, when I first hit my emotional rock bottom. After making so much progress, it seemed I just couldn’t navigate my way through this renewed darkness.
Friends took notice and began having serious conversations with me. I remember one weekend in London where I became overrun with this panic. The looming sense of dread was suddenly beyond my control. I had to examine the root of these feelings, much of which stem from anxiety. Losing two people who protected me, who I depended on, created a pattern of anxiety. Even though I’m not alone in the world, it can still sometimes feel like I am.
Fearing what has not even happened (and 99% of the time, never does) is a horrible way to live. That’s where gratitude comes to play. It’s how I got back to myself during my recent bout of depression. Like anything else, mental health is a one-day-at-a-time process. It takes a lifetime of consistent, sustained effort. A lifetime of being thankful for each and every breath.
I first learned of gratitude (and practising it) when a good friend handed me a copy of The Secret in 2012. Reading that book was another one of those life changing moments. It taught me to retrain my thinking. It’s one of the most basic of things yet something we take for granted. Retraining our thoughts to change our perspective is easy and simple to integrate into everyday life and can make a real difference. So, starting right now, get out a pen and paper. You can also use your phone, but I find writing to be more effective (it also gets us away from technology for a few moments). Write down the people you are grateful for. Even those who are no longer with us. Why are you grateful for them? How have they impacted your life for the better? What have they taught you that has made a positive difference? Who makes you laugh every time you see them? Who knows how to cheer you up? Who gives you butterflies?
Next, write down the possessions you are grateful for. For example, the car you saved for and now own. Maybe it’s the designer bag you got yourself as a “well done.” Today, I mark special occasions with an item. When I get a new job or cross a milestone, I show gratitude by treating myself to something special. Mark my own progress. In 2015, another pull back to depression resulted in my leaving Dublin and moving back home. I cried for 24 hours solid and couldn’t stop. My mother watched in desperation, not knowing what to do to help. She took me into Galway City the following morning. I was still crying. A friend of hers sat down with me for a chat and that was the very hour I started making sense of things again. After that moment, though I was still upset, I was no longer crying. My mother, “Mam,” took me shopping to mark this new milestone. She splurged, too, buying me a pair of designer boots that I still have, love and wear to this day. Every time I put those boots on, I smile, remembering my triumph. The boots may look like boots, but to me, they signal a breakthrough on my journey. During my recent bought of depression in 2019, I took out those boots again to remind myself that I can and will be victorious over depression and anxiety. That’s why it’s important to mark milestones and special days in some way—they’re road signs you put up yourself, leading you to future success.
Another big coping strategy? Smile. As unusual as it sounds, smiling more can make you feel better, even when you don’t. Find that thing, that person, that TV show that makes you smile. Laughing is good, too. It helps remind you that it is okay to feel happy even if you’ve been through a hard time.
Get outside and move your body. Getting some fresh air does a world of good, as does reconnecting with nature. Walk in the great outdoors. Stretch those legs. If you don’t want to go alone then join (or start) a walking club. Get friends and family together, pick a day and go.
Giving yourself a pat on the back is another important part of living with gratitude. And, I mean a real pat. Go ahead and physically pat your own shoulder. Be sure to say, “Well done,” out loud, too. Try meditation. I mentioned at the start of this chapter that my anxiety causes my mind to race uncontrollably at times, making it to shut out all kinds of negatives. There’s always something that will get in the way of your time. But you have to make time. Believe me, 10 minutes a day will pay a lifetime’s worth of benefits. I take 10-15 minutes using “Guided Meditation” on YouTube and follow that. I’m always happily surprised at how effective mere minutes can be at improving my overall day.
Be the Change!
Practising gratitude by making it part of your everyday isn’t an easy thing to do. It takes mindful effort, but you are worth it. Yes, you are! When I begin to neglect the art of gratitude, I can feel myself slip to a sad place again. It’s like training for a marathon—if you stop, you will not be as prepared. So, keep “training!” Remember, at the end of the day, we are all only human.
Boydell, Kate. Death and How to Survive It: A Unique Practical and Uplifting Guide to Coming to Terms with the Loss of Your Partner. 2005, Vermilion, UK.
Byrne, Rhonda. The Secret. 2006, Simon and Schuster, UK.
Kubler Ross, Elizabeth, Kessler, David. On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages. 2005, Simon and Schuster, UK.
Scully, Meghann. Broken Love: My Journey Through Loss and Grief. 2018, Book Hub Publishing, Galway.
Wallbank, Susan. Facing Grief: Bereavement and the Young Adult. 2003, Lutterworth Press, Cambridge, UK.
*Volume 3 of Mental Health for Millennials (On Happiness) was edited by Dr. Rebecca Housel. Series Editors are Dr. Phil Noone and Dr. Niall MacGiolla Bhuí.