Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Happiness Vessel

A little story about me... at various times in my life, I've had issues with depression. I believe, but may be wrong here, that I was only ever officially diagnosed with depression in childhood, and that ever after--those times I bothered to see someone, that is--it was always called something else, like adjustment disorder or something like that. Regardless, I was given absolutely no coping strategies as a child, no tools of self-awareness so that I wasn't caught broadside later on, nothing helpful at all. (Whatever issues I still have with THAT whole experience, we'll leave out.) But that's not the story I'm telling you. This story takes place in my very early 20s, beginning with my senior year of college.

I was living a 45-minute drive away from my university and commuting each day. My job--one of them--was almost as long a drive in the opposite direction, which means my job--one of them--and my classes were nearly as far apart from each other as you can get in this, the smallest state. I was living by myself in a really cute apartment--I'll give it that--but before that, I'd been living with a boyfriend, and the not-living-together had not been my choice. My apartment, which admittedly was really very cute, was in an old, old house, and when the winter winds blew they moved my curtains, because the windows were drafty and the house had no insulation. My heating bill was about $150 per month (in the early 90s!) and that was just to stay alive, not be warm or anything. Gas was cheap then, so I'd get into my car and drive around just to run the heat. It's good gas was cheap, because I was spending an awful lot of time driving: back and forth to work, or other work, or, for a time, other work--for a stretch there I had three jobs--and back and forth to school, where I was carrying full-time credits while, at times, working 30 hours per week.

I was sad. I was cold. I was exhausted. Sometimes, driving back to the city from class, I'd approach the infamous (around here) Thurbers Avenue curve and think, If I just got into a little accident, I'd get to rest for a little bit, and the hospital would be warm, and they'd feed me. Okay, I thought this more than "sometimes." And lack of coping strategies or not, I knew this wasn't a good thing. So I decided I would notice at least one thing each day that made me happy and write it down. It could be a small thing, but I had to notice it, and I had to write it down. I wrote down things like "had a dollar to get coffee between work and school" and "buds on the trees" and "the snow is melting" and "got a letter from a friend today." (Remember when decent coffee cost a dollar? Remember when letters came in the mail?)

This was almost two decades ago (lordy, I'm getting old). Before the Internet blew up, before self-help books everywhere, before Dr. Phil Bobby Oz Joe Smith was on every talk show. I don't know where this idea came from. I think the universe took pity on me and stuck it in my head, and luckily, I listened. Writing down happy things is not a substitution for high-powered tools against depression; I'm not saying that at all. But it got me looking up and out, out at the world around me rather than down and in, trudging through the same up early, to work, to school, to work again, cold, tired, to bed, start all over again rhythm of my days.

You know what? I graduated from college and got a job...waitressing full time. I was still cold in the winter, I was still tired, I still got sick a lot, I had no sick days, and a run of bad winter weather on weekends could blow up my budget. I still felt it necessary to write down my happy things.

After a while the habit became so ingrained that I didn't have to write them down anymore, although I periodically returned to it when I felt the need. I do, I do, I do notice the small things. The small things are the happy-making things. The things right in front of your face. Oh, big things make me happy too. I am, daily, grateful for this life, this normal, regular life, with a husband and three kids and money for coffee whenever I want, plus books and yarn and art supplies and fun extras for the children. Imagine! For years I couldn't imagine any of that. I am deeply thankful. But I believe noticing the small things leads to contentment.

True: One day, with my third baby strapped to my chest (because she wasn't happy and wouldn't sleep anywhere else), I achingly, carefully knelt down to fold another basket of laundry. I am grateful we have a working washer and dryer, I thought. I'm thankful I'm not worrying about how to pay for new clothes when my kids outgrow these.

Do I sound like Pollyanna? I'm not. I'm cynical and sarcastic and yell too much and I'm tired all the time, still. I read that book as a kid. I wanted to be that good. I'm not. But I try to take notice. If the small things don't create happiness, you know, the big things won't either, because nothing will ever be big enough. That's my guess, anyway. And some days (like yesterday), the first happy thought that comes to mind is "I'm glad this day is over."

Yes, I'm writing down my happy thoughts again...because the Squam store offered these beautiful gratitude journals and I couldn't resist.

And even though I'm in the habit of noticing throughout my day, I like the idea of writing it down again, so I can look back at all my happy-making moments.

And that is my story of learning the habit of noticing the small moments that create a contented life.

How about you? Do you have a similar habit?


Rose Red said...

I don't write them down, but I have long tried to take beauty where it comes - or in other words, been thankful for the small things. It doesn't always happen. For a while, husby and I would discuss "3 good things" for each of us, before we went to sleep. It was a great way to end the day on a positive note. I think we probably need to reinstitute that practice.

Donna Lee said...

I'm a firm believer in noticing the small things around me and finding something at the end of a crazy day to be grateful for. Sometimes it's a stretch but really, I have so much to be thankful for.

"Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn't learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn't learn a little, at least we didn't get sick and if we got sick, at least we didn't die; so let us all be thankful"
the Buddha

Is that a bit dramatic? Yep, but also true. Life sucks big time sometimes but there's always a spot of something hopeful and good in there.

lamina@do a bit said...

It is VERY important to notice the good things in ones day... especially if you are having a bad one! I have suffered from quite a bad depression 15 years ago and every now and then I will feel a bit blue but I know the signs and am able to get myself back on track again! I have so much to be grateful for these days... my partner and my little man always make me laugh everyday! Thank you for sharing your story... sometimes I'm grateful that some days are over and it's time to go to bed :)

Michelle said...

I really need to develop a similar habit. I tend to whit-knuckle it instead. The only thing I do now is read a short chapter from one inspiring book or another while waiting for the little one to fall asleep. It's something to look forward to during a time when I'm otherwise a little resentful (not always, but days can get long).

Bells said...

yes yes yes. So important. It's easy to focus on the bad because it can be so overwhelming.

I still maintain that throughout all the difficulty of the infertility and miscarriage years, keeping my blog as my happy place, noticing the world around me and loving sharing my knitting and photos and stories was what got me through. Only just, sometimes, but it reminded me all the time to see the world and all that was good and it made me happy.

Sally said...

No I don't ... but I think it would be a good habit to develop. Thanks for sharing.
I too live with a depression/anxiety condition? disorder? bit of me? ... there are times when I can live with it and times when I need some pills to help me out.
Strategies! I was just taught as a child that I wasn't up to coping - I learnt to be harsh on myself because I couldn't keep on top of things... I have learnt strategies though since then and since becoming a mother and knowing what I want for my own brood can see how ridiculously ill equipped my own parents had left me. I try to be so proactive in teaching my children how to talk to themselves, how to care for themselves, how to stay afloat and not be anxious. My greatest hope is that when they reach adulthood they will feel well equipped... ready to ride the ups and downs of the roller coaster.

iamrushmore said...

I was really depressed last winter (remember how horrible last winter was in these parts?) and each new snowfall brought me deeper into despair. but the driveway still had to be cleared, and with each shovelful I would think "I'm so grateful to have a driveway that needs shoveling, I'm so grateful to have a sidewalk (that needs shoveling) that leads to my sweet house, etc". Though I've had bouts with depression over the years, I didn't fully recognize just how bad I was last year until I felt better. When it started creeping back in after the time change this fall (and my son asked me three times in one weekend if I was okay) I went back on meds (which then allow me to make better choices for better health and give me the clarity to USE those coping strategies)