I have spent a significant portion of my life being unhappy. When I say “significant,” I mean nearly a third of my existence. And when I say “unhappy,” I mean living in a sadness so profound that I felt consumed, suffocated, engulfed by black swampy waters that held me paralyzed until I could barely breathe, let alone fight back.
I am what doctors would call “mentally ill.” Or at least I was, but I’ll get to that part. I was formally diagnosed with clinical depression when I was 15, but my first bout with the illness was around age 9. I cycled in and out of depressed episodes for more than a decade until I suffered a complete nervous breakdown at age 21, just a few months before I was set to graduate from college. The collapse was so complete that it took me nearly two years to climb out of it.
By that point I was used to being depressed; I even wore it as a badge of honor in my more functional yet cynical years. Life had battered me, but I toughened up and soldiered on. The depression helped me cut through the fake shiny bullcrap and see life as it really was, I told myself. Anyone who called themselves “happy” was either an idiot or fooling themselves, or both. I knew the truth, I’d say — that life was inherently dark and people were ultimately selfish and everything you thought you could depend on would betray you in the end, so why even bother with flimsy intangibles like faith and trust and hope? Life’s better on the bottom, I’d tell myself. You can’t fall beneath the basement floor.
I got to that hardened, bitter place not only because of the sorrow, but because of the inexplicable elation I’d run into every now and then. Every few months or so I’d start to climb out of the depression, to find something to live for, to find friends and, yes, hope, and a place to belong. I’d get more confident in my footing and think, “I made it. I’m out. I beat depression, and now I can really live.” Before I knew it I was the life of the party, every day a non-stop thrill ride of nutty hijinks and zany adventures.
But then, inevitably, everything would fall apart. I would crash, I’d shut myself off and my friends would leave, and I would find myself right back where I started — only this time with a fresh scars and dragged down by a new wave of abandonment and betrayal.
Looking back it seems so obvious that I wasn’t depressed, but it took that final nervous breakdown to get me to a doctor who gave me the correct diagnosis at age 22: bipolar disorder, a classification I thought would limit me for the rest of my life. You see, depression you can overcome. Bipolar disorder is for life. Not only can you not trust the lows, you definitely can’t trust the highs. In fact, they can get you into even worse trouble, leaving you in ruins at depths you can’t imagine.
And this, I thought, would be my existence. I’d cycle up and down, up and down, round and round and round some more. If I was lucky, I thought, I’d have more highs than lows and manage to hold onto a few more friends than in days past. But I still hedged my bets. I no longer believed I could be in a stable relationship, that I could go out and get the glamorous job of my dreams (you know, like the one I had waiting for me after I graduated college, the one I had to let go of when it became clear that if I couldn’t even feed and clothe myself properly, I couldn’t handle the jet-setting life I was scheduled to take on).
Most of all, I stopped believing that I could ever be a mother. Because even though it was biologically possible, it was emotionally unfathomable. I had yet to have a stable period last even long enough to gestate human life. Nine months without an episode? Pssht. At that point I had yet to have nine days of stability. Even if I could keep it together long enough to get a child here safely, to handle the sleepless newborn phase and demanding toddler years, there’s no guarantee I could take care of myself over the course of a child’s life, let alone take care of that child. But beyond all of that, here’s what I was really afraid of: that I would leave. That one day it would be all too much and I’d take off, abandoning the child and the life I had built around it. I could handle knowing that my own life was a disaster, but utterly destroying the life of another human being was and is unconscionable.
And that’s where I was exactly 10 years ago today. It was 2005 and the breakdown had happened just over a year before. I was stable enough to have a no-stress part-time job, praise the heavens. But I was still hard. Jaded. Determined to survive but never believing I could thrive. Not in this world, not with the hand I had been dealt. I accepted my diagnosis and believed that the best I could hope for was just not to commit suicide in some horrible fashion. So, Happy New Year? I settled for glad-to-be-functioning-and-not-in-the-psych-ward year. And that, I believed, was as good as it got.
But I was wrong. Oh, how I was wrong — about all of it.
You see, 2005 was the year I met the man who became my husband.
And everything — everything — changed.
Now, here I am in 2015, and if you told me then that I’d one day become who I am now, nothing would have made me believe it. I didn’t even know I wanted to be this person, let alone that I could actually become her. But this is my reality: I have supportive, loving family members who never gave up hope that I’d be better. I am in a happy, thriving marriage with someone who makes me laugh, who takes care of our family, who lets me dream without telling me no. I have lasting friendships with people who love me for me and haven’t once run away scared. I’ve had several glamorous dream jobs, and my writing, I’m told, touches people in meaningful ways.
Best of all, I am a mother. I have been stable long enough to nurture three children — a 4-year-old son a twin 12-month-old daughters — as well as stay grounded through all the crazy phases of their young lives. Not only that, but I’ve battled my illness and fought for happiness and succeeded so thoroughly that I’ve been able to be unmedicated and stable, sane, genuinely happy and truly present for their entire lives.
Yes, I am happy. I am calm when I need to be yet passionate when it counts. I have love. I found joy, and I have given it all to others freely and without thought of draining precious reserves, because I am overflowing and there’s more than enough to go around. My life is such that I believe I no longer have that illness the doctors told me I’d need to manage my entire life. I am healthy. I am whole. In so many ways, no, I am not the person I once thought I was — I am infinitely better. I am infinitely more.
My friends and family have heard this story many times before. I write about it often, and I will write about it again and again because it bears repeating — especially now as we look toward a new year, a clean slate; now, as we look inward and ask ourselves, “What do I want to do with my life? What do I want to be?”
I am here to tell you that no matter who you were or you think you are, that’s not who you have to be.
You can change, any and all of it. You don’t have to settle. You don’t have to believe naysayers or diagnoses or any of the labels, doubts, and fears in your own mind. Anything about yourself that you don’t love, you don’t have to live with. I’m not talking about physical imperfections or any of the silly hopes our vanity tells us to hold out for. I’m talking about your personality, your spirit, your soul. You can be who your heart longs to be. I am not only living proof of that, I want to serve as your guide.
So far on this blog I’ve focused on physical health. I still want to share what I’ve learned and encourage everyone that healthy little changes go a long way, but I don’t want to leave it at that. Some of the best changes in my life have been emotional changes, whether taken as baby steps or enormous leaps. By far, they’ve made the biggest impact and helped me become the happy, peaceful person I am today. If I don’t also share those parts of my story, then my struggles will have amounted to nothing. My joy will become hollow if I don’t use all of my experiences to help others through theirs.
My goal now is to not only focus on the little things we can do to restore our physical health, but to inspire you to make changes for your emotional health as well. From learning to let go and forgive to allowing yourself the take pleasure in life, I hope to provide insight, inspiration, and encouragement to help you become the healthiest, happiest version of yourself.
So even if you’re not the New Year’s Resolution type, just do yourself a little favor. Take a few minutes and really ask yourself, “Who do I want to be?” Think about the qualities you admire in others and decide which you want to cultivate in yourself. Then believe that you can have them, that you can be who you want to be. If that’s all you can accomplish now — just the belief that it can happen, someday, somehow — that’s all you need to begin.