just breathe ii: Reflections one year later
I finally took the time to synthesize what I’ve wanted to say and explain why I had to take a year off. Straight from the pages of my journal.
First off, there is not a single minute, not one moment where I am ungrateful for my life as it is right now. I’m not a student anymore. I’m not a proper adult yet with responsibilities and taxes and a job. I don’t have to worry about food, rent, money. And I’m not in a rush to get anywhere. I’m constantly surrounded by amazing, supportive friends and family. I’m not living what people call “The Dream”, but I sure as hell am living out my dream. My dream of having a simple, worry free life.
How I ended up taking this gap year/preretirement time is because of my history with mental illness. Having had anxiety and depression changed my perspective about everything.
I had depression first. When I was in high school I didn’t know what it was at the time but I knew later that how I felt was not normal. I came out of that period with a completely new outlook.
Happiness is something I have to choose every day.
Through small acts of joy every day to creating an overall healthier, happier mental state. It’s not easy. But boy, does your life start to change when you name and eliminate the sources of negativity in your life. I worked so hard to develop habits of positivity.
A few short years later I developed crippling anxiety. The journey out of uncontrollable anxiety was SO HARD. I’m not sure I can even talk about it in the past tense.
I can feel depression and anxiety lurking in the depths of my mind. They’re hard roommates to break up with. They bring habits with them that are hard to break.
I use the word habit purposefully. I felt like I couldn’t stop my thoughts. I felt completely out of control. It’s like being addicted to these thoughts that objectively I know are bad. But the more you say or think these unhelpful words the more you become immune to them. Or do you? Because the thoughts became more intense, your subconscious starts to believe them.
It’s like my brain was wired all wrong.
Whether you are trying to quit a habit or a person or make a real change, you can emerge on the other side a better person, but it’s truly not easy. You filled up so much time of your day with this thing that you’re trying to quit. And so you have to fill in all those holes with something else. More positive thoughts, habits, people, activities. The change is slow, but one day your new normal will emerge. That’s not to say you won’t look back at the twisted comfort you once felt with your negative habit. But you will get better at looking forward and not back.
When you change your mindset, you end up changing your lifestyle. Your priorities change, what you value might change, who you want to be going forth will be someone better and unrecognizable to your former self. And you’re so okay with that.
So I went through a lot to break my deeply ingrained habits of negativity and regain control of my thoughts. But I needed the time to bring forth bigger change.
So that’s what I’m doing. For so many years I lived under the pressure of the next thing, the best thing. It’s so stupid that we live in a world where we are constantly judged, validated by numbers, letters, grades, performance review, the bullet points on your résumé. Did you get that position, job, do you have the latest whatever, the best whatever?
I decided that at the end of the day, at the end of this life, none of that matters. I had to suffer from a lot of psychic pain and I was through recovery that I decided to embrace this. These key performance metrics don’t mean fuck all if you’re not happy.
Don’t be envious of the person who had the best, the most. The happiest person in the room is the most succesful person in the room. And it’s not a zero sum game. We can all be the most successful, but like any kind of success, it takes hard work.
Taking time isn’t the easy choice. It’s not what everything around me tells me is the right thing to do.
Being busy and distracted is so easy for me. Being bored is fucking hard. Being without distraction, you have to learn to live with yourself, to be yourself. Watching everyone do the usual thing, the expected thing make me doubt myself all the time. Being different is never easy. No one tells you but, you have to learn to love being different, being who you are or else you’re going to end up frustrated in the worst way and you won’t know why.
So when I was in the deepest throws of anxiety I made a decision. It started with a question.
Am I happy? If not, what can I do to live my happiest, best life.
My anxiety is an extreme fear and intolerance of uncertainty. But I had one very certain answer to this question. In my ideal happiest life I would have a dog. BOOM. An answer. And when you can’t know anything about anything because everything is everything and therefore nothing you bet I’m going to kick away all the excuses and reasons between me and getting a dog.
And the answers waterfalled from that one answer from that one question. Having a dog eliminates choices!
You can’t have a certain kind of job, you can’t go clubbing until dawn because someone needs to let the dog out and that someone is you, you can’t stay inside in bed all day, you need a routine because the dog needs routine.
So that was my entire plan. This imaginary dog was all I had. This dog was the light at the end of the tunnel. The grand prize. The key to the first door towards happiness.
That’s what I’m doing right now. I got my dog. The one I determined was the cutest, derpiest one for me. And with the support from my friends and parents, and enough savings in my bank account, I have been just living and doing everything I could have ever wanted to do.
Hanging out with my friends whenever, being able to just get in a car, drive 20 mins to nap on your best friend’s couch all summer? That is the dream.
Sleeping in because I stayed up all night reading? Waiting with your puppy at the door for the UPS guy to come with your package? That is the dream.
Being able to hop on a plane to visit my best friend in Chicago? Saying yes to a trip to Iceland without having to consult anyone or a calendar? Exploring California with my two best friends just ’cause? That is the dream.
Spending months where all I had to do was hang out with a peeing/pooping puppy and chewing up the house? That is the fucking dream, man.
I know that this won’t and can’t last forever so I treasure each and every day in my life. I’ll be dreaming of the winter days when I trekked through the snowy dog park with a rainbow sprinkle soft serve soon enough.
By doing all these things I’m learning more about what my next step should and will be. And having the time to do this is the greatest gift in the world. Like that fact never ever escapes me.
The only thing I want anyone to take away from all this is to learn to MAKE THE DAMN TIME to find your happiness.
We live in a busy world. It’s up to us as individuals to determine what’s important. You can have all the money in the world but it’s nothing if you also don’t have the time. Happines is a choice. And when you decide it is a choice, the only one in control of your happiness is YOU. No one can take that away from you. By choosing happiness every day, whatever that looks like for you, you build a new habit that will protect you through the threats to this precious thing you’ve built.
I don’t know what comes next. I just know that right now I’m so happy just working on my own projects. I’m learning to live despite my fears. And isn’t that the only skill that matters in the end? (Someone endorse that for me on my LinkedIn.)
Somedays it’s hard for me to leave the house. Some days my mind falls back into the habit of making excuses and invisible barriers. But every day I try and do better. I know that the days I spend not doing anything at all are made better because my dog makes me laugh or at least convincing me to move enough to play fetch.
If you can, buy yourself some time. I read this wonderful book called Paris Letters by Janice MacCleod. The author bought herself time by doing some simple math. How much does she spend in one day (including fixed and variable costs)? Multiply that number by 365. That’s the amount you need to save to buy yourself one year. You don’t need to wait until retirement to do this for yourself. It’s a brave new world out there.
PS It’s been one year and two days since my last panic attack. 🎉