Turn it out. That’s it. It’s as simple and as awful as that. This isn’t advice (more of a note to self) but if my experience of depression has taught me anything about happiness it’s that one way to cultivate more of it might be to STOP THINKING ABOUT YOURSELF ALL THE DAMN TIME, DIANE.
Ever since I dropped out of university to be ill, I’ve found birthdays a little rough. That first year, my mum and I went to see Practical Magic then had dinner at Burger King, neither which were great. As the parameters of my life have shrunk, I’ve seen an ever-decreasing pile of birthday cards, which — here goes my unrepentant optimism again! — I tend to take as a reminder that there aren’t that many people in the world who care about me. So I’ve devoted some time during every birthday of the last ten years to having a little cryfest.
Look: I’ve felt sorry for myself a lot in my life. I’m not proud of that, but it’s the truth. (Whereas the fact that I framed it as past tense might not be.)
I care about the world around me. I do. I want to be compassionate and useful and have a life that actually means something. But sometimes I forget. I find having a bunch of chronic health problems so overwhelming that it’s hard to see beyond my own navel. It feels like I’ll never get better if I stop obsessing about how I feel and focus on something else, even though the opposite is probably true.
In a piece Roger Ebert wrote about religion, death and the meaning of life, he said: “We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”
It’s easy for me to get into a funk where I start ruminating over how few birthday cards I have, or that only a few people read a particular blog post, or how it feels like no one likes me boo hoo hoo. But one day, an embarrassingly short time ago, it hit me: Can I honestly say I’ve repaid every kindness that people have shown to me?
Even when it comes to something as insignificant as Twitter*, have I retweeted more times than I’ve been retweeted? Have I recommended other people’s blog posts and articles as often as I’ve hoped for mine to be shared? Nope. Do I apparently want to take and take without giving anything back? Yep. ‘Cos life is hard and I feel ill, poor me.
People have been kind to me in a lot of different ways during the course of my life. Not always the people I wanted to be nice to me and not always in the ways I would have liked. But was I grateful for the intention behind their actions? You bet I wasn’t.
I didn’t know that I wasn’t owed anything, or that the best way to feel content is to not expect anything from anyone. (I’m not saying that’s easy, but I do think it’s true.) There’s nothing more guaranteed to pull you out of self-pity than to do something, however tiny, for someone else. But there are few things that feel more challenging.
The trouble is, your motivation can’t be desperation or quid pro quo. You have to get to a place (if only temporarily) where you’re genuinely happy for someone else’s success or want to help out with something even if you don’t get any credit.
I’m not talking about self-flagellation or being a martyr, and I’m definitely not recommending staying in an abusive situation, even if you think it would make someone else happy. What I am saying is that feeling loved is something we generate within ourselves, it’s not dependent on what other people do for us. And ironically, one way to feel more love is to give it away.
Of course, this may all be second nature to you. You might never be selfish and instead be constantly thinking about other people. But depression and chronic illness have made me self-absorbed, and I already had a tendency to be oblivious. I need reminders.
And I need to start spending birthdays being grateful for what I have, instead of weeping over what I haven’t.
Image: Morgue File, which sounds morbid but really isn’t. (+ Photoshop) (OK, Photoshop Elements).
*I’m sorry Twitter I love you.
After words:: (A link to something tangentially related to the post, which no one pays/asks me to recommend.) This week? Ballet pic, ballet programme: David Weigel wrote about why Bunheads is the best show on TV. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I agree that it’s underrated and my life feels bereft without it. For me, though, the best bits are the banter between Michelle and Fanny, especially in the second half of the season. (Haha, Fanny.)