If you were to look at the last twenty-five years of my life, you’d see many parallels with my interests and activities. I’ve always loved balloons, the color yellow, and glitter. I’ve always enjoyed picking out pumpkins, looking at carnival lights, and watching The Little Mermaid. Have things changed, though? Absolutely.
I’m of the belief that we never peak, we only constantly improve, that experiences shape us more than our genetics, and we are constantly evolving as humans. My emotional experiences as an adolescent were very different than what I go through now, and I want to take some time to explain why happiness and appreciation are so important to me at this point in my life, and how it’s come to be so.
When I was a teenager, I had a lot of things going on mentally. I continued to deal with symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Tourette’s Syndrome, that I’d been experiencing since I was eight years old, but there was also new stuff in the mix. I was depressed, experiencing a lot of anxiety, and self mutilation. No one in my family wanted to get me help. For a long time, my problems were swept under the rug. I’d hear adults talking about my behavior when they thought I couldn’t hear, saying it was a “phase” and I’d “be fine”. For years, I told people that my facial tics were a result of allergies and I didn’t even know the names for the stuff I was feeling.
After personally requesting to go to therapy, my problems started to seem more real to the people around me. About a year later, I went on medication and I’ve been taking medicine every day since I was sixteen. That didn’t mean that the symptoms stopped, though. I was still acquiring coping mechanisms and learning how to deal with my problems in other ways.
I’m telling you all this because I want to make it clear that I know what it’s like to cry yourself to sleep, to cut and burn yourself, and to have a suicide plan. But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope. It may feel like the slippery slope you’ve gone down is too steep to climb back up, but it’s not. I will tell you, though, that you have to make a conscious decision.
Deciding to be happy takes courage and it takes work. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. For six months, I went to a therapist every week to work specifically on my OCD symptoms. He would give me assignments to work on each week, which was essentially exposure therapy. (The same principle of surrounding yourself with spiders if you’re afraid of spiders.) OCD is an anxiety-based disorder, and the idea was to surround yourself with anxiety-producing situations more and more, until the anxiety dwindles. If you’re ever looking for professional help, I recommend it. BetterHelp has a great amount of resources to get you started.
Something that I couldn’t do was make a 360 degree turn without “unwinding” myself. So, one of my assignments was to put something in the middle of my room, and walk around it thirty times. That may seem like the easiest homework you’ve ever had, but I promise you that I cried more with each rotation. It was very difficult, but the first time I did it, I felt triumphant. My face was soaking from sweat and tears and I collapsed on my bed, but I knew I did it. Something that I literally thought was impossible.
Over time, I conquered dozens of specific issues, and learning how to tackle the anxiety in those situations made me able to manage future issues. I’m not in therapy anymore, but I do still see a psychiatrist twice a year to manage my medications. If you were to look at my face sheet (like a mental illness rap sheet), it would list “OCD, Tourette’s Syndrome, Panic Disorder, and Mood Disorder NOS”. Panic disorder means that I used to have panic attacks very often, and mood disorder NOS (not otherwise specified) basically means I have Bipolar II disorder, but my symptoms aren’t textbook enough to give a specific label to. I take four medications every day, and at this point in my life my mood changes are what affect me the most.
If you’re curious about my experiences with any of these disorders, I am more than willing to e-mail you with more information about my mental health issues, both past and present. But spelling out every symptom I’ve ever had would take a long time, and would make this post even more boring.
Regardless of my diagnoses, medication, and experiences, I’ve figured out what works for me. I know that staying in my room for a long time will make me depressed, I know that I need to not abruptly stop taking my medication, and I know that documenting my life and appreciation makes me a happier person. I’ve been significantly more satisfied with my life since I’ve made it a necessity to keep a happy journal, and I recommend this activity to anyone and everyone.
So it may seem like my obsessions with glitter, sidewalk chalk, and magic wands is superficial or strange, but I promise I just know what I like. I’m not a shallow person who lives like a child. (Well, I may live like a child.) I’ve been to a dark side, and I’ve chosen to live on the opposite end. My coping mechanisms include surrounding myself with cheap Mylar balloons and wearing shoes that look like they’re made out of sparkles. It’s my happy place, and it’s why I keep coming back.
There’s a scene in Harriet The Spy, where she’s making her lunch to take to school. She’s upset that her mom won’t give her the sharp knife and she has to cut the tomato with a butter knife. Her mom makes suggestions of other things she could put in her lunch, while Harriet slaps the sloppy slice of tomato onto bread with mayonnaise. “Mom, I can’t help it if I know what I like. And I know what I like… tomato.”
None of my disorders define me, and none of your issues define you. Our beliefs, actions, and generosity define us. Help yourself first, and then help others. Help yourself by helping others. Don’t be afraid of difficulties, explore and face your fears, and believe in yourself. You’ve got this.