When you are in the throes of a mental illness, it can be nearly impossible to see anything but the bad. Although I’ve never considered myself a “glass half full” type of person, my outlook was always worse during my depressive episodes. In my most recent descent, the lights stayed out for so long, I wasn’t sure they would ever turn back on. My mom often tried reminding me of the good in my life, showing me pictures of happy memories or accomplishments. I responded with a reason that proved why it didn’t count. Who cares that I ran a half marathon? It wasn’t that fast, and I never was able to do a full; it didn’t count. I could tear down any example thrown my way. I even did it with the weather. My brother mentioned it looked beautiful outside, and I replied that it was too cold and windy. My depressed mind had the ability to see the flaws in even the most positive experiences.
It’s only after years of negative thinking that I’m beginning to realize that those thoughts may have been even more detrimental to my view on my life. There are certain aspects of mental illness that can’t be avoided. As someone who was diagnosed with clinical depression long before I entered high school, I knew I would always have to try a little harder at being happy. This seemed impossible at times. How could I see anything good when the world around me is crumbling? I could only find the flaws.
Recently, my eyes have been opened to a new way of thinking. My therapist encouraged me to keep a gratitude journal, where I would spend five minutes reflecting on five things that I’m grateful for. Cue my anxiety. After the first day, I ran out of things to say. I spent the next few days nervous about what I would write each night. I surely couldn’t be grateful for the same five things every day, right? And five new wonderful things certainly wouldn’t happen to me each day. My therapist pushed me to dig deeper and remember the things that I might otherwise look past. If it gave me even a moment of pleasure, it was fair game.
After a little while, rather than being a stress-inducing activity, my nightly time to reflect on my blessings became something I looked forward to. It gave me the opportunity to relive the good parts of the day, no matter how small they seemed on the surface. If I had a bad week, I wrote down that I was thankful for peanut butter; I took comfort in the fact that I made it through the day in one piece.
Something interesting happened after committing myself to the idea of looking for the good. I found myself appreciating things that I never paid much attention to before. Small, everyday things started to matter: the stars on a clear night, having exact change, the smell of candles. It didn’t matter what it was. Anything that gave me pause to realize I’m glad to be alive was noteworthy. Before long, more positive things begin to accumulate. It’s like when you buy a certain car and then all you see is that same car driving on the road. It’s not necessarily that more of those cars suddenly exist, it’s that when you begin to pay attention, you will find what you’re looking for.
This began as an exercise in trying to appreciate the small things even when my life as a whole may not look the way I want it to. I quickly realized that, as I spent more time trying to find the good, it began to creep into the space in my mind where the bad lived for so long. Each moment of gratitude stole from hopelessness. I started to understand that this was truly the point. It’s not about being grateful for peanut butter, it’s about replacing a bad thought with a good one. It’s about retraining my brain to appreciate rather than dwell on what’s going wrong.
I’ve spent a lifetime only being able to see the negative in my life and myself. If you tell me five things I’m doing right, I’ll find ten I’m doing wrong. This isn’t a cure-all. A lifetime of pain won’t be erased overnight. But now I’m learning that I don’t have to have it all figured out to be appreciative for what is in front of me. If I wait until I can wrap my life up in a shiny bow to start enjoying it, I’ll be waiting forever. This is about giving myself permission to take a step toward the light and believing that good will continue to unfold further in front of me where I cannot yet see. Each tiny celebration fills me with hope and the realization that my life is far more beautiful in the journey.