Those who know me now probably think of me as cheerful and maybe a bit annoyingly positive—for better or worse, a real Pollyanna. But I was not born this way, nor did this attitude always come easily to me. Ten years ago I was completely the opposite. While I did my best to always project a happy demeanor, never betraying my true emotions, inside I was a mess. I've struggled with depression since I was 13 but was not properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder until 2004 when I was 22. For a while, it only got worse from there.
When you're bipolar, you live with the knowledge that your moods are fleeting and that, more often than not, they control you. You know that you can fall down to rock bottom at any moment, no matter how happy and pulled together you think you are. It's easy to feel like life isn't worth living when you go from one state of chaos to the next, and the feeling that you have no control over your own mind and body is a terror that's hard to describe.
It took me over a year and half to find the right medication and many more years of therapy—not to mention the decade filled with my own individual efforts—to get me where I am. While this may seem extreme, in actuality I'm one of the lucky ones. To even have the stable, happy life I lead seems to defy the odds. And yet here I am, a testament to the power of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and daring to change your destiny.
I was thinking the other day that it's really quite ridiculous that we focus so much on outer beauty. Don't get me wrong, I am as focused on it as the next person, with a closet full of clothes and drawers full of makeup. But the thing is, there's only so much you can do to change your appearance. Even plastic surgery has its limits. With inner beauty, on the other hand, there is no end to the changes you can bring about. The potential to create a beautiful soul is infinite.
Our purpose here in this life is to become better. I believe in eternal life, and that when my body dies my soul will live forever. But I'm not going to suddenly wake up on the other side as an angelic being filled with peace and love and light if didn't have those qualities in me to begin with. I will begin the afterlife in the same state as I left this mortal life. While we will all have the ability to keep working, to learn and strive and improve after we die, if we don't start beautifying our souls while we are alive, we will have a lot more work ahead of us.
Life is far too short, and yet so much procrastination abounds. But let me assure you that it is never too late. There is never a wrong time to make amends, to forgive, to learn to be happy, to vow to start again. It is hard and it is exhausting, but I can't think of a better endeavor to devote my precious time to—can you?
Whatever challenge you're battling, there are ways to overcome it. I am a huge proponent of professional help, because even if you don't have a diagnosable mental illness, having someone outside of yourself and your situation guide you through can give you all the tools and perspective you need. But there are still countless ways to improve on your own. Here are some of the things that helped me the most:
Mourn your losses. While I choose to look for the positive in life, I was not able to see it until I truly understood all the bad things that had happened to me and took the time to mourn what I had lost. It was a gut-wrenching process, but I believe it was necessary for me to break from the pain of my past and move forward. I did my best to understand and accept the harsh realities of my illness, which not only helped me to see it clearly and find a path toward treatment, it helped me distance myself and understand that it is just an illness, it is not who I am. I mourned all the things I had lost because of my nervous breakdown, which included any former expectations of myself I thought were lost forever. In doing so, I opened myself up to an entirely new world of possibilities. While I knew I would have to live within new limitations, I was choosing to re-write my future instead of hold to an outdated, abstract ideal. In all these ways and more, this mourning period was crucial to being able to start over.
Be grateful. When you're in a pattern of sorrow and negativity, that's all you can see. It's like the quote from the movie "Pollyanna" (erroneously attributed to Abraham Lincoln): "When you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will." Fortunately, the opposite is also true. Unfortunately, it can be much harder to see it if you're not used to looking for it. My first doctor suggested I start a gratitude journal and list three good things every day, so I decided to do this in my prayers. This was extremely hard for me at the time, and sometimes the only things I could come up with were like, "I'm grateful that today was sunny." I had to do this day after day, year after year, until slowly it set in. In times of stress I do still jump to the dramatic and focus on the negative, but when I calm myself down I can return right back to the positive. Now, despite having a biological disposition to get caught in sorrow, I could spend an hour on my knees just listing all the wonderful things in the world, from the simple to the grand, and I am truly grateful.
Make a plan to create your perfect self. Spend some time thinking about the qualities you want to have and those you want to get rid of. Do not rule anything out; believe that you can be the person of your choosing, and never let anyone tell you otherwise. Then, think of all the steps you'll need to take to get there. Start by figuring out all the things that turn you into your worst self, then find ways to avoid and overcome them. In the mental illness world it's called "avoiding your triggers." For example, traffic was one thing that really sent me over the edge, so I found jobs where I commuted in the opposite direction or where I wouldn't have to drive during peak hours. I listened to podcasts or classical music so I would be mentally engaged or calm when driving, and I can't tell you what a huge difference this alone made in my outlook and demeanor. Understand that you can't change everything about life, but you can work on changing how you react to stressful situations and develop strategies to help you cope.
Give yourself time. Do not expect results in a week or even a month. No matter how much we wish we could drop our negative qualities and pick up some new ones, it's a slow process that will entail as many failures as successes. However, you will be on a steady incline toward achieving your goals. Stick to the plan and pick yourself back up when you fall.
Find a purpose. This step is entirely up to you. Your purpose in life can be anything, but make sure it's something that not only matters a great deal to you and brings you joy, make sure that it makes a difference to someone else. Whether your purpose is big (to start a non-profit) or not so big (to be a patient, loving mom), if it doesn't have the power to impact others in a positive way, it's not worth devoting your time to and will only bring you emptiness and frustration.
I'll leave you with another printable. Remember this, and never lose faith with the direction you're going.