While on lunch break at work this summer, one of my coworkers and close good friends said to me that I was the human equivalent of the “:-D” emoticon. Just last week, a professor in an early morning class asked who wasn’t feeling tired & dead inside at 9am, and that same close good friend and I were the only ones to raise our hands. Our professor looked at us, then to class at large, and went “Is anyone surprised?” We all laughed. It hit me at both of those moments, months apart as they were, how starkly different my own image of myself was from how other people saw me. This was a thought I’d had a lot of points in my life, but for what feels like the first time in a long time, it was a good thing.
To many people, my “public image” has always been one of light heartedness and fun. Never too serious and always up for a joke – that’s me! Small, loud, and goofy were the three things I tried to portray the most, and for the most part, it was how I really was. On the inside, however, I was struggling. I was constantly at a war with myself – I felt like an imposter and a fraud most of the time, who had skirted through university on luck alone and was left with no ambition, no skill, and no future to look forward to once I graduated. I knew on some level it was my mental illness speaking and not the truth, but that level didn’t control my brain, and I couldn’t get out from underneath the rocks I was burying myself under. When I look back on my twitter and blog posts from that time, I’m greeted with the image of a stranger – a really, really sad stranger that I wish I could help.
When I look back at what I was going through back then, it feels so alien to me, and I’m so grateful for that. It wasn’t even that long ago, really. I was struggling up until about a year ago, but the journey I’ve taken from then until now is one of the proudest experiences of my life. And also, I have a cat now!
I didn’t write this post to be an examination of my mental health and how it’s improved, although of course that’s where I’m coming from with this. I really wrote this in the hopes that someone who reads it might be hit with the same sort of inspiration I was a year ago when I decided to make a change for the better. A year ago, I read a blog post someone had made that discussed treating the voice in your head that was constantly negative like an annoying, edgy teenager – for every time your brain tells you you’d be better off dead, you brush it off with a quick “Thanks for your input, Barbara. I’ll definitely hop right on that one.” and return to what you were doing. For a while, that train of thought did help me dismiss the negative thoughts, but I realized after a while that it was a bandaid solution to a deeper problem. I knew the solution to the problem the whole time, but it was too hard to deliver on it.
I had to be kind to myself. That included being kind to the negative voice in my head that was trying constantly to undermine me. Ultimately, that voice was me, and when I dismissed it rudely, I wasn’t dealing with the problem that caused it. I was just delaying it. I was also treating that voice like an inevitability – there’s no way to stop the voice, so learn to ignore it. Once I had accepted this, it was easy for me to see how to handle the voice: to treat it with respect. Every time that mean, nasty voice spoke up to tell me I wasn’t qualified, or deserved bad things happening, or was going to ruin what I was working on, what it was really doing was trying to make me acknowledge my fears.
“You’re not good enough at this,” was actually “This means a lot to you, and you’re afraid of doing it wrong.”
“You’re not qualified for this job,” was actually “There’s a lot you still don’t know, and you will need to ask a lot of questions – and you’re afraid asking questions will make you look dumb.”
“They hate you, they’re annoyed by you, they don’t want to be your friend,” was actually “You really care about how this person feels about you, and you’re afraid they might not like you.”
Once I learned to translate the nastiness into acknowledgements of what I was afraid of, I was able to handle those fears rationally. I was able to speak to myself kindly, and about myself kindly, to get to the best way for me to assuage the fears themselves. I began not only listening to that voice, but thanking it for letting me know what was important to me, and in turn, that voice started speaking to me more kindly. Of course it did – it’s not an external voice from some monster or edgy kid. It’s just me. It was how I let myself talk to myself. It changed when I changed.
There’s been a rising trend online + in social circles that takes self-deprecating humour to an extreme. Depression & anxiety memes are constantly being created, shared, and reshared. Relatable tweets about hating yourself, being garbage, hating life, and wanting to die are drafted, posted, and retweeted faster than you could ever hope to keep up with them – and I absolutely understand why this has happened. I used to participate in this gladly, and some of my favourite jokes were about wanting to die, or hating myself, or being miserable.
The reason this is so popular, and the reason I did it, and the reason some of you do it, is simple: it’s about connection. It’s about seeing other people suffering in a way that you also suffer, and connecting over it. It creates a bond between people who are suffering in such a unique way – depression makes you feel alone and unheard, no matter what. These memes and jokes and tweets allow you to finally feel like someone understands your pain, and by making jokes about that pain, you can lighten its hold on you temporarily. It can be a safe way to reach out to others for help without making yourself vulnerable, and it can be a way to keep an eye on your friends’ mental health without having to ask them to disclose their own suffering to you in a way that’s, quite frankly, terrifying. Every time you tweet that you wish you were dead, wrapped in a tidy little joke, you allow yourself to reach out and connect with people, like you desperately need to, and you get to be honest without making yourself vulnerable. I get it. I really do. That’s why this next part is going to be hard to hear, because it was hard for me to hear it too.
This kind of humour is not good for your mental health. We need to stop using it.
The problem is that these jokes work the same way as the voice in your head does. When you constantly talk and joke about wanting to die, and you let that idea go unchallenged, you spend a lot of your time thinking about wanting to die. Hating yourself is cyclical, and it requires actively changing the way you treat yourself. You won’t stop hating yourself until you’re kinder to yourself. Loving yourself won’t come first – you won’t ever earn kind thoughts and self love. The right to wanting to be alive isn’t something you earn – it’s something you already have. When I stopped making depression humour content, I forced myself to stop thinking in those patterns – ‘I wish I was dead, I’ll never be happy, life sucks, everything sucks, it will never get better.’ Those are the punchlines to every depression joke, and when you let yourself constantly supply those punchlines and you’re constantly hearing other people make them, you’re reinforcing their messages.
The same goes for positivity and kindness. I still struggle with my mental health, and probably always will, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be a positive person. I choose every day to be kind, and supportive, and energetic – I will choose to make a positive joke over a negative one whenever I can. Of course, I have bad days, and I fall back into those same dark punchlines sometimes – I would never say you can’t ever make a self deprecating joke, or poke a little fun at depression. But ultimately, the reason I was so effected by my friend saying I was positive, or my teacher commenting on me being an energetic happy person, is because I was finally getting the results back from all the work I put in. I chose to be happier, and I am happier. Wait, wait —
Obviously, obviously obviously obviously, depression cannot be cured by deciding to be happy. Saying I “chose” to be happy is too simple – I didn’t wake up and decide not to have depression anymore. I’m not one of those people telling you that yoga and a good night’s sleep will cure your anxiety. I have seen multiple mental health professionals. I have discussed medication with them and probably will again in the future. There is so much more to your mental health than what you can control, and nobody understands that more than I do. When I say I chose to be happier, what I’m really saying is that, with the help of counsellors, therapists, doctors, friends, family, pets, etc – every day I make small choices to be kinder to myself. When I am kind to myself, it is easier to handle my mental health in positive and constructive ways. When I handle my mental health that way, I am happier overall.
Think of it this way: if I came to you in a depressive episode, how would you treat me? I would imagine kindly, gently, and with support. You treating me that way wouldn’t cure my depression – but it would make it easier for me to get it under control. It’s the same as you being cruel and mean to me in that situation wouldn’t be causing my depression – but it would be adding to the negativity spiral that made it have control over me. You have the ability to make that decision for yourself every time – and sometimes, it will be too hard. Sometimes, I’m cruel to myself. Sometimes, I make it worse.
But more often than not, I don’t. I’ve put a lot of hard work into recognizing these moments, and choosing the kind answer. I treat myself the way I would treat any friend who was struggling, and I slowly became my own friend. My own friendship is just as powerful a tool as the friendship others offer me. Being kind to myself has saved my life.
I’m in a really good place right now. It’s not all because of what I just talked about – there are a hundred other factors that have helped me improve my life from where I was a year ago, two years ago, five years ago. But I never would have gotten here, and felt like I deserved to be here, if I hadn’t started making an effort to be kind to myself. Patient with myself. Hopeful with myself.
Treat others the way you want to be treated is the golden rule of life. Remember, though, that all golden rules worth their salt will always apply to you as much as they apply to everyone else.
Treat yourself the way you want to be treated. Be kind to yourself. Be patient with yourself. Let yourself be vulnerable and ask for help. Reach out to your friends when they ask for help. Life is hard, but we can make it better for others and for ourselves.
I don’t always like myself, but I will love myself fiercely because I know that I deserve that. You deserve that too. We’re all in this together – and that includes you.
Thanks for reading. I love you!