I’ve written quite extensively about happiness and mental health before (see my post ‘Unhappiness is not a Failing’ for this… Go on…) but it’s time to revisit. It’s sensitive. It’s hard to talk about, no matter how good you are with words (and I’m pretty good). We have this notion that mental health doesn’t equate with physical health, when the two are equally crucial. Most people look shitty when they’re in the middle of a cold; red eyes and a snotty nose are pretty pervasive indicators that he/she isn’t feeling on top of their game. How can you look at someone and know they’re struggling with a bad patch or that they’re in a bleak place? You can’t. You don’t want to make assumptions either, because you’re on pretty dodgy territory if you put a foot wrong.
I’ve become pretty accustomed to knowing when I’m about to have a bad patch. I can recognise the warning signs, just like you know it’s about to storm when the air gets heavy and hot and suffocating. I think I’m at that age where I’m able to recognise my triggers and get a handle on my unhappiness before it spills over into interfering with my daily life. There are things that will push me towards a bad place: feeling restless, feeling uncertain, feeling unfulfilled. These feelings, alone, are manageable. It’s when they come together that they become more threatening.
I titled this article ‘keeping the black dog at bay’ because I wanted to write about some methods that work for me when I’m feeling blue. The first is simple: don’t be ashamed of having a bad day, or week. Don’t feel like you have to make excuses or explanations for your feelings, because you don’t. Sometimes it’s hard to articulate why you feel so shitty, and pinpointing a reason to someone who doesn’t really understand, or someone who won’t understand why you feel the way you do without explanation is a fast track to feeling even shittier. No-one can be happy all the time; we aren’t machines. Depression is episodic: for your own sake try to pinpoint your triggers, but if you can’t, don’t feel like you have to justify them to anyone else.
When I’m feeling this way, I write. I write poems, I write stories, I write lists, I write articles like this one. I go into my bedroom and concentrate on myself, because I don’t want to be around people. I ride it out through writing and reading and being alone until I resurface, ready to kick ass and take names again. Alternatively, I go out. There’s plenty of articles extolling the mental value of a good walk, even if it’s aimless. Being outside will clear your head and freshen your perspective. Hiking and swimming, breaking a sweat or looking at a view (the HK skyline at TST waterfront is my personal favourite) work just as well, for me anyway. Unhappiness feeds off containment so if you feel hemmed in, escape.
I often find that I feel unhappiest when I have no direction. At home, not knowing what I wanted to do with my life and feeling bored, restless and like I wasn’t much good at anything, my episodes escalated. Half the time was sleeping, the other half I was feeling fuzzy and out of the loop. It was like everyone else was at the world’s greatest party and I was outside, invited but strangely unwilling to step in and play a part. All the time there was this hot, sour feeling in my stomach that it wasn’t going to get better. I could see everything turning to shit, but I wasn’t doing a thing to stop it from happening. My parents begged me to move from the sidelines but I stayed there, too stubborn to admit something wasn’t right but too scared to throw myself out into the world. And all the time I got more anxious and more uptight and more unhappy and more angry with myself, terrified that everyone would see that the golden, happy go lucky girl was cracking up from the inside out.
Until I got a job.
Being in Hong Kong and having a job I actively adored meant that my bad episodes pretty much halved (though they never went away completely) but now that I don’t have a confirmed job for next year I can feel that old, restless panic resurface. This time though I have a better handle on it. I need direction, so I will find it. I will ride out my downs until they teeter into ups again. I will never feel selfish, or stupid or ashamed about feeling this way. Instead I will recognise that this is the way that my brain is wired, and that no amount of humming and hawing or medications or talking will be a quick fix solution.
Because, ultimately, I am an advocate of loving yourself exactly as you are. I am learning to take the lows with the highs, and to appreciate that the human brain is both astounding and devastating. I don’t think my black dog will ever truly disappear, but at least I can keep him someway behind and when he does get too close, deal with him discreetly, harmlessly and methodically. We are symbiotic: I won’t exist without him, nor him without me to fuel him. It is learning to live with this closeness that is proving the steepest learning curve, but I will not be ashamed.