This revelation may surprise you. Based on my emails and comments, I get the impression that you all think of me as a cheery, breezy, funny, high-spirited, thrifty, gal who you are secretly (and not so secretly) falling in love with and, while I’m loathe to dispel that myth, I have to dispel that myth. A bit. A wee bit.
In actuality, dear reader, I suffer from fairly severe clinical depression. This entrenched sadness, I call her Precious, lives in the center of my bones, in my deoxyribonucleic acid, in the chemicals in my brain and is as much a part of my sense of self as my financial acumen, my wit, my height. Precious is a big part of the reason I went for early retirement and why I spend so much of my time contemplating happiness and how to achieve it. I yearn to feel some semblance of control.
I think I’m succeeding now, but it wasn’t always this way. I tumbled into depression when I first garnered the ability to think. With every birthday candle blown, every shooting star located, every coin thrown into a designated water spot, I used my wishes only to beg the universe for a coffin in the ground, to push the fast-forward button on my life, to stop feeling so freaking empty.
For the most part, I won the childhood lottery. I popped out into a stable country in a stable time period, born to loving and kind parents who only cherished and supported me, two older sisters who served as playmates, teachers and protectors and a gaggle of close extended family nearby. I never experienced food insecurity or worried about keeping a happy place to lay my head at night. I was shy, but I made friends without much effort. I earned good grades easily enough. I was physically healthy. I wanted for nothing.
It hurt to breathe. I would wake up in the morning devastated that I had to live another day. I felt exhausted all the time by the effort to pretend that I didn’t despise existence. I thought the world was cruel and unfair and everything felt wrong. I had no idea where these feelings came from, but I desperately wanted oblivion.
I now understand that those feelings aren’t normal for anyone to have, much less a 5-year-old. I didn’t know how to handle life and time only seemed to make it worse. 21-year-old Thriftygal thudded painfully and finally onto rock bottom with an involuntary stay in the crazy bin. That is my deepest secret.
I have been climbing the stairs up ever since. I’m not saying that I’ve beaten this thing because that would imply that I was done with the journey. There are still stairs to climb and views to appreciate, but now I can easily say that I’m happy more days than I’m unhappy and that each year I rotate around the sun, I feel better and better.
I wish I could talk to Tween-Thriftygal and give her these tips because I read her diaries and cringe and cry and marvel at how different I feel. I’m still learning, but here’s what has helped me and if you’re suffering, maybe it can help you too.
Tip 1: Medication. Depression is a disease. It’s a sickness, an illness, a wrinkle in the makeup of my cells. Science theorizes that the neurotransmitters in my brain don’t have enough receptors to create the necessary hormones for positive emotions. Or something. I really don’t understand it.
What I do understand is that when I’m taking my medication, I feel better. I’m not as emotional. I don’t think about death or dwell on the injustices or despair at the meaninglessness. Stuff is fun. I look forward to things. It’s easier to cross tasks off my to-do lists. Hell, when I’m not on the medication, it’s a struggle to even make the lists, much less cross items off them.
When I’m on the medication, life doesn’t seem as hard or as draining. I’m not sure any of these other tips would even be possible without my sertraline. I want to sit down with my past self and tell her it will take a few tries, but you’ll find a medication that works eventually. You’ll love your life one day. I know you don’t believe me. You will. I promise.
Tip 2: Resolutions Chart. This is kind of my master list and how I steer the ship of my life. I’ve written about this chart before and I truly love it. This chart is my entertainment, my reason for waking and my buddy. I pilfered the idea from Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project”, but Benjamin Franklin did something similar back in the day. Just another reminder that everything has been done before.
“Take pills” is always on the list. But I also include any actions I want to make habits, any current operation I’m working on, reminders, etc. I tend to have about ten or so ongoing resolutions a month, but I’m changing them up constantly. Here is a teeny smattering of some of the items I’ve used for my chart.
Occasional resolutions for my chart
- Make a to-do list
- Do some sort of physical activity, you lazy slob
- Take a picture and put it on the Instagram*
- Write for 2 hours
- Tackle a nagging task
- Avoid time wasters
- Wear lotion
- Wear sunscreen
- Practice the evening tidy up, you lazy slob
- Operation NYC, Yeah You Know Me
- Be generous
- Avoid stats
- Check stats
- Tackle a nagging task
- Stop calling yourself a lazy slob
- Wear makeup
- Work on the blog for 10 minutes
This list is much, much longer, but you get the picture.
Tip 3: Therapy. I have been in therapy periodically throughout the years. When life gets particularly tough, it’s a good gut check to speak to someone unbiased who can call me out on my wallowing bullshit. I’m highly critical of myself and sometimes I find it hard to disbelieve Precious when she tells me that I’m not enough. When a big life change happens, good or bad, it can still feel overwhelming and therapy brings good perspective for me.
My family and my friends are so unbelievably amazing that I have trouble accepting their assurance. It’s also a relief to voice the dark thoughts without fear of freaking someone I love out.
Tip 4: Futureme.org. I’ve mentioned this website before in the context of reminding yourself of your progress with your financial goals, but I also consider this website a cheap form of therapy. I use a calendar reminder as a prompt to send my future self an email every few weeks. I love getting emails from the past.
Some of the emails are happy and upbeat. Some of the emails are mourning dead relationships. Some of the emails are casual chitchat that make me giggle. It’s a good reminder that life is a tapestry of emotion and what I’m feeling at this particular moment is not forever. I appreciate the highs so much because I’m so very acutely aware of the lows.
Tip 5: Retirement. I know, easier said than done, eh? But, it’s worth the effort. You guys, I feel like my life is mine and only mine. I feel in control. At least, as in control as it’s possible to be. I’m not beholden to a boss who swears at me; work I find meaningless; stretches of boredom; tiring my body and my mind to enrich someone else. I don’t have to wake up earlier than my exhaustion feels like waking up. I can tailor my energy level to my activity.
I fill my days with the things I love to do. I get to travel and explore. I can read as late as I want. I meet up with old friends and share a bit of their recent lives. I make new friends and delight in the reassurance that, yes, bad things happen, but people are mostly good. I write out the thoughts that swirl around my brain and I receive so much positive, uplifting feedback that a permanent smile and blush now adorn my face. There is almost always a kind, thoughtful email or comment awaiting me when I login.
It worked, dear readers. I’m shocked, but also jubilant. It’s working. It took me a long time to decide to publish this article, but I’ve read this comic strip more times than I can count and it has helped me so much. You all have brought me so much happiness with your love that I wanted to give something back. I know it’s shocking that this smiling person in front of you has (had?) such a dark passenger inside, but that’s the beauty. If I can do this, anyone can do this. I am actually grateful for Precious now. Without her, I’m not sure I’d be where I am today.
*You can follow me on the Instagram if you’d like.