Conditions were perfect. My space heater purred, my ocean-scented candle flickered, and I cracked open the autobiography of my favorite person of all-time, Harpo Marx.
But something wasn’t right – Harpo’s madcap antics and old-timey language weren’t making my heart sing like they used to. Right in the middle of a sentence, I shut the book and stared off into space. I asked myself, is something wrong? How do I feel? But no answer came back. It was like when an explorer shouts down into a gaping cavern in search of life, but no sounds return except his words echoing in the darkness.
We concentrate so much on improving our physical health. We’re at the gym in the evening, or we’re ordering the big salad because we had an even bigger lunch. Why don’t we put that same effort into improving our mental and emotional health? We monitor our waistbands like watchdogs, but we pay no mind to our trains of thought.
In this age of constant texting and constant distraction, we have at our fingertips countless ways to avoid gazing inward. We use up all our mental energy on drugs, sex and Netflix because oftentimes, thinking about ourselves and our places in our communities leads to pain. One of my favorite Seinfeld moments is when Kramer says, “Here’s to feeling good all the time,” but I’m a bigger fan of squeezing in some time to sit. And reflect. And figure out how we feel.
Last spring, I carelessly let a cold develop into walking pneumonia. For days, I was confined to the couch, unable to breathe without sharp pains and unable to walk. With great sickness often comes great depression. I felt like I was living life from inside of a bubble. I could physically hear music, but even my favorite songs didn’t move me. My inner stream of consciousness stopped. It was as if nothing could penetrate to make me feel alive.
It was the most severe bout of depression I’ve ever experienced, and for a while there I believed this was a permanent change. I figured I would never feel joy or laugh again. To borrow a phrase from my friend Travis, depression is like a black hole. “If you’re stuck in a black hole, you can’t see out of it because light can’t escape it. So, you’d have no idea that the entire rest of the universe exists sitting there in your black hole,” he told me. “That’s depression – it makes you unable to see how huge and interesting and wonderful and fantastic the world can be.”
Somewhere in between my daily panic attacks and my acceptance of the fact that life would never be sunny days again, I came to a realization. No one can expect to be smiling ear to ear every day. Anxiety, doubt, worry – these are all parts of life. We cannot suppress these feelings, but we also cannot allow them to obscure our sight completely.
There is something more important than being happy all the time: knowing how you feel at all times. I discovered that if I took the time to hunt these thoughts and feelings down and analyze them to death, I could rest a little easier. So now, when these clouds start to darken my vision, I stop whatever I’m doing and mentally pull out my checklist.
Item number one: how do I feel right now? Is there any issue that’s bothering me, any past interaction I regret or duty I’ve forgotten? If not, move to number two: have I gone outside today, seen the sun, exercised? Have I eaten too much sugar; have I eaten enough? Once this checklist is satisfied, I try to think of a good memory. One of those times when tears rolled down my cheeks and my mouth was open, laughing, but no sound came out. I store up those silent laughs for the good stuff. Then I tell myself, out loud, that these good times were mine once and they’ll be mine again. Maybe not in the next couple of hours or even in the next few days, but soon enough, winter will give way to spring. Soon enough, I’ll find my face hurts from smiling, and my heart will be so full of love and happiness I’ll feel like I’m going to explode. For now, I just wait it out.
Of course, this checklist should be consulted during the good times as well. One of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut quotes, which he attributes to his uncle Alex, is this: “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” On beautiful bike rides or glorious days at the beach, I make a point to freeze time and ask myself, what exactly is making me feel so good right now, and how can I harness this energy to reuse it in times of need?
Taking the time to evaluate our mental and emotional health at times both good and bad will inevitably increase good vibes. It’s possible to feel positively about a depression – it’s called hope. And to be clear, depression isn’t a you-missed-your-bus-to-school kind of sad; it’s repeatedly waking up and not wanting to exist. This checklist, and time, has helped me trust myself to know that depression can be temporary. This means appreciating the highs that much more.
At the end of every day, we must remind ourselves that we may not feel happy all the time, and that’s ok. As long as we’re feeling something, we’re still participating. That’s all we can ask of each other.