How To Make Yourself Feel Good (Even When Your Life Is A Mess)
Do you have a set of specific and empowering ways to make yourself feel good at a moment's notice? Can you accomplish this without the use of devouring a cheeseburger, downing some booze, getting high, hacking cigarettes or other addictive vices within an arm’s reach of any of us? I sure as hell didn't.
One of my biggest takeaways from university was becoming a prolific binge drinker. My drink of choice was Sailor Jerry's spiced rum. A couple of times a week I'd polish off a 26’er before heading to the bar. My night would end with me passing out wherever – front lawns, under a barbecue, hallways, random people's houses, basically anywhere but my bed. I was a blast to be around, unless you happened to be dating me.
If I wasn't getting blackout drunk, I had no desire to even have a sip. It seemed like a waste of time. If I felt good, I wanted to feel better. If I felt better, I wanted to feel incredible. I wanted to continually outdo myself to a point that wasn't physically possible. I drank to escape the reality that I felt stuck in. Booze, drugs and food gave me an immediate way of becoming someone who didn't have to give a shit about anything but having fun.
I was doing a workshop the other day with some small business owners and I shared my journey in discovering what's most important to me. I spoke of the death of my cousin, and of hating who I was for years, and how identifying these issues helped me clarify what was needed for a fulfilling life. One woman shared that it was enough to spark an a-ha moment to what she was missing in her own life, and why she had been feeling lost. It reminded me of what a stranger had once done for me.
It was a scary part of my life. I had no doubt that I'd be dead by thirty. Either from alcohol poisoning, overdosing on drugs or killing myself to escape the shitty reality that I only felt good when I was drowning in vices.
On September 12, 2011, at 4:51 pm, I pushed send on an e-mail to a woman who had written a column in the local paper about living with bipolar illness. In my subject line, I wrote Today I was diagnosed with Type 2 Bipolar.
Today I opened the Hamilton Spectator and your headline caught my eye. For today I was to visit with a doctor regarding my chronic depression and hopefully put a more specific label on what seems to be going on in my life.
My therapist through all our interaction believed there was an underlying issue beyond the depression, one which could explain my mood, my personality and how I go day to day in my life. That's when I first heard the term bipolar, at least in regards to myself.
I had been dreading going to my appointment all day. It's scary. I'm only 28 and even now as I write this I'm crying because I'm still afraid, but I see that there's a possibility of having a family, seemingly living a normal life with children and being able to have a wife.
There was comfort in your words that said I would be able to find a way and a life worth living. Your words have given me the strength to push on to another day. I don't feel that crushing weight upon me that wouldn't let me out of bed. I want to be something. I want to have goals that aren't restricted to what seemed liked inabilities to succeed based on having a mental illness. This is my first time reading your article which is quite ironic but you've now gained yourself a new loyal reader.
Six days later I was reminded of the beauty that can be shared by two complete strangers. At that moment she made me feel at peace with who I was for the first time in my life with her emailed response:
Here’s the thing: you’re you. You have talents and attributes and abilities that have nothing to do with being bipolar. You also have some that are better because you’re bipolar, believe it or not. I fully believe my writing ability and my humour are hugely affected by the crazy – and in a good way. I’m more empathetic, and less judgmental. I’m kinder. If the trade off is some unstable days or having to monitor my sleep more carefully, or to listen to my body and shut down once in a while, so be it. I trust the meds when I’m debating not trusting them, because this is a long term investment in my future. And that future is as bright as anyone’s, and limited only by how hard I fight myself.
As for relationships, you have to believe me when I tell you that everyone – everyone – has their shit. Truly. Every single one of us has some dark secret we think will send someone running for cover. And it might. But we’re all keeping something back, and the longer it stays out of the light, the harder it is to address. I’m not saying haul out ‘Hi, I’m bipolar’ on a first date (though I frequently have); your own comfort level will predict theirs. It takes some time. Spend that time getting your own shit together. I think of it as a new puppy, in some ways. I don’t introduce people to it until it’s housebroken and isn’t chewing their shoes.
This is the card we got dealt. It’s not necessarily a bad one. In fact, after all this time, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’ve gone through some horrendous stuff, but much of it was me not being able to recognize threats or deal with external pressures. I’ll put the word ‘ex-husband’ in here for a clue. But life is good. Great, even. I’m me. Yeah, I pop a couple of pills every day, and will for the rest of my life. Because I want a life, and I want a great one. I deserve great, and so do you. I’m willing to do the work I have to on my end, and you will too.
I know this is all new and not particularly shiny. It’s scary. But how I wish you could see my mail this week. 250 letters. All supportive. We are out here, thousands of us, and we have families and friends we love and who love us. People will let you down; people will surprise you in a good way. There will be loss, but there will be gains. Be kind to yourself, seek out a rhythm, and alter the course when you have to. If you stumble, get up. You matter.
Give yourself some time to get used to this. It’s been there all along, it just has a name now. And tossing a saddle on this pony means you can ride it now. That’s all.
I wish you all the best, truly. There is much good here. Nobody gets a free ticket, we just know the cost of ours.
In many ways, her own willingness to be honest saved my life. It gave me a perspective that I had never thought of. Life wasn't happening to me, life was happening for me. I had a new creative superpower gifted to me. It just required some routine maintenance.
It took me another four or five years to fully feel like I knew how to ride that pony with a level of grace and skill. But that's the reality of dealing with heavy shit. We won't immediately feel good. Most of society is a mirage of quick fixes and immediate relief bullshit. But what they forget to tell you, is that if it comes easy, the solution is always temporary.
That's why so few of us ever find what we're looking for. We're unwilling to put the hard work in. Easy choices, hard life. Easy life, hard choices.
If it's not hard, it's not worth doing. You will not escape the life you so desperately want to leave behind if you expect it to be solved with an external solution, or Superman to swoop in and carry you off to safety when you're afraid to face your own Lex Luthor.
That's why the first thing to do when you get knocked off your horse is to get back on a pony. The Great Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, The Big Bam aka the greatest baseball player to ever live said it best. “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.”
What I lack in finesse, I make up for in persistence and relentlessness to be the absolute best fucking version of myself possible.
I've done my best to replace the short term fixes with a list of compelling ways to experience pleasure, regardless of the time, place or how I'm feeling.
Cuddle with Chugs (my plump little pug).
Hug Lindsey, Mom, Sister or Dad.
Message someone I care about and tell them what they mean to me.
Go for a walk.
Listen to music.
Watch a funny video.
Write about what I'm feeling.
Play a podcast that inspires me.
Listen to a Tony Robbins audiobook
Read a book
Tell Lindsey how thankful I am she's in my life.
Bathe in a memory of something that puts a smile on my face.
Watch a thought-provoking movie with Lindsey.
Go to the gym.
Contribute to someone else's dream.
Help others get unstuck.
Grab coffee with a friend.
Tell someone I love why I love them.
I encourage you to make your own list. Don't stop until you have a minimum of fifteen ways to instantly feel good (without the guilt). Hell, go for a hundred. I double dog dare you.
If I failed to change my perspective, you'd probably think the worst possible fate I could have faced is death. But as Henry David Thoreau said, "Don't get to the end of your life and realize that you never lived." Everything else in life to me is trivial. My car is covered in dents, I don't own a house, I'm not rolling in cash, and yet I'm happier than 90% of the people I meet.
I'm not afraid to alter my course when times get tough. I've been blessed to see what really matters in life and luckily for me, those are a free all-you-can-eat buffet. Perhaps that's not the best analogy, but the point is, my list carries with it the ability to indulge to my heart's content on a daily basis and "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives," as author Annie Dillard lovingly reminds us.
I don't know who I'm writing this for. In some senses, I feel like I'm writing for myself to remind me of how far I've come. I hope whoever reads this finds comfort in knowing that even on your darkest days, you too will be blessed with a sunrise. This too shall pass. You've arrived at this moment so you can learn what you must learn, so you can become the kind of person you need to be to create the life you deserve.