When you examine the cover of my newly released book, you couldn’t possibly imagine that the author of “Unstoppable Joy” would not somehow experience endless joy herself.
That’s far from the truth.
It’s easy to look on the outside and think that someone has it all together. It’s easy to assume that the smile planted on my face comes with a happy life. I’m not going to say that everything’s bad, but I also can’t lie and say that it’s been the best year. In fact, along with my book release date, came a number of challenges: loss, resigning from my job, illness, major life changes that I didn’t want to face (and was in no way prepared to make).
There was actually a point where I thought I had lost my mind.
Then I realized that I probably didn’t.
I told myself that if that were the case, I wouldn’t be well enough to know I’d lost it.
It was the only thing that convinced me that I might be okay.
However, through the pain I learned some valuable lessons. It’s helped me when I started to feel all was lost.
1. I’m stronger than I think
When the tough times hit, a major fear that literally consumes us is whether or not we feel we are strong enough to make it. You are stronger than your circumstances. You will make it. You will be okay. In fact, you will be amazed at what you can get through, even when you doubt your ability to do so.
2. Whether today is better (or worse) than yesterday, I’m still making progress
Most people severely underestimate the strides they’re making because they picture progress as a smooth journey. Today should be better than yesterday. Tomorrow should be better than today. If that doesn’t happen, then we believe we aren’t improving. Actually, progress is a time period of giant steps forward, followed by several setbacks. One bad day, week, or month doesn’t mean you aren’t getting any better. Life is like a roller coaster. It’s not a smooth, steady ride. As long as you keep moving, you are still on the right track.
3. God is still with me
The universe is still in my corner. My destiny is still intact.
Most of us don't give credit when the good occurs. Yet, we wonder why God abandoned us or what we did wrong when things go south. It’s hard to see that you did nothing to deserve the good or the bad. The harsh reality is that we all go through tough times. We all must endure them. I didn’t deserve to lose my grandparents, but I also didn’t do anything to warrant having two wonderful people in my life to love and care for me. It’s not fair that I had to leave my job after five years of searching. However, it’s also not fair that out of all the people who applied, I was chosen for the job in the first place. You have to look at the blessings in your life as well. Look at all the things that did go right. Look at all the people in your life who are still there that love and support you. Even if you are going through hell, you were still given the help to bear it. You’re still making it day-by-day and moment-by-moment.
4. Life will never be perfect
When times seem hopeless, we always tend to point to a time where things were “better.” Yet, playing that “once upon a [perfect] time” only sends us on a downward spiral. I tried to think of a time in the past when things were “better.” Then I realized that during that period, I was thinking of a happier time. Now, I wish I could go back to a time when everyone was healthy. Before that, I longed for moments when certain loved ones were still with me. I find myself consumed with some magical point where all was right with the world. Usually, that time period is around 1988 (I was in kindergarten…and all was well due to the free snacks and mandatory naptime). Which leads me to my last point…
5. Normal goes out the window. I’m simply adjusting to my “new normal.”
After my grandmother passed away, I thought that life would never be the same again (and it wasn’t). As many people know, I lived with my mom and grandparents growing up. It was one of the biggest losses I ever had to face. I went from seeing her every day and even sleeping beside her on some nights to a huge void. The pain seemed unbearable. As a senior in high school, I even planned on staying home for college simply because my grandmother didn’t want me to leave her. She ended up leaving me. I was furious. I remember telling my mom, “I will never move on from this! It’s impossible. Things will never be normal again.” I was hoping she would deny that. Instead she replied, “I know. That’s the point. You’ll never get over it. This is what they call the new normal.”
The truth is I didn’t want a new normal, but my 17 years of “normal” spanned about four decades for my mom (she even stayed home for college). Whether 17 or 47 years, you can’t go back to life as usual when someone has that kind of an impact on you. If anything, a major change only makes you realize that normalcy is an illusion. It simply doesn’t exist. If everything went back to normal, then something would be wrong. It took me 17 years to realize the connection we had. There is no way you can be okay with losing that after a few weeks, months or years.
After 15 years…
Are things the same? No.
Are things better? Yes.
I simply stopped trying to force myself to get back to normal. Instead, I embraced a slow adjustment to the new me, a new routine, the strengthening of my relationships with those who I'm blessed to have in my life, discovering new activities to help me cope, finding creative ways to fill my time...
and, finally, learning that it is actually okay to enjoy life again.
Growing up, I watched so many people battle various diseases. I saw many of them get support. I saw them get treated. Even the simple things like someone picking up the phone to check in on them. Someone offering to cook them a meal. Someone offering to take them to the emergency room when they were sure something was wrong.
With me, I got the cliché responses like
I can tell you that the pain of depression was very real, but the agony of being dismissed was far worse at times. Being the subject of jokes during holiday meals because I was too sensitive. Having everyone upset with me because I wasn’t feeling well…
It was the equivalent of getting reprimanded for having the flu, while your friends were told to stay home from school.
I didn’t quite understand why my feelings weren’t valid.
It actually sent a wave of panic whenever I would feel an episode coming. It was like fighting off the common cold—telling yourself you aren’t sick when you know that to be far from the truth.
I can’t be sick or everyone will be mad.
I can’t be sick because I still have so much to do.
I can’t be sick….
It was typical of growing up in the African-American community. No one had any recommendations for taking care of your mental health. All the remedies treated physical ailments. We had special broth for colds, sugar-free meals for diabetics, low sodium options for hypertension. Yet, the fact that depression couldn’t be treated with Tylenol and plenty of rest was baffling.
It was downright frustrating.
“Why aren’t you feeling better?!?! You took two Tylenol earlier.”
I grew into the habit of just telling everyone I was okay. It proved a much easier alternative.
You see, people cared. They loved me. They just didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know how to stop my pain. To those looking in on the outside, that was hard to endure. Therefore, in order to make everyone else comfortable, I decided to convince them I was fine. It worked (sort of).
Then I grew up and learned that society operated just the same. “I’m fine” is the correct response whether you had the greatest day ever or the crappiest week. It didn’t matter. That’s what people wanted to hear, and protocol tells us that you give people what they want to hear (not what they need to know).
Oddly enough, I started realizing that more people struggled with depression than I would like to imagine. The only difference is they had mastered the routine of:
“Hi, How are you?”
And that’s when I learned that it wasn’t my depression that was the problem.
It was the fact that I was horrible at denying it.
Now, I dedicate my life to mental health awareness so that no one else has to suffer in silence.
Trust me, I care. I understand if you aren’t fine. Believe me, it is okay not to be okay.
However, I’m here to let you know that there will come a day when you’ll say you are fine…
and actually mean it.