Last Saturday, I spent five hours glued in bed fading in and out of sleep while I watched an endless number of teenage dramas, including my guiltiest pleasure: The Vampire Diaries. If you read my last post, “Whose Life is it Anyway?: Taking the Lead Back From Sadness it would appear I am losing the war to get off my couch and take on my sadness and fear of inadequacy. However, this war will consist of many battles. Some won. Some lost.
Saturday I lost, but I am not wounded beyond recovery; it’s just a process. It takes time and calculated steps. Writing about it and fessing up to the whole messy truth was step one.
Why it’s ok to get out of bed
When struggling with sadness that is rooted in a fear of the unknown or fear of self-worth, staying the course can feel a hell of a lot easier than trying something new, e.g., doing anything besides laying in bed depressed. Ironic, isn’t it?
Trying something new can trigger fears of potential failures. But, when you take a risk and do something unexpected, failure becomes a generously undefined grey area. Think about the last time you tried something for the very first time. There are no expectations, no previous markers you have to measure up to, just the courage to take a chance. If I find the courage to do something unexpected, even something as simple as going dancing by myself, the accomplishment is in taking the risk at all. So by just getting up and beginning I can already say I have succeeded. There is no line of demarcation separating failure from success, what comes after is just the experience.
Don’t get me wrong, there are mistakes and lessons learned, but when trying something new you are supposed to maneuver through those murky waters. Maybe I need to fall off the bike a few times so I can get up and remind myself what I am made of. If I am ever going to break the routine of sadness, I have to remind myself I am not a pattern; I am a series of choices and it is time to make better ones.
Being stupid fixes nothing
When trying to overcome sadness, it is common to make a dramatic pendulum shift. For me, it is a dangerous ‘all or nothing’ mentality. Either I do nothing and stay trapped in my sadness, or I do it all and commit to some risky behavior to prove to myself I am not numb. The problem is that one over-the-top action to fight sadness rarely ever reaches the root cause of this mindset. I learned this lesson the hard way.
Within a week of my first breakup, the spark that started my first battle with sadness, I found myself in a salon chair asking the stylist to cut off five inches and give me bright red streaks. And guess what? A month later it turned out this moment of teenage angst was not the solution to my problems. It didn’t leave me feeling any stronger or any better about my breakup; in fact, it left me with faded orange streaks and a bad haircut.
Unrealistic and completely uncharacteristic choices are different than unexpected ones. They are temporary distractions. They serve as a way to escape what is actually going on in an attempt to be someone else. This sidesteps going through the process of finding out what it is you need to get better. It treats living with sadness as a flesh wound that can be healed with a Band-Aid. But dealing with sadness is much more a deep cut than a flesh wound.
Deciding I was ready to start healing meant committing to a long process rooted in who I am. It meant knowing that more realistic choices, like reading one new book a month, would do more to build back my strength than one single moment of misguided moxie.
To have less Saturdays like my last one, I have done some research and come up with four steps to help me, and those hiding with me, get out of bed and take back our lives.
1. Do Something Active
Nothing beats that moment right after a workout, when the sweat is still dripping down my face and my heart is jack-hammering away. Okay, well maybe a few things, like an In-N-Out burger, homemade empanadas and a good glass of wine.
Truth is, unless you’ve built exercise into your life as a habit, getting the energy to go work out can feel as desirable as chewing glass. Personally, I know that after a 10-12 hour day with high school students, the last thing I want to do is run on a treadmill while wondering if the person next to me can hear how out of breath I am. But, it is hard to deny science.
According US News and World Report, exercise can not only reduces the symptoms of depression, but it can do so in as little as 3 times a week!
Still, not convinced? It’s okay, most days neither am I. However, what has pushed me further than statistics and numbers on endorphins, is to stop viewing exercise through a singular lens.
In my sadness and fear of inadequacy, going to a packed gym or trying to run three miles around my neighborhood can actually make me feel worse about myself. But, riding my bike to the local coffee shop, hiking with my friend and her two adorable dogs, playing some pick-up soccer, those things I enjoy and they make me feel good. They make me feel a sense of accomplishment.
Limiting exercise options to running on treadmills and becoming a gym rat takes all the fun out of it. Instead, pick active activities you enjoy, those are the best for you soul and sadness. Find the things that make you feel accomplished and make you break a sweat at the same time. Then, own them.
2. Do something selfless
On the days I am really swimming in the deep end of sadness, one of my most reoccurring thoughts is that I am not living up to people’s expectations. The specific person I think of might change, but the fear remains the same. By committing to doing something selfless, I am redefining how I understand and deal with expectations.
By definition, a selfless act is doing something without the expectation of getting anything in return. Whether it is making a meal for someone, writing a kind note, or picking up some one’s coffee tab, you do it just because you can.
A selfless act is a reminder that sometimes human interaction is just that, a chance to be human together. Amidst all our messiness and flaws, it is a chance to just appreciate one another. When I afford those expectation-free interactions to other people through a selfless act, I am reminded that other people can afford it to me too. And it is that reminder of the absence of expectation that begins to chip away at my fear and sadness.
3. Do something selfish
This one is pretty simple. When I lie in bed, worried if I’m valued or loved, I often just need to hear it from myself. To rely heavily on words of affirmation and love to come from others can be a dangerous game and a primary cause of sadness. Because the fact of the matter is others won’t always be there when you need them.
In those instances, I am learning to provide my own confirmations. But, looking at myself in the mirror and reciting statements of self-affirmation just isn’t my style; however, there are tangible ways to make a declaration of love to yourself without having to do so like this.
All you have to do is take a day, an hour or even a minute to do something selfish. I could make some suggestions on what that is, but I think the most important part of doing something selfish is that is comes from no one else but you. It is something that you choose because it makes you and only you happy.
4. Do something, anything
After my aforementioned miserable Saturday, I spent Sunday afternoon with a new friend wandering around IKEA; later, I went thrifting with my roommate. At IKEA, I bought a blanket I really didn’t need and a Bette Midler record for $1.98 at the thrift store. In all honesty, I can’t tell you why. But I know that Sunday was a better day than Saturday because I got up a did something, even if it didn’t make sense.
Rice University explored a similar concept in 2012 when they set up a chance for students “to mingle, de-stress and share hugs” with puppies during finals week. Puppies. Seriously, they had a room where you could just cuddle up to a four-legged friend and call it a day.
Did this help students prepare for finals? No. Did it remove the bags underneath people’s eye from two all-nighters in a row? No. So why’d they do it? Because it made people feel better. Sometimes dealing with the stress, disappointment and sadness of life means doing something without needing to know the point. To get over sadness, sometimes it is not about the end destination but the pursuit itself. Being in the pursuit definitely doesn’t mean the sadness magically disappears; it just means that I’ve decided to engage in battle and I am fighting to win the war.
Alysa Perreras is an English teacher committed to helping students define their voice, while still engaging in the process of defining her own. Her free time includes guitar playing, wine drinking and travel planning. As a child of Colombian and Filipino heritage, writing became a way for her to make sense of her two worlds.