A little note for the little things

cn: anxiety, panic attacks, depression

As the year draws to a close, I usually like to indulge myself in a retrospective, and marvel at the things I’ve learnt and the ways I’ve grown and the beauty that has graced the past 52 weeks of my life. While things may take a turn for the optimistic in the last few hours that we have left of 2021, at this very moment, I cannot really be fucking bothered.

Let us be clear: this is not the attitude to take for long term mental health recovery. For long term mental health recovery, you have to be bothered. Even when it feels like you’ll never truly believe all the positive thoughts you are forcing your brain to sound out, you have to keep practising, because that is how you get to the day when you do actually believe.

Sometimes depression twists and turns your perception of the world in a way that makes gratitude feel like guilt.

But – if we are being real: that is a lot of effort. Effort that is very much well spent, but nonetheless, effort that we sometimes just might not have.

Or sometimes depression twists and turns your perception of the world in a way that makes gratitude feel like guilt. How can someone who is so lucky to have so much feel so miserable? How spoilt/ungrateful/selfish/unworthy/disgusting I must be.

Colourful graffiti reading 'Smile! it's free'
Easier said than done.

No doubt if you’ve ever been depressed or even just mildly sad, some well-meaning and unsolicited advisor will have suggested that you start a gratitude journal. But it can feel so discouraging when you are making lists of all the things you have to feel grateful for, purely in the hope that future you will find it in yourself to actually feel that gratitude. The count of lucky stars turns into a count of lashes with which to berate yourself for being so ungrateful.

So what do you do when you have no thanks to give, and every silver lining feels disingenuous? You scale down and pare back the appreciation until you find what is genuine for you, and you accept that, however small it may be.

Why is it that, despite how terrible you might feel, you have continued to breathe and think and live all the way up to this moment in time?

This is something acutely personal – it is not about what you think you should be grateful for, but what you are grateful for now. Or if gratitude is too far to reach, take away that element of an emotional response, and ask yourself, as a matter of fact, what it is that is getting you through? Why is it that, despite how terrible you might feel, you have continued to breathe and think and live all the way up to this moment in time? Acknowledgement of those things, without judgment and without pressurising yourself with the need to feel anything about them, is just as valuable as all the gratitude journal entries in the world.

So if you are struggling, think smaller. There is no shame in how small the thing is which marks the limit of your capacity for gratitude. It might be something small and poignant, like a momentary smile from a stranger which is the only thing that has sparked a little bit of genuine warmth in your heart, at a time when you can’t even remember how to love your most loved ones.

Often, people have no idea how much a passing interaction can mean – once I was having a panic attack on the phone to an anonymous student helpline, and the volunteer’s deliberate and reassuring breaths on the other end of the call reminded me how to breathe when the ability had suddenly escaped me, and that was one little thing that helped me to get through that night. This is nice for the other person too – you never know how much the little things you do can help in unanticipated ways. As I said – small, but poignant.

At other times, it might be more of a case of small, and to be honest, plain random. There is a game I play on my phone called Best Fiends. It is one of those mindless time-waster games where you match chains of cartoon fruits – not the most intellectually impressive activity, but I have had it for five years and at the time of writing, am on level 678. For unknown reasons, matching a chain of ten little strawberries on my phone screen can pull me back from the verge of a panic attack. I might be sitting in a conversation and feel my mind slipping away, or at my desk feeling overwhelmed by my work to do list, and whipping out the app for five minutes somehow calms me down. It looks stupid and childish and it certainly isn’t a mindful meditation; it’s not deep or meaningful or remotely romantic, but then again, neither is a panic attack. A silly little game gets me through some moments, and sometimes that is all I need, and being able to recognise that is sometimes all I can ask of myself. This is not to say that everyone with anxiety should download Best Fiends and expect to be cured; as I said earlier, all these little things (particularly the little random ones) are so particular to each individual, and you just need to find what feels genuine for you.  

For those of you who might feel too lost to take stock of the little things that have led up to today, a blogging friend of mine (Journey to life) once framed it in a forward-looking way instead: what will I miss? If I disappear tomorrow, what will I miss – that I have already and would be sorry to lose, or that is coming up that I would be sad to miss out on?

My sister is one of the most important things in the world to me, and she recently got married. Several months earlier, I was feeling particularly depressed and as I was writing out all the bleakness in my diary, I remembered that my sister’s wedding was coming up. It gave me something solid to hold onto, a constant drive in the back of my mind – there was no way in hell I’d be missing that day. No matter how bad I felt in the intervening months, I had to make it to the wedding – it was a non-negotiable. So as it turns out, the power of FOMO can save a life – who knew?

That was a pretty big one, but sometimes the tiniest thing happening next week or tomorrow or in just a few moments is just enough to drag me forwards to see that thing through. My next example is, frankly, very embarrassing for me to admit, but I reckon is an excellent demonstration of the weird ways in which brains can find a reason to live.

A Youtuber I watched (yes, I’m in my mid-twenties and yes I still watch Youtube and yes I am aware that talking about Youtube in the context of reasons to live is mildly to moderately ridiculous, and yes – I am turning red just writing this in my diary let alone publishing it on the internet) was making a short video every day one month. The videos were not mental health related, not clever, and again not deep or meaningful or remotely romantic. In fact, on the whole, the content of the videos meant very little to me. But the fact that they popped up each day gave me a tiny little milestone to reach every day for a month. Don’t get me wrong – the videos did not become my purpose in life or the thing I was living for; it was more that they gave me a way to mark each day when my life was a blur. No particular emotional response or judgement was associated with them; they just somehow got me through that month and I’m not really sure why but I am glad to recognise it. You see – small, and very fucking random.

There is no shame in how small the thing is which marks the limit of your capacity for gratitude.

Genuine appreciation / acknowledgement / acceptance is not something that can be forced; it is hugely personal and might require some searching, but it is there, in some tiny, microscopic form, and that is just as valuable as the latest Oscar winner thanking her mother in tears from the sparkling stage. It can be as superficial as you like, maybe something so petty that you don’t want to admit, but if it’s getting you through, then that is plenty good enough for today.

(And just to reiterate that this is not to undermine all the hard long term work that is required to build a healthier brain for the future; I just mean to add an additional element for the benefit of your brain right now 🙂 )

So, on this last day of 2021, I ask you – what is the smallest thing getting you through to 2022?

A silver winter sunset over a dark field with a glowing ring around the sun.

Thank you so much for reading and happy new year! I’m hoping to write a lot more in 2022, and you bet that every like / read / comment will be one more little thing for me to be grateful for, so please please let me know your thoughts! I want to hear all about all your random little things that have got you right here, right now 🙂

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