Tuesday, 13 December 2016

My Life in the Woods: What I learned in 2016

What I learned from The Romeo Project
"I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."― Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods
I really like this Henry David Thoreau quote. He was a man of many, many talents and professions according to his Wikipedia page. And surprisingly, despite being born 200 years ago next year, his writing is still relatable. Like many a modern-day self-help books, Thoreau's book Walden is an experiment in how to live well and simply. He relocates to Walden and lives in the woods, and then writes about it. It's described as a reflection on simple living in natural surroundings, a manual for self-reliance and a voyage for self discovery.

In many ways, this year has felt a lot like Thoreau's Walden experiment. I started my Romeo Project because I wanted to discover myself, discover happiness, and find a way to live better. (Mind you, I did not have the balls to go move away to the wilderness for my experiment.) But I did spend the year taking self-help book advice to heart and trying to change the way I lived my life so I could find happiness.
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."― Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods
When you have a mental illness you often experience FOMO. (That's fear of missing out for those of you not down with the kids.) I have constantly experienced FOMO since I was 12 years old. I felt like I was missing out socially, by not having the right friends, any friends, close friends. I was missing out because of where I lived. I missed out academically because my illness meant I couldn't study. I felt unliked, unwelcome and alone for a long time. I felt like my personality was holding me back  until I found out I had depression and anxiety. Then I felt like my illness was holding me back.

I thought: If only I didn't feel like this I could do it. If only I wasn't depressed I would be liked. 

In reality, the only thing holding me back was me. Sure, my anxiety means I don't want to go to new places or meet new people. My depression means I can be lost in very negative and consuming thoughts. But there are ways to overcome your mental illness (or whatever else is holding you back) and live a full life. That's what self-help books thrive on - we want to know how other people overcame their burden. We consume these books in the hope that by osmosis we will feel happier. And when you have mental health problems, people just love to offer you solutions. From exercise to CBT classes, to health eating - people swear by these methods to improve your mental health.

The problem is, I ignored all advice for years. I never committed to making positive steps. I would try meditation once and without a quick-fix I gave up. I let my mental illness win. Time and time again I stood back and let my mental illness decide what I did or did not do. I never questioned it, I never challenged it.

This year, for the first time in my life, I decided that I wanted to win. Not my depression. Not my anxiety. But me.

My 10 resolutions explored methods of self care, tips for managing your inner critic, CBT, meditation and countless other tactics raved about in self-help books. I tried each method once, then moved on to another and another, constantly sampling what the world was preaching. I took not only the first step, but hundreds of further steps as I delved into potential solutions.

And there were some resolutions that stuck. I make sure I dedicate at least one evening per week to self-care. I know now that exercise does make me feel better about myself, and journaling helps me make sense of how I'm feeling. I invested time and effort in my mental health and I feel all the better for it.

The lesson
I guess if I were to sum this all up in a nice, neat concluding sentence, it would be to borrow this from Thoreau.
"If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods
I discovered that I can be depressed and anxious and still be happy. But I still have foundations to lay. I need to build upon the methods I am using now with practice, as well as trying new coping strategies too. Finding joy and hope and happiness this year doesn't mean that I now stop making any effort. Stepping off the pedal is exactly what my mental illness would love me to do to allow it to thrive. So I keep going, I keep making an effort and I keep searching for happiness to make sure that it never goes away.

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