I’ve come to realise that, contrary to what I believed growing up, sharing my feelings and having a whinge are not the same thing. I know now that people who care about me value the mutual sharing of feelings because they know it builds connection and helps us both to stay well. I think there’s some wisdom there, and now I subscribe to the idea that a victory shared is a victory doubled, and a problem shared is a problem halved.
Another key milestone in being able to share my feelings was debunking the conventional notion that expressing feelings makes a person weak. It’s probably fair to say I often carry too heavy a load. I like the feeling of responsibility, the feeling of making things happen. I’ve learnt though, that if I carry too heavy a load all by myself, eventually I’ll break under the stress. As a result, I make sure I share my feelings and connect with others. This strengthens and deepens relationships, but somehow also makes me more able to deal with my stressors. Ultimately, sharing doesn’t make me weaker, it makes me stronger.
When it comes down to it, I know I’m a pretty sensitive person. Because of that, I share things only with people I trust will be kind. Over time I’ve tried talking to different people to see if they were a good fit. It doesn’t always work out and there have been a few awkward conversations, but on the whole people have been really supportive. I’m now really glad to have found a trusting network of 2-3 people that I can share anything with, and for whom I can do the same.
There’s a video on my friend Dan’s phone. The time-stamp reads, “11:59pm, Dec 31st, 2015”. In it, the two of us can be seen with a beer in each hand, racing the clock to finish our drinks as fast as we possibly can before the clock strikes midnight.
I attribute part of my wellness to the fact that I drink only in moderation. My New Year’s Resolution for 2016 was to do the year alcohol-free. Completing 365 days ‘dry’ was so liberating, both mentally and socially, that upon finishing I decided not to return to my old student ways. The video on Dan’s phone is us taking our last sips before midnight, before 2015 turned into 2016, and I left binge-drinking culture behind.
To me, cause and effect are king. Low alcohol intake, exercise, sleep and diet are all aspects of my wellness I now pay very close attention to. It seems so obvious looking back, but as a student I was confused about why I was not feeling 100%, despite the fact that I would spend my days neglecting to exercise, eating poor quality food, staying up late to study, and then going out to get drunk two or three nights a week.
When I made that New Year’s Resolution, it felt so good I wanted to do it again. The following year I resolved to delete all my social media accounts. Was it worth it? My headspace is quieter, and my world smaller. I like that.
Growing up surrounded by fruit trees and horse studs, love of the outdoors came naturally. So did knowing the value of a quiet mind and quiet life. I’ve always harboured a subtle frustration at the intrusion I feel social media and smart phones have upon my head-space. One day, while working at a vineyard in France during a backpacking trip around the world, I decided to take control back, and to do so markedly, in a way that would resonate on a deep level. After pondering for a day, I went back to my home-stay, picked up my Samsung Galaxy S2, held it in both hands and snapped in half, pulling away broken shards and fibres of plastic, until I held one half cleanly in each hand. It felt good. It felt like I was scoring one back for my mental sovereignty, for the quiet country kid inside.
I find nature a pretty good tool to calm me. When I’m in amongst the long grass or the dirt, or standing on the side of the Waikato river, some inner angst of mine settles. The welcome inconvenience of having mud smeared through my toes, or the sight of some river algae growing defiantly up the side of a jetty reminds me that there is still room for the uncontrolled and the spontaneous, and that mans attempts to define and regiment our world are far from absolute.
Exercise is the best and quickest way I know to feel good. My go-to form of exercise is running. I know that if I’m not running pretty much every second day, I’m just not me. Instead I become a slob of a person. As a result, I spend a lot of time on ‘runner’s high’. Once I’m back from a run I feel like I can take on anything. Sometimes I think I take it a bit too far; I’ll be out on a run, feeling good, and come up with some ridiculous plan to reverse climate change or end world hunger. Thankfully, I (usually) have the good sense to write it off as endorphin-related delusion.
Exercise also provides the vehicle for meeting a couple of other needs of mine: solitude and challenge. I know I’m an introvert, and that the constant talking and instant communication that pervades society does not make it well-suited for people like me. Re-charging frequently is important for me. Long runs and walks give me the chance to be alone, gather my thoughts and recharge my energy levels.
The other great benefit of running is that it provides real challenge. Long outings, particularly in the bush or the mountains, present a unique situation. With little to aid me, and stripped of artifice, I feel a strong sense of self-reliance, as though my decisions are of real consequence, as though my choices in this environment actually matter. I relish the chance to find my thresholds, employ some will power and attempt to break through them. If I succeed, I grow. If I fail, I lick my wounds and try again next time I get the itch.
Running a few times each week is great and tends to keep me satisfied, but it’s usually only a couple of months until my frustration boils over and I need a bigger challenge. A few months ago I had an itch one Friday night. I asked my friend who lived 55km away to save me a bed at his house for the night because I was going to run on out. He thought I meant I was driving and would arrive shortly. 4 hours later he got a call from me, tired, hungry, and thoroughly defeated. While he went to buy me a kebab, his partner came to pick me up, and we spent the rest of the night sitting around talking, having a catch up.
Experiences like that, or my favourite one to date, the Taupo Ultra-Marathon, give me the best feelings of excitement and, if I’m determined enough, accomplishment. In a society with wonderful technological advancements, where algorithms can do everything from finding me a life partner to re-ordering the toilet paper rolls when supplies dwindle, I find it progressively more difficult to experience the truly rich. Exercise, particularly running, provides me that.
That feeling of accomplishment is a big thing I pursue to help me feel good. As a Type A personality, I have a strong need to feel productive. Knowing that, I can act accordingly to meet my needs.
It’s important to me that I always have a clear plan for what I’m pursuing.
Visualising my goals is a tool I find effective. I spend time many mornings reminding myself of the vision, holding it on the screen of my mind for 20 minutes, and giving it as much detail as I can. Doing this calms me, and gives me focus for the day. The bigger, nicer effect is that the clarity motivates me. On the flip-side, I find I get annoyed and impatient if I don’t have a well-thought out plan in mind.
My morning routine is sacrosanct. The first hour of the day is my personal time. I use it to tick off lots of little chores which immediately builds feelings of accomplishment, and gets the day off to a good start. I also use it to do things I’d like to do but don’t want to have to think about, like flossing, stretching and making my bed. Another task that I find, if done sincerely, can have a good effect is writing a morning gratitude list. I find it puts my mind into a calm, clear state. At first I found the effects of these tasks to be ephemeral, but over the months something shifted and I began to value them. By adding them to my morning routine, they become habit and I can now rest assured they’ll get done each and every morning.
Another tool that’s pretty useful for me is za-zen. I do it every morning as part of my personal time. I learnt using YouTube tutorials and was immediately drawn to it. The way I see it, meditation returns my world to the way it should be - quiet and unspectacular - and lets the fast-paced outside world go past me like water off a duck’s back.
I like to keep a good amount of order in my life. Order helps me feel on top of things and as if my mind is well-organised. By ‘order’ I mean structure and routine. Keeping a tidy bedroom, or sticking to a weekly financial budget are two good examples. When my room is tidy and I’m on budget for the week, my mind feels organised. When my room is cluttered and my finances are loose, I feel like I’m on the back foot. Some friends laugh at my need to have order, and the fact that I always make my bed. But I’ve come to think that it’s an important part of what helps me stay well.
If you could send a note back to yourself when you needed the most help, what would it say?
Jonathan experienced depression between the ages of 22-25. The loss of a beloved lifestyle added to the stresses of the Christchurch earthquakes.
How did it make you feel?
- Lazy. Even small tasks seemed enormous.
- Sad and regretful.
- Uncontrollable negative thoughts.
- Couldn’t see how it would improve.
Did you take prescribed medication?
Were there any triggers that exacerbated your feelings?
- Much of what comprises the student lifestyle: alcohol abuse, social media addiction, financial stress, poor diet.
- The Christchurch earthquakes.
Was there a turning point when things started to get better?
Yes. I had a girlfriend I was very close to. Deterministic and headstrong, she called me to account; shining a spotlight on the flaws in my thinking, telling me to take control of my situation.
I stopped trying to attach my life to some all-fulfilling purpose. In spite of the relative enormity of the task, I decided to try to get on with some hard work and not ask too many questions.