The sort of stereotypical story of an artist with depression.
And her stupidly simple recipe for happiness.
Hey! I’m Kelly. The artist behind Messy Ever After. I was a quirky and shy kid that developed a profound sense of misery in my teens. First triggered by the outside world, and then inflicted and perpetuated by my flawed coping mechanisms.
I know, I know. An artist with depression. How cliché.
This story isn’t unique. The life events that led me to my darkness aren’t profound or dramatic. I mean, some of the stories are dramatic, but I’ll save that for my memoir *laughs to herself*. There are too many ways to find yourself lost in the dark so I don’t see the value in dredging up the specific woes of my past, but I’ll give you an outline of how they affected my behavior.
For the last 12 years, I have existed in a state of anxious frenzy. I bounced around between colleges, jobs, and relationships while trying to fill the void that was inside of me. It took me so long to realize how unhealthy I was. I was functionally depressed. Most people didn’t know until I inevitably word-vomited all over them,“I’m not a functional human being!!!” or something similar to that. My grades never suffered. I was a great employee. I always had long term relationships, but in every scenario, I would hit a breaking point and flee to the next thing that would distract me from my pain.
Rather, distract me from myself.
To anyone who was a victim of my selfish pursuits to find relief, I can only apologize and say that damaged people far too easily damage others. Especially those who are close to them. I should know. It’s my origin story.
But, this post isn’t about being depressed. This post is about the transition to finding happiness. It just took me a really long time to get here…
How did I do it? It’s SO easy *insert eye-roll*. Just kidding. This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life (next to quitting my job and pursuing art as a legit full time career). I don’t know if my methods will work for other people. I’m not writing this to tell you what to do with your life.
I’m actually writing this, because I had a solo art show and in a fit of honesty I decided to make my struggles with mental illness the focal point of my show. For a reclusive introvert, I do weird things sometimes…
Here’s my recipe to shining a light in the darkness:
- Recognize personal weaknesses without judgment and objectively realize there is a butt-ton of work to do. Emphasis on “without judgment”.
- Rest. Being depressed takes a lot of energy. Recharge that battery!
- Gratitude. It’s time to focus on all the good things! Make them up if needed.
- Mindfulness. Catch the brain when it goes down a dark path and throw up a road block.
- Love. Stop being mean. Learn to love yourself and truly accept love from others.
Now, the next sections got way longer than I intended. It’s hard to jam an entire mental ‘rebirth’ process into an easily consumable blog post. You’ve been warned.
1. Recognizing my weaknesses without judgment.
I came to a painful realization last summer. I am incredibly f*$%ed up. It was painful for a moment, and then surprisingly empowering. I mean, I always knew I was a bit off—but it never fully sunk in until I partnered up with the sanest, calmest, most emotionally stable nerd I have ever met. It’s similar to my being aware that I’m short, but fully realizing it when standing next to someone over a foot taller than me—you know?
Anyway, I wasn’t throwing the usual pity party for myself during this epic realization. (I had already done that for months before this moment.) I was calmly assessing my behaviors and I realized I did a lot of things that were counterproductive to happiness.
Rumination, judgment, complaining, passive-aggression, pessimistic and cynical thoughts, pushing people away, over-reacting, over-analyzing, self-sabotaging, externalizing my misery by blaming others and more. Over the years, I had turned into this little darkness monster rolled up in a tiny little package. Sometimes I imagine this as a little black fur ball that just gnashes its teeth in the corner of the room…
I find there are three schools of thought on the origins of depression. Either it’s chemical, environmental, or behavioral. I happen to believe it’s all three, but I had really only tackled the chemical and environmental factors of my darkness up until that point.
I’m sure multiple people told me this in my past, but I wasn’t ready to believe it. You can control your emotions, your mind, and your behavior. And your behavior (mental and physical), rewires your brain to be depressed or to be happy. You have the power to rewire it in either direction. The kindest and most giving soul I know actually told me this a while ago and I snapped at her, because again tiny little darkness monster = me.
I sound like a delight, huh? I finally had enough and I sat down and looked at myself. I saw all of these things with painful clarity—but I didn’t get down about it. Frankly, don’t think I could be anymore down at that moment.
Here I was: Flawed. Broken. Damaged. But oh-so lovable.
It took me a long time to finally come to the conclusion that things can only change if I change myself. I spent so many years trying to control my environment, while never asking myself if I can change how I react with the world. I just assumed I was wired a certain way and couldn’t change that.
I was trying to protect myself and my identity, and unknowingly shaped myself into the tiny little darkness monster.
2. Rest: Now that I know the problem—I stopped picking at it.
It hurts to hurt and it’s exhausting to be exhausted. But, unlike there being many paths into the darkness, there are few surefire ways to get out of it. Over the years, I have tried a variety of things that helped alleviate my pain, but never solved the problem. Counseling, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds, exercise, sleeping a solid 8-9 hours a night, a healthy diet, avoiding negative people, avoiding negative work environments or toxic situations, reading self help books, yoga, talking it out, keeping it in—and so much more. I never stopped trying to find ways to fix my depression.
I never rested.
I always had this stubborn belief that depression wasn’t permanent for me. I so desperately wanted to be happy. I believed it had a cause, so it must have a solution. I would spend hours trying to pick it apart and dissect all of my pieces hoping I would eventually have an ‘ah ha!’ moment. You may already know this, but this was probably the WORST possible thing I could have done to myself, and I did it for years.
After analyzing all of the things about myself that I needed to improve, I finally gave myself a long moment to actually rest and boy did it feel WRONG.
I was so used to my brain going a mile a minute with all the things I need to do in life so the silence was maddening. I spent a week doing hippy dippy things. I read a book about how various cultures pray (I’m not religious). I did yoga, walked the dog, and ran a bunch. I meditated. My mind hates being quiet, so that was not easy.
I rested. I gave myself permission to just enjoy existing. I didn’t think about making money. I didn’t push myself to do anything. I didn’t even work on art. I woke up, acknowledged the weather, moved my body, controlled my mind.
When we need to heal, we need to learn to rest. Truly rest.
3. Gratitude: How I shifted my perspective to “Just think about how good you have it!”
If you experience depression, I’m sure you’ve heard some form of this statement. “Just think happy thoughts!” I was always really annoyed when people would say “Just think about how good you have it!” because I thought I couldn’t! I literally could not feel happy—so what good would happy thoughts do for me?
During my week of hippy dippy rest, I tried this out. The annoying people were right—you really should think happy thoughts. Through this practice, I realized that I was so used to being unhappy, that my behavior patterns reinforced it all the time.
Thinking about how good you have it doesn’t mean that you don’t have the right to feel what you are feeling. Also, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t or can’t feel shitty when your life sucks. Sometimes, life does suck. It just means, if you actually want to feel better, you need to change your behavior and train your brain to recognize happiness when it happens.
You can’t linger in the shitty places and expect things to improve.
I began forcing myself to focus on gratitude. Every night, I would lie in bed and go through my list of ‘happy thoughts’. Even and especially if I didn’t feel it. “I’m thankful I can focus on art. I’m thankful my nerdy other half loves me even though I’m unstable . I’m thankful I gained new Instagram followers today. I’m thankful the sun was out. I’m thankful I have enough money to buy all the fruit I want when I grocery shop. I’m thankful my dog is cute even though it’s annoying when he stares at me from across the room to signal it’s time to poop.” and the list goes on. Each night, the list got longer. Each morning, I woke up feeling just a little bit lighter.
I had this hysterical (not hysterical ‘haha,’ but hysterical ‘she needs to be committed’) moment in July of 2016, when I was at a low point I was sobbing at 1:00am while my nerdy other half tried to console me. I didn’t realize I was inconsolable and content in my misery until he said “Tell me something you are thankful for.” My brain shorted out. I stopped crying and felt a sense of rage when I looked at him. This little darkness monster was defiantly screaming out from the darkness “How dare you interrupt my wallowing!” *gnashes teeth*
Over the decade or more of my depression, I effectively rewired my brain to be at home with the darkness. Despite the fact that I so desperately wanted to be free of it, I was reinforcing it on a daily basis with my thoughts.
Even though when I started my routine, I felt nothing good—but the more I practiced gratitude, the more I had to be thankful for and the more I could celebrate small accomplishments. To this day, I am still rewiring my brain to seek happiness instead of pointing out deficiencies.
Reality hasn’t changed, but my perspective did.
4. Mindfulness: How I took control of my brain, my emotions, and my anxiety.
Again, my mind goes a mile a minute and my resting heart rate is usually around 80 beats per minute. I’m a bit of a high strung individual. Pro tip: If this sounds like you, stop drinking caffeine. *gasp* “Oh the horror!” But seriously, consider it.
I have always been a highly reactive person. Emotionally and physically. I always believed this was my default setting, but it turns out I could actually learn how to control my reactivity through mindfulness. Let’s say someone says a mean comment. What I used to do was spiral into a pit of misery and ruminate for days. Now, I stop and take a deep breath. I acknowledge that what I interpreted hurt me—but did that person really intend to hurt me? Do I need to feel upset? Why does it upset me?
I ask myself all of these questions to defuse my emotions—and then I go on my with day.
When I am feeling depressed, I acknowledge it, but I don’t let the negative thoughts continue. I don’t ruminate like I used to, because I’m aware it doesn’t help. When I catch my mind wandering, I pull it back and try to quiet the chaos. I do this over and over again and combine it with gratitude. The depression was still active in the background, but I was able to focus on something more productive until it passed.
I’m still working on mindfulness every day, but it has helped me gain control of myself.
5. Love: How I learned to love myself and accept love from others.
I had two huge problems with love. One, I didn’t know how to love myself. Two, I didn’t know what healthy love from those closest to me was supposed to look like.
When I was younger, I witnessed a lot of dysfunctional relationships, and so I learned how to form my own dysfunctional bonds. I also never learned to put much faith in myself or form a firm sense of identity. I was constantly searching for someone to help me stuff the gaping hole in my heart—and I was the only person who could do this. It just took a very long time to learn that and to find the strength to work on myself.
Since I can remember, I punished myself for my flaws and never allowed myself to celebrate my accomplishments. And when those closest to me would compliment me, I wasn’t able to fully believe their words. Ultimately, I didn’t feel like I was worth loving.
I’m actually not sure how I did this—but I decided to be kind to myself. I decided to cut myself slack for my flaws and to start celebrating every little accomplishment I make. When you are depressed and you start to come out of it and do daily tasks without the lethargy and malaise you normally experience—life is pretty spectacular. When you can look at all of the things you do and love yourself fully—flaws and all—it opens up your ability to give more love to others.
Loving yourself is the best thing you will ever do for your sense of well being.
There you have it. My recipe for happiness. I must say that I am still working on all of these every day. I haven’t experienced a deep and prolonged bout of depression since my sudden mental shift last summer. And boy, have there have been plenty of opportunities where the old me would have found her way to the darkness.
I am not medicated, and that’s a personal choice. I have no judgment for anyone who chooses that path. For me, medication didn’t ‘fix’ the underlying behavioral issues.
Everyone is different, and I do not intend to tell you what to do with your life and your mental health. That’s your personal journey. My only intention with this is to share my journey.
Thank you for reading and let me know if you have any thoughts or comments on the matter!