Last summer everything was going right for me. I’d just had a huge win at work – and yet, I was incapable of celebrating. When I should have been dancing from the rooftops, I was sulking indoors hiding from friends and family. When I went to see a doctor, she confirmed what I’d already suspected. My frequent periods and chronic insomnia were symptoms of perimenopause. Alongside a prescription for HRT, she suggested I go and see a therapist as my bloodwork showed elevated cortisol levels, indicating I was extremely stressed.
Easy for her to say. Just looking at the fees charged by therapists made my heart thump, triggering yet more sleepless nights. Surely there was a cheaper way to handle this problem? This was when I decided to try writing a happiness diary. The idea is simple: write down three things a day that make you happy along with one thing you’re looking forward to.
Simple, and yet my inner teenager rebelled against the notion of enforced positivity. Still, who was she to sneer? My adolescent diary was so self-involved, I had cringed re-reading it and sworn never to write one again.
Instead, over the course of my career, I trained myself to look outwards. Observing the actions of others, I avoided writing about my own emotional state. Unfortunately, this was precisely why it was so hard to pinpoint the moment my mood took a nosedive. Once I realised how low I’d sunk, it was impossible to imagine things having ever been any different.
When you’re depressed it feels as if you’ve always been this way. Negative emotions dwarf any positivity. And here’s where the happiness diary comes in: by highlighting bright moments, it’s possible to create a new narrative. Determined to break out of the grey fug that had enveloped me, I tuned out my doubts and started writing.
As my batteries were low, I began with a few lines just before bedtime. The resulting entries were repetitive. All I could come up with was: stroking the cat, having my morning coffee, cooking, and riding my bike. I felt frustrated. Sure I was beginning to notice the small things, but the bigger moments still eluded me. Social occasions felt hellish. Everybody irritated me and I hardly felt up to faking gaiety.
Time to ramp things up. Now I’d try to expand. Why did I enjoy these small things? I started thinking about my solitary morning coffee, drunk before anyone else was around. Silence had become really important to me. Perhaps I ought to seek it out more?
Looking for positive moments of solitude – sitting in front of the TV tended to send me into a deeper fug – I started taking more bike rides out into the countryside, or if I was at home, I spent the time cooking. Both activities involved total focus, allowing me to forget the swirl of dark thoughts that tended to haunt me at other times. And even better, as my thighs firmed up, the freezer filled with bagels, curries and cake. Treats for when I couldn’t summon the energy to properly care for myself.
Next, I turned to the question of why I wasn’t enjoying social events and noticed that after two drinks my mood dipped. Boozy nights out were not as fun as they had been. My relationship with alcohol had to change. For far too long, I had been letting my inner teenager guide my actions. She’d been wrong about the diary and she was doubly wrong when she told me to stay out and have another. So I cut back and started ordering non-alcoholic drinks along with beers.
Around the time I realised this, I took a trip to the countryside with a new friend. On a long walk, she admitted that she now preferred hikes to long drinking sessions. I felt massively relieved. I wasn’t the only one!
That hike was just one of many gorgeous moments that had begun to illuminate my life. With the spring flowers in bloom, both of us were able to discuss the difficulties we faced and encourage each other to forge ahead. I felt so uplifted that the entry that night was utterly rapturous! Unlike the wild nights of my youth, this moment would be properly remembered!
Feeling my joie de vivre return little by little each day has been wonderful. But along with deeply-felt happiness, there have been painful moments. Just recently one of my cats was diagnosed with lymphoma. Now I have to face the fact that the little kitty who had appeared so many times in the pages of my diary might not be with me for much longer.
Once you allow yourself to feel gratitude for what you have, you realise its value. When I heard the news I couldn’t help but cry. But crying like this was a big win. When I had been deeply depressed, I hadn’t properly felt either joy or pain. Despite feeling down, I hadn’t been able to sob it out of my system.
Now I was bawling my eyes out. And I wasn’t only crying for the loss of my cat. The arrival of perimenopause has made me keenly aware of my own mortality. I’ve passed the midway point and there is no going back. I had to mourn this loss. On one of the many evenings I spent alone at home, I bawled my eyes out listening to a Kate Bush album that reminded me of my teenage years. It was a bittersweet moment that I, of course, put in my diary.
In the end, I ended up using my diary to record both the good and the bad. For me, it was a way to allow myself to deeply feel the troubling emotions I’d been suppressing. And when the tears dried, after I’d given myself permission to feel sad, it was so much easier to emerge from my solitary shell and begin to feel glad again.
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