“The word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” ~Carl Jung
My two-year-old son looked up at me with his big, blue, beautiful eyes.
He wanted me to play. I took a toy car in my hand and rolled it along the wooden living room floor we were both sitting on, making an enthusiastic VROOM as I did it. He smiled. He appreciated my effort at sound effects.
The streetlights standing on the road outside our living room window were already glowing warmly, even though it was barely 4:30 p.m. and the sky was black.
I miss the summer evenings, I sighed to myself.
I stared up and out at the darkness briefly before Henry demanded my attention and I found myself looking down, playing cars again. I smiled up at him, doing my best to appear happy. To make him feel like I was enjoying playing cars with him.
The truth is, I didn’t feel enjoyment playing with him.
For a few weeks at this point I hadn’t felt much enjoyment from anything.
I was going through the motions. Attending to my familial and professional responsibilities as best I could. All the while, longing to be back in bed so I could sleep. Except, upon waking up, I never felt fully rested. I was instantly greeted by the same familiar feelings of fogginess, emptiness, and numbness.
Every morning as I got dressed, it felt like I was dressing myself in armor. Like the knights would wear in the movies I watched as a boy. A heavy metal armor that made the simplest of movements, like getting out of bed in the morning and playing cars with my son, feel like a battle that required all the strength I could muster.
I’ve suffered from seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression, for all of my adult life, but the winter of 2021 was the worst episode to date.
I put it down to a combination of sleep deprivation from being a parent to a toddler (I now understand why sleep deprivation is used as a torture technique), ongoing physical and mental challenges with long COVID, and uncertainty around whether I’d see family over the Christmas period due to lockdown restrictions.
As the darker days descend, I’m preparing myself for another potential battle.
I know I don’t need to fight this battle alone, so I’ll be calling on my friends and family to support me, as well as working with a therapist who formerly helped me process my experience.
There were three focuses that helped me get through the depressive episode last year. Here they are, the 3 Ms.
Writer Rolf Dobelli suggests that we are two selves—the remembering self and the experiencing self.
Our remembering self is our story—who we think we are based on our past. My remembering self tells me I’m English, I love a double espresso, and have a history of anxiety and depression.
My experiencing self is different. My experiencing self is the me who is here, right now.
Experiencing myself writing.
Aware of the tapping sound my fingers make as they dance along the keyboard as I type.
Aware that my heart is beating slightly faster than usual, probably due to the chocolate I scarfed down a few minutes ago.
Aware of feeling vulnerable as I write about seasonal affective disorder.
Our experiencing self exists moment to moment, whereas the remembering self only exists in the past, through thought.
This idea was helpful to me during my 2021 depressive episode because it reminded me that I’m more than a depressed person (which would be a story from my remembering self); I’m a person who feels a lot of sadness, as well as many other feelings and emotions, some that feel comfortable, some that feel uncomfortable.
Back then, I’d take time each day to practice a mindfulness meditation. Sitting for five minutes, simply observing how I was feeling, importantly, without judgment.
Noticing what my mind was focusing on, as well as bringing awareness to my emotional state and breath.
I’d cultivate an attitude of compassion toward myself, avoiding firing the second arrow that’s taught in Buddhism, and not feeling bad for feeling bad.
I’d simply accept how I felt in the moment and allow myself to feel sad, helpless, and hopeless, without judgment, knowing that my feelings are always fleeting.
The second M that helped me was meaning.
We’re told the meaning of life is to be happy. But there are going to be periods when we’re simply not going to feel happy. This doesn’t have to mean our life becomes meaningless; instead, it’s in our moments of unhappiness that it’s best to focus on what brings our life meaning.
Even though I don’t always enjoy playing cars with my son, raising him and spending time with him and his mum gives my life tremendous meaning.
Some mornings last winter I didn’t feel like getting up, and if I lived alone, I probably would have stayed in bed. But knowing my son and wife were depending on me, I felt a sense of duty to show up and be the best dad and husband I could be given my struggles.
I showed compassion toward myself by not believing any thoughts saying I needed to be perfect. Instead of choosing to feel ashamed for how I felt, which would make me feel like withdrawing, choosing self-compassion helped me to tackle my various responsibilities but also be realistic and not over-commit.
It meant honest communication and being okay with doing less than I normally would. I made a Top Ten Actions List by asking myself, what are the most important actions to take today to look after myself and address my responsibilities?
I also made a list of all the people, places, and activities that give my life meaning and breathe life into my soul and aimed to dedicate time toward them each day. Having a clear and achievable focus was helpful, and as the depression slowly lifted, I was able to return to my normal level of action.
3. Moments of Joy
Like the streetlamp I watched glowing warmly from my living window, there were moments during the depressive episode that pierced through the surrounding darkness.
The sound of my son’s laughter as he chuckled hysterically.
Feeling the peace and stillness of the forest on my walk.
Being reunited with friends after lockdown and catching up over a coffee.
The wisest words I’ve ever heard were these: Look for the good in your life, and you’ll see the good in your life.
This isn’t a matter of positive thinking—it’s a matter of acknowledgement.
Even on the days when my mood was at its lowest, there were a handful of joyous moments shaking me temporarily from my depressed state and waking me up to the truth that even on the darkest of nights, there are lights shining for us.
These lights, the people and events bringing joy to our life, are little beacons of hope, reasons to be appreciative. And basking in their warmth momentarily can keep us trudging along in the darkness until, hopefully, a day arrives when it lifts and the sun rises again.
At the end of each day last winter, I’d take a minute to write down any joyous moments and bask in their warmth again as I revisited them in my mind.
The most challenging aspect of depression is how it tries to convince us that not only is everything bad, but everything will stay bad permanently.
Through focusing on mindfulness, meaning, and moments of joy, fortunately, I was able to see again that this isn’t true.
About Will Aylward
Will helps people around the world to feel more confident, calm, and fulfilled, without them having to fake it. He is the author of Becoming Unstuck: Your Step by Step Guide to Taking Charge of Your Life. Learn more at willaylward.com