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I spent more than half my life anxious and depressed.
It started with emotional abuse in childhood, and I convinced myself then that life would always be hard.
And so I spent most of elementary school sitting in the counselor’s office, crying hysterically.
In college, things got progressively worse. My best friend died in a car accident, and less than two years later, my fiancé died the same way.
I decided that life wasn’t worth living.
My depression was so bad, I couldn’t hold down a job. I couldn’t find anything to give me hope. I decided to take my own life, and fortunately I failed. I was in the hospital for two weeks and then joined an outpatient program.
It was during my inpatient stay that I met a nurse who changed my life forever. She was my age, and she was what I wanted to be. I had so much respect for her empathy, kindness, and intelligence.
We were sitting at a table painting one day when I looked at her and said, “I want to be normal like you; I don’t want to be sick anymore.” Her response?
“Why do you think that no one here helping care for you might suffer from a mental illness?”
At that moment, I found hope. In some weird way, I finally connected the dots: having a mental illness doesn’t have to mean failure. Even if I had suffered for so many years, maybe there was a different way forward.
It took years of therapy and working with coaches, but I realized it was all bad programming.
What I discovered are, oddly enough, the same tools that prepared me to survive this pandemic:
1. You get to decide how to react.
Life isn’t something we can control, but that doesn’t mean we should live in fear; it means we get to decide how to react when things do happen.
We have two choices: either react with love or react with fear.
For most of my life, I was conditioned to react with fear. Anytime something happened in life, I immediately began to dissect how bad it was. Now, I look at the circumstances and think, “What’s the lesson here?”
Every circumstance in life is an opportunity to learn and grow. When we react with love, we find the opportunity that’s sitting in front of us.
I know that this pandemic is a lesson for us as a civilization. We need to see this as an opportunity to learn how we have failed each other and this planet. This is an opportunity to grow together and fight for the greater good.
2. Life is what you make of it.
Growing up, I believed that I wasn’t in control. This is the victim mentality.
When things got hard for me, I always found ways to blame every circumstance in my life.
I had lots of baggage to blame for having such a “bad” life. I never once tried to make it better. I never tried to find ways to learn and improve. When I did finally take responsibility for my life, everything changed.
The baggage that once held me back now became my inspiration to become better. I use that pain to help me grow and find ways to help others.
Now, during the challenges of the pandemic, I know that I have a choice. I can become part of the panic, or I can lead and inspire. My life is what I make of it even in the most dire of circumstances.
3. Gratitude is one of the most powerful tools we have as humans.
Gratitude wasn’t even in my vocabulary as a child.
The only time the word grateful was mentioned in our household was in the sentence: “You’re being an ungrateful brat.”
I grew up in a single-wide trailer with four other people and there was barely enough food. Yet, I look back and see places where I could have had gratitude: I had shelter. I had enough food to keep me alive. I was going to school to get an education.
When we focus on what is missing from life, we miss opportunities to appreciate the things we do have.
Today, I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve learned. Pain isn’t easy to experience, but it’s an inevitable part of life. We get to decide if we want to embrace it with gratitude for the lessons or become resentful.
In this pandemic, I am counting every single blessing. This is an incredible reminder that humans are vulnerable and that we aren’t immortal.
4. Wherever you go, there you are.
When I was old enough to leave home, I ran away as quickly as possible. It wasn’t long until I came back. Actually, I came back four times.
I wanted independence, but (unbeknownst to me at the time) I was codependent.
When I left for college, it didn’t work out: I was overwhelmed and my anxiety was out of control.
When I left to move to Chicago, I couldn’t cope with the change of being alone.
When I left to move to the city across the river, I lost my job because my depression was so bad.
When my fiancé died, I could no longer afford our shared apartment, and spiraled into depression and attempted suicide.
Each time I left, I failed to learn a lesson. I kept going home and repeating the same pattern; I kept blaming my circumstance and stayed in the victim mindset.
The circumstances kept changing but I didn’t. So wherever I went, I was alway the same person making the same mistakes, just in a different form.
Fortunately, I had the tenacity to figure life out. I found tools and I found hope.
The lessons I learned from all the pain of my childhood have taught me how to show up to life in a much different way.
I know that a lot of people share similar childhood trauma, but I also know a lot of people stay in victim mode. So, let this be a lesson: use your experiences to learn and be grateful that you are a survivor.
Just as childhood, so as this pandemic. Use this as a life lesson to be better, find more happiness, and live life authentically.