Wear gratitude like a cloak and it will feed every corner of your life.
Last week, December arrived with a super moon and the beginning of Mercury in Retrograde. Winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, is next week. Temperatures here in Chicago finally feel like winter. Skies are gray and snow is on the ground.
We’re deep into the holidays, with three weeks to go before they’re over. This season is always the busiest for psychologists. People are dealing with family dramas, stress, depression, disappointment, demands, and expectations. We grieve those lost to us. The holidays can leave us financially broke, emotionally bereft, and just hoping to survive.
No matter how we feel, we can’t escape… lights strung in trees, Christmas music, bell-ringers. Years ago I had a patient who was having a particularly difficult year. She said every time she went outside she wanted to scream, “Get your Christ out of my face!”
2017 has been a hard year for many people I know, and millions I don’t. There have been horrendous natural disasters here and abroad. At this very moment wild fires rage in California. There have been too many crimes against humanity to even begin to count. Everyone I’m close to is still reeling from last November’s election and the continuing, surreal, disastrous aftermath. And the “#MeToo” movement has triggered memories of long-suppressed abuses in every woman I know, including me.
On a very painful personal note, I was divorced in February. Ending my twenty-year relationship left me with the daunting task of discovering who I am as a woman on my own, with no partner and no kids left at home. And, my last remaining uncle, whom I dearly loved, died in April, leaving me in mourning and feeling truly orphaned. (And with no one left to answer all the questions I still carry about my crazy daddy!)
Together, all the traumatic events of the past year created a tsunami of profound sadness and anxiety from which I’ve only just begun to surface. I haven’t written in months. Every time I tried, I found myself just staring at the blinking curser on the blank page. During times of depression and stress, creative energy is the first to go. Navigating the holidays takes creative energy.
Over this year, I’ve found four practices most helpful for survival, building resilience, and creating happiness. I want to share them with you.
The first is gratitude. Early on, I began a daily gratitude journal in which I listed (at least) three things for which I was grateful… maybe something that happened that day, the name of a loving, supportive friend or family member (there were so many!), or, simply, that I had a warm bed to burrow into for the night. When keeping a gratitude list during tumultuous times, you learn to appreciate all the blessings in your life… and to be on the lookout for what you might otherwise take for granted.
Which leads me to the second practice, mindfulness… the act of being present in your body and your mind and paying attention to what you’re experiencing, feeling, or thinking in the actual moment. Mindful meditation is sitting quietly with what is. Most of us spend our lives in our heads, ruminating over past events or feeling anxious about what the future will bring. Practicing mindfulness can keep us from obsessing. Sometimes, being in the present means sitting with our discomfort instead of escaping in unhealthy ways. Most the time we find things are at least “okay” in the moment. Sometimes, they are even enjoyable… when we’re paying attention. The practice of mindfulness helps us recognize the good things when they occur!
The third practice is compassion. When things are awful, we tend be hard on ourselves. We think we should be doing better, doing more. In times of depression and high stress, we become mired in the chaos and/or lethargy and it’s easy to get caught in a loop of self-loathing. Instead, it’s imperative that we step back and truly look at what we’re going through with the compassion we’d show a friend or loved one. And then give ourselves the same support and self-care we’d suggest for them.
Throughout the year, I learned to be easier on myself. I was careful to make healthy decisions whenever possible. I ate well, exercised regularly, protected my sleep, and spent quality time with family and friends. I showed up for my work… which is my passion and my purpose. I babysat my granddaughter… who is my very heart. I laughed as often as I could. I prayed, meditated, and went to my own therapist.
The last practice, intention, ties them all together. To lead healthy lives we must commit to doing whatever is in our power to make that happen. We must mindfully look for and gratefully recognize the positives in our lives. My intention was to be healthy and happy and to survive the year, and I committed to each and every practice to achieve that goal.
It has been said, “life isn’t a rehearsal.” But it can be a practice. By intentionally practicing gratitude, mindfulness, and compassion, I’ve become more resilient, learned to be fully present even in my darkest hours, and have a constant recognition, sense of awe, and overwhelming gratitude for all my many blessings. I’ve done more than just survive this traumatic year… I’ve found happiness and even joy, in unexpected places.
I wish for you, my readers… my friends, the very same. I’m grateful for you all.
December 13, 2017 @ 10:20 AM
I have missed your comforting writings so this brings me joy to read this. I know your year has been difficult. I have wanted to reach out numerous times but wanted to give you all the space you needed.
This is a thoughtful and helpful piece that I shall practice. The holidays can rear so many feelings of sadness from the loss of our loved ones, to the choices our loved ones have made to our own mortality.
I wish you a calm and peaceful holiday. Here’s to a happier 2018 for us all!
December 13, 2017 @ 10:12 PM
Thank you so much for your sweet words, Niki. They mean more than you know. I wish you a lovely holiday and all the very best for 2018!
December 13, 2017 @ 10:51 AM
How very strong you must be to be able to do the things necessary to “survive the year”, when just getting through a single day (and night) can feel like an insurmountable obstacle. And how very brave you are to talk about these things publicly. Thank you. Today I will not only get myself out of bed, but I might actually take a shower and brush my teeth as well. And being able to do that again tomorrow…two days in a row…will feel like a major accomplishment. Thanks again for your words.
December 13, 2017 @ 10:16 PM
Oh, Sherry! This breaks my heart. I do hope my words help you in some way. I always love running into you at Michael’s shows and never knew you struggled so. Sending you tight hugs and much love.
RoseMary Calamia Mahany
December 14, 2017 @ 4:52 PM
Sheila, this blog will be so helpful to so many people, who suffer from depression – myself included at times. You are right about many things here, especially the grateful journal. I started keeping one years ago (5 things I’m grateful for each day), and it’s really helped. Keep enjoying your granddaughter – grandkids are the best! I’m sorry about your uncle. I will keep you in my prayers.
December 29, 2017 @ 2:23 PM
RoseMary, thank you, as always, for your supportive, kind words. I’m so glad you found my post helpful…and thank you for keeping me in your prayers. I will do the same for you. Hope your holidays are lovely!
December 23, 2017 @ 9:54 AM
love your blog!! staying the moment of gratitude is life preserving life and I will enjoying your actual presence soon!! love and blessings to you and all your family and friends. Ruth
December 29, 2017 @ 2:24 PM
Love you, Ruth! Hope your holidays have been fabulous…and I look forward to some quiet catch up time with you in January.