The 4:00am manifesto instantly cheers us up. But later, when we look it up during our sober time to enjoy the same gravity-defying high, we experience withdrawal symptoms instead. “Can’t believe I wrote this,” we mumble, thank god we haven’t shared it with anyone, toss our scribbles into the garbage can and get back to our daily melancholy.
Usually there is nothing wrong with what’s written. The problem is in what’s not: the follow-up to our grand vision, the action items. Without them, the list is just an ideal, a dream, the “big picture.” Filled with hot air, the list’s only direction is up. And when it reaches a certain height, the initial breath of fresh air turns into an unbearable suffocation, leading to downfall. To keep an idea at a sustainable height, a matching weight is required so that it calms us down as much as lightens us up. Only then a piece of encouragement becomes doable, as in “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott.
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out in our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
What follows is my attempt to create a list of doable encouragements, the recipe of a universal drug that works as an upper because it was drafted during dark hours, and also as a downer because it was reviewed during sunny days. It (should) lift me up when I am low and smack me down when I am high. I hope it offers some insights for you too.
1. A day contains both darkness and brightness.
I found out I get stuck in a low state for less time than I used to think, which seemed forever. Practically, I oscillate between “high” and “low” at least once a day. Just because I begin a day woken up by dreaming of The Lottery by Shirley Jackson doesn’t mean I’ll psychologically experience the same fate.
Do this: Hold the temptation to call the office for sick leave. Instead, leave the apartment on time as usual, as long as your body will move. Bird by bird, buddy. And remember the opposite is also true: When everything looks all right, it’s likely because you’re in a high mood. Enjoy the moment but know it’s going to end.
Advanced level: Keep track of your state no matter how you feel. That will not only give you the power to survive the low moments, but also make your future depression forecast more accurate.
2. Your routine saves you from getting numb.
Being mentally healthy does not mean I am always centered, but means I can center myself. Mental health is no longer a matter of status, which is the result, but a matter of action, which is the beginning. Then how do I begin? By maintaining the small daily routines that help me pull myself together. They keep me grounded and provide me with the pivotal point to turn around.
Do this: Take the shower, wear clean clothes, read books on your commute, thank the bus driver, play the piano (ouch), write, and breathe deeply. Every day.
Advanced level: Have one ritual you cannot lose no matter what. It’s the one that gives you the biggest headache and regret when you miss it. For me, as you might know by now, it is writing.
To be continued…