trovare la gioia (or, how to train your brain to be happy)
People are often surprised to find out I have tattoos. I’m not sure what makes it so surprising, but I have some theories. It might have something to do with the fact that:
a.) I look like I’m seventeen
b.) I dress like a modest kindergarten teacher
c.) I tend to spontaneously burst out in song and dance, like a child
d.) Due to factors a, b, and c, I give off a “sweet and innocent” vibe, which I tenderly refer to as “the polka-dots and glitter” phenomenon.
To exemplify this point, a few weeks after we first met, one of my friends told me that she assumed I spent all of my free time chasing butterflies and picking flowers. I don’t, I promise. Although I guess it proves that I tend to strike people as the skipping through fields type (ok, I do actually do that sometimes), and not the tattoo type. But hey, I am a millennial after all. And Generation Y tends to express itself by permanently scarring its bodies with ink.
But this blog post is not about tattoos per se, rather the meaning behind the tattoo on my left wrist. In a fancy-ish script, it reads “Trovare la Gioia,” which in Italian translates to “Find the Joy.” And when people ask about it, that’s usually the extent of the explanation I give.
But that’s not the extent of its meaning. Because if I’m going to mark my body with something that will never come off, it sure as heck better be something that resonates so deeply within my soul that at age 83, when it’s all wrinkly and hard to read, I’m still glad I chose to get it.
Needless to say, “Trovare la Gioia” has that power. And because I’m a writer by nature, I of course have a long-winded story to explain why.
At age sixteen, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I don’t typically tell this to someone I've just met who just happened to ask about my tattoo because if someone has never experienced depression first hand, it is extremely difficult to understand exactly what it is or does. And trust me, I cannot over-exaggerate that statement.
There is such a stigma surrounding depression and so many unfair stereotypes that if I’m not careful I will end up writing a 20 page rant. So, I’ll save that for another post and just simply say this: depression sucks. 24/7.
Back to the story:
Depression defined my late teens and very early twenties, and like a hole that you cannot crawl out of, I honestly thought I would never be free.
When you are clinically (as opposed to situationally) depressed, you can’t see light or hope in anything. You become so haunted by the depression that life becomes this huge daunting picture in which you get lost in shades of grey.
Life is overwhelming. Life is terrifying. Life is exhausting.
And so to cope with all of this, your brain numbs everything until you cease feeling at all. No highs. No lows. No joy.
Luckily, my father is a wise man. Even though he couldn’t wholeheartedly understand what I was feeling, he wholeheartedly wanted me to feel. He knew I couldn’t find joy if I kept looking at the big picture. He knew I needed to start smaller. And so he used to tell me to take one day at a time. Then, each day, find one small minuscule thing that I could find joy in.
Now, I am an extremely stubborn creature and I therefore do not heed my parents’ advice often, but places of desperation tend to make you try things you normally wouldn’t. And so each day, I would force myself to be happy about one small thing. And then something strange happened.
One small thing turned into two. Two turned into four. And before I knew it, I was finding happiness in more and more things. I was by no means out of the hole, but at least I was climbing. I was feeling. I was finding the joy.
And so the “Trovare la Gioia” written in bold on my left wrist is a permanent reminder that no matter how bad things seem, no matter how dark things get, there is always something to find joy in, even if that something seems small and insignificant.
The reason I bring all of this up (other than I really wanted to get a second blog post in for January and this is the last day of the month, oh hey procrastination, we meet again) is because depression is as stubborn as I am. It is something that, while you can slowly crawl out of and learn to function with and beat down again and again and again, will never completely go away.
I would estimate that around four years ago is when I first started feeling like I had depression under control. But I have good days and I have bad days, and it’s going to be something I battle for the rest of my life. Luckily, I’m surrounded (mostly) by people who understand that. And I have never been as low or as far down as I was in those first few years of the diagnoses. Until now.
This is not meant to be a pity-seeking post. This is meant to be a reality post. Because depression is a reality for a lot of people, and those people are misunderstood and name-called constantly. So no, I am not seeking attention. I am seeking to educate.
My brain does not work the way a “normal” (I hate that word) brain does. It will always be leaning towards depression, and if I’m not actively working against the gravitational pull, it will inevitably suck me back in. These past two months have proved that.
But while I am in a mental place similar to that of my sixteen year old self, I am lucky enough to have a little more maturity, wisdom, and life experience than she. I can look at things, including my mental state, more objectively.
Which brings me back to my left wrist and the message I paid someone to scar me with: It is now a precious tool that I am re-learning how to use. I am re-training my brain to find happiness.
Happiness cannot be situational. It has to start from inside, where life circumstances can never touch or mar it. It’s not something you attain, rather something you grow.
So that is what I am doing: growing happiness by training my brain to find the joy in the smallest things.
Life Circumstance: crutches are really annoying and incredibly painful and extremely frustrating and just overall very time-consuming.
Trovare la Gioia: with crutches, I always know what to do with my hands (anyone who knows me knows that this is a really big pro).
I found the joy in something small. And tomorrow, I’ll find some more.
For anyone who’s going through a rough time, I empathize. And I truly hope you can find the joy in something small today and every day.
Because sometimes the small things can end up making the biggest impact.
Trovare la gioia (and DFTLY),
what i learned from the worst new year's eve of my life
“Never have I ever been high.”
It’s my go-to statement whenever I find myself caught in a game of “Never Have I Ever.” It’s always bound to get the majority of people to lower a finger, and it’s also true. Or at least it had been until now. I had basically been high as a kite since coming home from the hospital on December 28 (I had surgery done to fix a torn ligament in my right foot) and, while the percocets were knocking out some of the pain, they were also knocking out my ability to think.
Apparently my body hated it as much as my mind did because my relationship with narcotics came to a violent end on December 31, 2015. New Year’s Eve.
I woke up to my alarm at 4am, the time I was supposed to take my next dose of Oxycodone. My head was pounding with a fierce, sharp pain that I wasn’t used to, but I was so concerned with doing every single thing right post-op that I ignored the pain, took the pill, and closed my eyes, ready to sleep until my next dose in 4 hours.
However, when I woke up again at 8, the pain in my head was excruciating. I’ve had migraines before, but this was ten times worse than anything I’d experienced. Forget the pain in my foot, I could barely see because of the intensity of the headache. I figured I’d just “wait it out” and see if skipping the next dose would help: not really.
My dad, who’s been taking care of me while I’m on bed-rest and whose house I’ve been overtaking, came downstairs and could tell right away something was wrong. He suggested I eat something, but nothing sounded like a worse idea at that moment. He brought me a banana anyway. I took a tiny, minuscule bite (like the kind of bite a toddler takes when you tell him he has to finish his vegetables before dessert), and that was it. I grabbed the bowl next to me and, not to be graphic, but . . . it was graphic. I lost everything I had consumed since coming home from the hospital three days earlier.
I was getting pale and sweating profusely with my foot still propped up on my dad’s reclining chair, right next to his Christmas tree which was full of bright ornaments wishing me a season of “Joy” and “Peace,” and for the rest of the morning I got miserably and violently sick.
The pressure from getting sick was causing my head to throb even more and I went back and forth between leaning over the bowl, to leaning back and grasping at my head desperate for the pain to stop, to crying, to sobbing, to coughing, to gasping, to getting sick some more. Then it would subside for a half-hour or so and I would find a position that was semi-comfortable and wait there until the process started all over again. My poor father had to witness (and clean) it all.
Finally the nausea decreased, or maybe I had just finally emptied everything out of my system, and I was able to sit up again. I was able to slowly take sips of water, then try a bite of bread, and then some brown rice. Everything was staying down. My headache was still present but nowhere near what it had been. At least I could function again. At least now I could remember why I was in this situation in the first place: my foot. And at least now I knew for a fact that I really never should do drugs.
When I was finally able to think clearly again, I started thinking a little too much. So . . . this is how I was saying goodbye to 2015: crying, throwing up, withdrawing from narcotics, in pain, confused, sad, lonely, and insanely bored from just sitting around all day. This was not the end to 2015 I had envisioned. And yet somehow, it fit. It was the culmination of a kind of not-so-great year. I thought the twelve months previous were rough, but this definitely took the new year’s eve cake.
Everything in my life changed in a split-second during an insignificant play in an early-December college basketball game. I went from being an athlete, and defining myself as such, to being sidelined and reminded 24/7 of my life-long struggle with body image issues and the issues I have with controlling food, counting calories, hating myself, and treating my body and mind unhealthily.
It took that one brief moment, three minutes into the second half, for all of my trust issues to resurface, anxiety issues to resurface, and the depression that I thought I had beaten to resurface. This was the hardest thing I had faced in 2015, and it was coming in right at the buzzer. So close to the new year in fact that it was, inevitably, going to transfer over into 2016.
But did it have to transfer? I mean, obviously my foot was still going to be a bummer in the new year. Obviously I was still going to be on bed-rest for at least another week and a half in January. And obviously I wouldn’t be able to run or participate in sports for months. But, the depression? The obsession with counting calories? The negative body image, the fixation with control, the self-loathing, the anxiety? Did that all really have to transfer?
When you’re forced to sit in a chair all day, there’s really not a whole lot to do other than think. Eventually you get tired of scrolling through Instagram and Facebook and Twitter, so you log off. You put away the electronics and you’re left with . . . your own thoughts. Terrifying.
When I flashback to new year’s eve 2014, I think about the optimism I had. I had just broken up with “the love of my life” (spoiler: turns out, not actually the love of my life) and I was devastated, but I was hopeful. Damn, was I hopeful. Although a little nervous about it, I was excited about being single and learning to love myself again after a relationship that had left me insecure and lost.
I was getting asked to speak and sing for middle and high schoolers about mental health issues, and I was excited about that, too. It was everything I had ever wanted to do with music: help others heal.
And musically, I was on cloud nine. I was set to go into the studio the first week of January with a producer I admired, a band I was excited to work with, and songs I was so ready to release. Music was going great, and I was elated.
Flash-forward a year later and I’ve never been so confused about music or its role in my life. The new songs are still out there somewhere, wherever unfinished songs go to rest. Maybe an unfinished song limbo of sorts, probably providing the soundtrack for all the socks that go missing when you do laundry. Who knows if they’ll ever be seen again, and honestly I’m not even sure at this point if I want to see them again.
My identity as a musician has dwindled to the point that I don’t even consider myself a musician anymore. Once wildly in love with music and how it made me feel, I’ve found that in 365 days music turned drastically from being my biggest outlet and source of comfort to being my greatest source of anxiety, and I’m ending 2015 on the lowest musical note (not really trying to make a pun, but I’ll go with it) in recent memory.
I am still single 365 days later, although I’m incredibly happy about it and much healthier (emotionally) this year. I’ve re-learned how to love myself and have stopped searching for romance. I have become maybe a little too independent (another life lesson I’m learning from this whole foot thing) and I’ve adopted the infamous Taylor Swift attitude circa 2014 when she was all “I’m never dating again and I’m done with men and it’s just gonna be me and my cats in NYC forevs.” Except I’m allergic to cats. And NYC drives me crazy. But other than that, basically the same thing.
A year later, and I’ve lost my identity as an athlete. I won’t be able to participate in sports until after months of rehab. But then again, as I’m sitting here having my little new year’s eve pity party, I realize that maybe I missed the key word in that statement . . . “until.” I can’t participate in sports until . . . Until. The word itself inspires hope.
It means that this is not forever. It means that I am lucky. This was not a career-ending injury. I will be able to run again. I will be able to play soccer again. I will be able to shower standing up again (although to be real for a sec, seated showers are kind of amazing and why aren’t they more of a thing?).
So, there I have it. Temporary. This situation is temporary. 2015, although kind of shitty, was temporary. And a lot of good did happen in the year. I met a lot of amazing people that I want to be in my life for a very long time.
I learned to let go of dreams, and people, that maybe were not meant to be in my life at all. I learned that some people may say they believe in you, but that’s only because it sounds nice in the moment. I learned that words and actions are two magnificently different things, and that I’m tired of people who say one thing and do another. And I consequently learned to stand up for myself, and for others, and to walk away when necessary from the people who are unable to support their words with appropriate actions.
Maybe this is all a gift, then. One big ugly beautiful gift. Because while I might be sitting here in pain, isn’t it the most painful moments that inspire the most healing? I could have opted to avoid getting the surgery, but it would have left me with a semi-functioning, highly arthritic foot, and in my twenties I would have been done with athletics forever.
So it turns out the pain, although highly inconvenient, is also highly necessary. Maybe in the same way, the lows of 2015, though highly inconvenient, were necessary. Maybe they were necessary to get me to 2016. To make me appreciate what’s coming next.
Because if 2015 started with an optimistic high and ended with a slow, steady, downward spiral that landed me in my dad’s chair on December 31, to the lowest point of the entire year (so melodramatic, I know, but cut me a break I’ve been trapped inside by myself for days), then why can’t the opposite happen? Maybe 2016 has no where to go but up.
When the clock strikes midnight and it becomes January 1, I will still be in this freaking chair. I will still be in a crap-load of pain. I will still be lonely. And I will still be confused, sad, and a little (OK, a lot) depressed. But, what if the lowest point of my 2015 is also the lowest point of my entire 2016? What if instead of a downward trajectory, I spin upwards towards the highest I’ve ever been?
What if on December 31, 2016, one year from now, I’m sitting somewhere thinking about how fan-freaking-tastic 2016 was and how grateful I am that I started it at the very bottom? What if each day of 2016 I only get stronger, healthier, happier, and more of myself than ever before? If that’s the case, then I’m glad this happened. I accept the low in pursuit of the high. Just not the drug kind of high . . . dude, that was horrible.
So then, here’s to new beginnings. Or a beginning that looks a whole lot like the end, but really is a gateway to something bigger, better, and more wonderful. 2015, I can honestly say you really were not that great. But nonetheless, I am grateful for you. Thanks for everything.