I was sitting in my tiny apartment, the one with the perfect natural lighting and warm-colored walls. The one that I took probably six months to decorate to my liking. But it was nothing but a distraction. Moving things around, bringing in new cups and pots and pans I was unlikely to even use. It was a lot like rocking in a rocking chair. It was giving me something to do but I wasn’t going anywhere.
One day I was going through an old box. My dad had dropped it off to me, he was moving from the house he and my mom shared. Months had passed since my mom had died, but I wasn’t remotely enthusiastic about going through old things.
It was a worn box with a bottom threatening to fall out, stuffed full with drawings and paintings I had done when I was a child that my parents had kept. I remembered then how much I liked to draw. My grandma saving any recognizable form of paper for me to sketch on. Scribbles adorned little scraps of paper and doodles covered the insides of former cereal boxes. As can be expected, the drawings from the early years were entirely incomprehensible. But later the drawings started to take form. The mountains in Montana jutting up to meet its vast sky. A scuba diver floating among a school of fish. A National Geographic photographer on a safari, snapping photo after photo of all that was around her.
I know how it feels to be stuck. After I lost my mom, the ground shifted beneath my feet. I didn’t look forward to anything, I was indecisive, I felt trapped. Some day in the future was always “better” but it never came. Unearthing that dilapidated box had started spinning the wheels in my head. If I wanted happiness again, I was going to have to find it. I was going to have to change the narrative of my life. And these were the changes that helped me.
Recall childhood, recall happiness, recall what you wanted to do in life before other factors took precedence.
This is the first step that helped me start to feel unstuck. These drawings were clearly the things that brought be happiness as a child, despite never have even visited Montana, been diving, or worked for National Geographic. Whatever reason, wherever the ideas came from, they made me happy. This is how I initially wanted to spend my life. This was before I became encumbered by the thoughts of financial security or job availability or practicality. This is happiness in its purest form, it should not be so easily brushed aside. Ask yourself what made you happy as a child.
Next, ask yourself if you have different values than those of who you’re surrounding yourself with.
Every day has the potential to feel more difficult than it is if you’re surrounded by people who constantly put down your ideas or values. And in being part of that, it’s hard to find your own voice. I’ve been in this type of environment. It’s defeating. It’s disheartening. Find those who embrace the same values and desires as you do and become part of that community – whether it be an activist group, those who love to travel, or a running club. These are the people who are going to help you grow.
Find the joy.
With find being the accentuated word. This may mean that you don’t find joy in the same ways you used to. What used to fly may be a lead balloon now. Ideas shift, our minds become stretched to new dimensions after life-altering experiences. Former joys may even be restrictive now. Take notice of the new things that are starting to make you feel happiness again, no matter how small and insignificant they may be. And know that it is okay to do so.
Learn how to say no to anything that doesn’t serve you.
I remember specific conversations with my mom that involved me complaining about something I didn’t want attend or something I didn’t want to be a part of. She always responded with, “Malinda, you have a mouth, you can say no.” I wish I would not have brushed off this simple advice for so many years.
I started saying no to plans that didn’t serve me in a positive way. I began staying home on Friday nights and reading new books, taking classes, or trying to learn a new language. For the first time, I felt like I was exploring what it was that I really liked – and not falling into the perception of what I should be doing on a Friday night.
Face your fears. If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.
For me, this was traveling alone. I knew that if I waited to find someone who wanted to go to all the exact places I wanted to go to, I would never see the world. There are inherent fears of being a solo female traveler. But I gained much more insight by traveling than if I would have let my fears held me back. I gained a sense independence and confidence I didn’t have before. It all starts by taking a leap.
Break your routine.
See parts of the day you normally wouldn’t see and notice how they make you feel. You may find that waking up a half hour earlier will instill a sense of calmness to your morning. Or maybe you find that your best insight comes late at night.
We get a natural endorphin fix from exercise. I believe a healthy body has the potential to cultivate a healthy mind. During the time that I felt stuck, I took up running. I ran anytime I was feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or sad. I found that it gave way time for uninterrupted thinking. Other times I just let the sound of repetitive footsteps inhabit my mind.
Try changing your scenery.
Travel expands your mind – it interrupts your habitual patterns and frees you from the everyday. Disconnecting from work and going outside can reduce stress and clear your mind. You may also find that when meeting other people from the other side of the world, their experiences are not that different than your own. I met a couple individuals on my travels that have lost a parent at a young age and it was strangely comforting.
Turn to the arts.
If anything, it helps to know you’re not alone. Every feeling you’re experiencing, chances are, someone else has experienced it in some form before, and expresses it in the medium of song, film, or art. I watched a lot of films and read a lot of books regarding grief or the loss of a parent. It’s comforting the hear the words of others when you cannot yet express your own sentiments accurately.
This new influx of film watching reminded me of a writing class I took in college that I hadn’t thought much of since graduating. I walked into the class not knowing what to expect but was delighted when I was told the writing would be based on cinematography. We watched and analyzed films then, of course, wrote about the nuances of expressions, lighting, and camerawork. Today film brings much happiness to my life and it has become a constant that I can always turn to when I need a boost of inspiration.
For me, there is something therapeutic and cathartic about working with your hands. It releases my mind from swirling thoughts and focuses my attention to the task at hand. Take a sculpting class, pick up painting, or learn to cook. Let the creativity flow from your hands and ease your heart.
The last step I will share has been the hardest for me and still requires work. It’s like the golden step that we all strive for but often times fall short of the landing. After deliberately changing all that you can change, the last step is to accept the things that you cannot. No matter how many places I go, how many books I read, or how many miles I run – it doesn’t bring my mother back. It doesn’t change that she isn’t here for holidays or won’t be attending my wedding or be the wonderful grandmother to my future children that I know she would have been.
But I can still choose to move forward. I can choose to find the joys in daily life and set goals for the days ahead. I can appreciate on a deeper level the good that I still have surrounding me. I’m not numb anymore. I’m not stuck anymore.
When I look back on the past two years, this moment in my tiny apartment is what I think of as a catalyst in my life. The shift to start pursuing what was going to make me happy. Since then, I’ve been dwarfed by the size of the mountains in Montana. I swam with a rainbow of fish in the Bahamas. I don’t work for National Geographic, but snapping photo after photo of all things around me still makes me really happy.
To quote Brigitte Nicole, “One of the most courageous decisions you’ll ever make is to finally let go of what was hurting your life and soul”.
What’s going to be your catalyst?