By Unnati Sethi
It’s such a cliche but it’s true — I’ve always been my daddy’s girl and I’ve known it all my life. For my dad, I’m perfect. If you ask him he’d tell you I was brilliant, beautiful and charming, destined for greatness. And yet, when I look back, I realise, I was also a deeply unhappy person. As a child, I rarely made any friends. I preferred the company of my books to that of my peers. In my early teens, anger was a constant companion. Somewhere in my pre-teens, a friend showed me how to wrap my rubber hair ties on my wrist so tight that they’d dig into the flesh and leave wounds or bruises. These wounds I’d cover by pulling down the sleeves of my school cardigan as we’d compete to see who could hurt herself more.
Eventually I grew out of it into being a fairly normal, morose kid who made decent grades but had a perverse love for writing really bad, sad poetry. Like most teenagers, I thought I was deeply misunderstood. I was a rebel without a cause although, honestly, I brooded more than rebelled.
The brooding and self destruction eased up when I got to college and I found friends who gave me the space to explore myself and taught me how to be light-hearted. Yet, somewhere deep, the anger and unhappiness lingered, usually rearing its head only when I was at home with my family. I struggled to understand myself. Why did I lose all self-control when I was with family? Why did I become so toxic around them? I never figured it out and I always hated myself for it. I felt like I was failing at everything and the loneliness broke me.
My first suicide attempt was at 22. My next one was four years later at 26. The years in between were spent punishing myself for being a failure by committing to a destructive, abusive relationship followed by the alcohol-infused haze of the subsequent break up. My second suicide attempt was a wake-up call. In the spring of 2007, my wrist bandaged and once again hidden by the long sleeves of my cardigan, I knew something had to change. So I sought help and went into therapy.
I have always been deeply afraid of developing a dependency on anti-depressants so I refused to take them and, against the advice of my therapist, I insisted on figuring out how to deal with my depression without medication. This may not be advisable for everyone but it was crucial for me. Therapy helped me a little bit.
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As I struggled to define what happiness meant for me, I learned that “fake it till you make it” really does work. I learned that if you smile through it, even if you’re gritting your teeth and forcing the smile, eventually it will feel real and it will lighten the load.
What helped me fake it was when my friend and roommate at the time taught me how to ‘change the narrative’. Before, I’d sit at a window during the rains, look at the rivulets of water on the glass and imagine that the Gods were weeping. Once I forced myself to think of an alternate narrative, the same raindrops became little children playing a game of tag racing each other to an imaginary finish line. And I found myself smiling. I know it feels trite and pithy to tell someone to “just smile through it” but in my experience, it was the simplest thing I could do to get myself through my darkest phases.
That was a decade ago.
In the last ten years I have learned to recognise the triggers that “bring on the funk” and I’ve developed other active mechanisms for tackling those moments. Therapy helped me acknowledge my fears of being inadequate. I learned to think deeply about what I want and why. It helped me accept who I am. I learned how to be happy with myself. Over the years I made smiling a habit and now I find it easier to bounce back.
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And I’ve discovered something incredible that I’d never thought would happen. I learned that the world isn’t my oyster, closed and toxic, there to secrete acid at me until I become a pearl. I’ve found that the world is actually just a mirror, vast and shiny, throwing my feelings right back at me.
When I’m unhappy, I find that the world treats me callously. I am slighted easily. I have a much harder time navigating the system, be it a simple banking transaction or ordering a meal at a restaurant. On the other hand, I’ve found that when I make the effort to smile, the world smiles back at me a lot more as well. When I’m not unhappy, when I’m smiling (inwardly or outwardly) people respond more positively and smile back. They try and accommodate my requests, they go out of their way to help me and they genuinely care. The world suddenly becomes a much easier place to live in when you spread a little bit of pleasantness around.
Honestly, it’s not always easy. And yes, it’s such a cliche. And yet, something as simple as a smile, even a deliberate one, really does boomerang right back to you. I still have days when I’m sad and on those days I push myself to be cheerful, to go out and deliberately find something to laugh at. All I can say is — Happiness is hard work sometimes but it’s absolutely worth it.
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