Hey guys, welcome back to the topic of ‘finding meaning for yourself in life’! We left off with how I created 2 tattoos as visual reminders of meaning to help motivate me wherever I go. (Truly wherever…they aren’t going anywhere!) Today I wanted to share a few things that bring more meaning to my life, and they have more than the surface value of my tattoos. (See what I did? Someone stop me before I hurt myself.)
That Missing ‘Something’
While wondering what purpose our life has is a question that probably pops up in everyone’s mind sooner or later, I truly understand how mental illness can make this meaning even more difficult to hold on to. Have you ever wondered how others around you just keep moving forward? They don’t often think of a big meaning…they just continue because it’s what they do. I could be completely wrong, but I think having struggles with ones’ mental health involves questioning things far more than the average person. Perhaps the desperate mental search for things to make sense in life again makes us acutely aware of many things that others take for grated. I’m not saying that life is easy for everyone else, certainly not; however I suspect that we have a higher level of sensitivity. Before I philosophize about that, I’ll bring it back to how painful and isolating it feels to watch the world unfold and feel like you’re an alien. Maybe I sound strange, but I hope you know what I mean. When asked what my depression felt like the first time I was hospitalized, I didn’t have the words I do now. I often described this feeling, (and still do though), as a missing spark that I used to have. Now I see it more as a small but everlasting flame that keeps people going and moving forwards despite pain and obstacles. I felt that this flame had been extinguished and that there was always a missing … ‘something’ … deep in my chest that created a horrible emptiness. I suspect now that this flame is a combination of hope and meaning.
The Ember of Meaning
To continue with my flame description, I have tried to see it as though the flame did not extinguish completely but turned into a fading ember. That ember died each time I tried to commit suicide, but otherwise I reminded myself that the ember was still alive (as hard as it was to believe). A couple of months ago I had the metaphorical idea that I could blow on that coal and add twigs to start a small flame, and eventually add some dry, aged wood that would keep that flame burning consistently. My theory may sound good but the resounding question is how in the hell do you do that with your mind?! Very complicated…but here was the beginning of what got me there.
Ember to Flame to Reality
If I said I don’t struggle with this anymore, I would be lying. What I can honestly say though is that unless I’m heading down despite my mood stabilizers and antidepressants, I can fill most of that ‘missing piece’. The problem is that meaning is not ‘one size fits all’. It goes without saying that what gives one person meaning can be drastically different from someone else’s! Now how do you find your own? I’ll begin once again by saying that baby steps are an absolute requirement and expecting a rapid change will probably make you feel even more down-hearted. No one needs that! I prayed continuously for instant relief out of sheer desperation, but sadly these things don’t work that way.
I have a question now. Do you feel more of value when you take care of something / someone else? Is it easier to do that than to take care for yourself? It sure was for me…but again, I don’t know how you specifically feel. I’ll share my process though in the hopes that it can be a useful example to help you find your own meaning.
I realized personally that I would have worth and meaning if I was doing something for someone else. Obviously I was a failure at taking care of myself and saw no point in doing so, therefore I directed my focus outwards. I decided to volunteer at a Veterans’ Hospital / Retirement Home. I was taking many classes but this hospital was a 10 minute bus ride from school and it would mean far more than anything else I was doing. My classes gave me no meaning; I was lost in a daze of confusion and personal hopelessness. I wanted to feel more human…working hands on vs. following a program when I didn’t even know what I wanted to do with it! I applied for an interview with recommendation letters from my two favourite teachers. I was deeply panicked about that interview though; I was terrified of letting my illness and instability show through, resulting in a lost opportunity to do something of true value. Thankfully, the interviewer was very kind and my odd demeanor was easily written off as standard interview anxiety. Phew. I started to go to the hospital every Wednesday to encourage Veterans to come downstairs with me and play bingo. This involved pushing wheelchairs, making conversation with people suffering from moderate to severe alzheimer’s and helping them play the game and win some prize money. I formed a small group that I was responsible for each time and it was amazing to get to know them more. Seeing them look excited, competitive and proud of winning really made my day! It was actually my favourite part of the week and for those 2 and a half hours I was somebody else. More than that, I developed a sense of responsibility to those Veterans and this turned into a meaningful aspect of my life. Around this time I considered becoming a Nurse Practitioner. (Did I sense a meaningful goal developing? I sure hoped so.)
A second thing that added meaning to my life was work. This was actually before and after the volunteering because I had to start and stop work multiple times. (I’m still on medical leave currently.) Nevertheless, being hired to work in the ‘prêt a manger’ section of our favourite health food store mostly did wonders for me. It made me feel like a participant in the world and the functioning of our society. My coworkers were kind but my work was mostly alone which made things easier. Very quickly I had my serving and closing routine down to a fine science and had time left over for extras. (I think I’m a selective perfectionist.) The day workers loved the way I left things and gave me praise which in turn gave me an added purpose on weekends. Unfortunately, between school, volunteering, work and exercising / restricting, I burned myself out further. Lesson: Meaning and purpose is essential to life but searching for it desperately can result in biting off more than you can chew. This is why volunteering one day per week was much healthier for me in the long term. I should’ve kept it at that!
To recap before I move on, volunteering was a very meaningful addition to my life and nudged me in the direction of health care. Work brought me purpose as well, however I burned out and ended up having to stop both. The bit of meaning that created some desperately needed motivation unfortunately fizzled out too because I no longer had any hope of succeeding…at anything. This lasted a long time, until a ‘miracle’ happened.
If you’ve read my first post in the ‘Safe Space‘ you know a bit about Mia, AKA my miracle; a complete coincidence of us seeing her on the road and stopping to pick her up because she came super close to being run over! I got out and called to her and she came straight to me; this cold, wet and very skinny puppy with no collar. The moment I looked into her sadly scared eyes, I knew I had to protect this little baby. Maybe it was my maternal instinct kicking in, but whatever it was I just had to help and protect her. My goal would be to give her all my love and I washed and dried her while my fiancé picked up food, bowls, a toy and pee pee pads. (FYI Mia is a Yorkshire Terrier but Aaron chose bowls sized for a Labrador…haha.) We had 2 days with her, in which time I had completely fallen in love. We had also brought her to the pet store to find out if she was healthy, clip her nails and explain that she was alone on the road. Later on the pet shop called back and left me the number of her owner who passed by asking about their missing dog. My heart broke when the person opened the door and took her back. I understood how relieved and happy he must’ve been to get her back because I could imagine the same situation happening with Piko, but I still cried and was depressed for hours. I couldn’t think of anything else and the couple photos I had taken made me feel like something was ripped out of me. After only 2-3 days! I did something the next day that I would never have done but was desperate to do. I prayed all morning to have each other in our lives and then went to the house again and explained how much I had fallen in love with her and that if they considered selling her, I would be ecstatic. We all had a vibe from him that he was perhaps a user and didn’t appear particularly close with Mia. Her cowering when approached by us was also a scary indication. Long story short, I left my number and got a call 10 minutes later to work out the details. Only 11 days after my most serious suicide attempt, I found a reason to never attempt again. That taught me a huge lesson, and ever since then we have an indescribable bond. She is my baby, my companion and I feel that we need each other equally. I can’t ever leave her life and I can’t even think about her leaving mine. My meaning to life, while living for my parents and Aaron should be enough, is largely because of her too. This is why she is my miracle. The unconditional love she shares with me is enough to remind me of ALL the reasons I have to stick around. The fact that if I had died just 11 days before meeting her and experiencing the joy she brings to all of our lives, has changed me forever.
I think we’ll leave it off here for you to think about it before I move on with Part 3 of Finding Meaning for Yourself in Life.
If you liked Part 2 you may want to check out Part 1 of this series of articles.
Part 3 is now available!