A little less than four years ago, I sat in a cafe on the main street of Dunedin sipping coffee and looking out at the snow falling hard over the street. This was the first time I had noticed the quietness of snow. The city was silenced, yet somehow it came alive at the same time.
I was meeting a fellow graduate student for some advice on the daunting journey ahead of me to obtain my doctorate. I had worked hard to bypass a masters and step straight from a postgraduate diploma in neuroscience into a PhD in Medicine. I was soon to give a seminar to the paediatrics department, detailing my research proposal and I was nervous.
“Don’t worry about all that. It will be but a spec on your radar by the end of all this.” He reassured. “You will learn far more about yourself throughout your PhD than you ever will about your topic”.
I remember thinking this was a very profound statement. But brushed it off, watching a couple huddle together outside, as they made their way through the elements.
However, his prediction turned out to be correct. What happened over the next few years of my life was a roller-coaster of both beautiful and awful moments all thrown together. When I packed my bags and headed to this little student town at the bottom of New Zealand, I had no idea how thorough my education would be.
Throughout my time in Dunedin I have had two episodes of serious depression and one of burn-out. The need-to-be-medicated kind of depression. The kind of depression that is so bad your Mum has to come get you out of bed and bring you home. The kind of depression that has you thinking you may just live in a dark hole for the rest of your days until it all ends and you are put out of your misery. Sounds pretty bleak huh. The girl who always smiled for the camera, was the most broken girl of all. But I was quiet about it, like the Dunedin snow.
The final time when everything fell apart, I lay in the spare room at my parents house staring at the ceiling and thinking – I can’t go on like this forever, something has to change. That day I made a commitment to my own happiness and wellness, with the realisation that nobody else was responsible for it but me.
What I can honestly say saved my life were two things. 1) I am a born researcher. So I spent my time learning everything I could about how to recover and how to grow my resiliency. 2) I started a little blog called Sweet Apple where I posted yummy food and my photography. I found my way back to writing just for the love of it, rather than for an academic qualification.
Out of necessity, I applied my skills as a researcher of the human body and brain to study the science of happiness – with myself as the test subject. I read and implemented theory after theory. I picked up tip after tip and slowly but surely, I healed myself through knowledge. Finally those A’s were going to be of real benefit to me. Because I was forced to study my own life and solve the equations of my deep sadness.
Fast forward to now and I am the happiest I have ever been. My life contains no more luxuries than it did 6-months ago, yet everything around me has shifted. I’m heading in the direction I want to go.
This is not to say that I don’t still have moments of feeling pissed off, scared, alone, sad or any other ‘negative’ emotion. But every day, I am excited to be here. As a result – everything good around me is starting to gain momentum at a staggering pace. There are times when my breath catches at the beauty of it all.
Everyone wants to be happy. The hard part for me was knowing exactly what to do, day by day, to get to this point. We think that if the circumstances in our life change, the happiness will come. The catch is this – when you find your happiness, the circumstances in your life will change on their own. Infuriating isn’t it. So until then, you have to just keep on adding lovely things to your basket, until one day your basket is overflowing with all the lovely things.
Now that I can say I am deeply happy, I think it is time to share what I have learned. Over the next few months I will discuss some of the fundamental changes I made to my life that have led me to the secure, content and excited space I now reside in. I will talk about a lot of things from a scientific perspective so that it is easier to understand, but I am not a trained psychologist or clinician. For this reason, the post series is not designed to cure those with serious mental illness. If you are this person, I urge you to seek professional help – there is incredible bravery in this act.
Instead, what I hope to do is document the things that help me to stay happy and healthy every day – options that can be used by anybody. From diet and exercise through to how I relieve stress or deal with difficult situations and making tough decisions. As there are many tips, I will not write one big essay, I will write one post a week. I’m inviting you to take a look inside the pages of my PhD thesis on happiness. It is the blueprint I have used to become a strong, confident, healthy women who knows what she wants.
My aunty used to joke with me every time she saw me “can you see the light at the end of the tunnel yet?”
Of course, she was alluding to me finishing my rather large thesis. Each time I would reply “not quite yet.” Knowing that I was talking about a whole other thing.
However, when I saw her recently she asked the question again “is there light at the end of the tunnel yet?”
And for the first time I could confidently say “yes, I see it now and it’s beautiful.”
Looking forward to the new journey ahead.
Much love XX
Photo: Katie Appleyard