Mission: Joy

Mission Joy“Joy does not simply happen to us,” wrote spiritual author Henri Nouwen. “We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”

I find choosing joy and trying to experience joy to be among the most difficult tasks when you are depressed. And yet it is critical to try to reconnect with those persons, places, and things that were once able to give us enjoyment.

I am fortunate to be working with a doctor who has known me for more than 10 years. When I fall into a depressive episode, her solutions are much more comprehensive than just a medication adjustment or a suggestion for a cognitive-behavioral technique.

This last week, her instructions, written out on her medical pad, included:

  • Exercise, but not too hard
  • Time in nature — enjoy the flowers
  • Light reading only, NO self-help
  • Find ways to experience pleasure — old TV series, favorite albums, etc.
  • No work this week

I took the assignment seriously, and it was much more challenging than I thought it would be. How hard can it be to find joy in your life? Yet when your amygdala (fear center of the brain) is under attack by a flood of chemicals and hormones, and a sense of panic permeates most of your hours, letting loose and soaking in the breeze requires a surprising commitment and perseverance.

My modus operandi is to reach for one or more of the following: self-help books, work, mindfulness strategies, intensive workouts, or more therapy to try to fix my symptoms. So this exercise was uncomfortable for me. I wanted to file her instructions with my list of household chores, like decluttering and going through my bookshelves and kids’ closets — to be done at a later time when I feel better.

But I told myself these directions were just as important as if she’d written out a prescription for a mood stabilizer. So this week, I made time to do the following:

  • Listen to Frank Sinatra
  • Play volleyball with my daughter
  • Go on many nature walks
  • Get a massage
  • Kayak
  • Bike along the Severn River
  • Watch Anchorman, Minions, and reruns of How I Met Your Mother
  • Have lunch and coffee with friends
  • Swim
  • Pack a picnic
  • Read for pleasure (Wild), not self-help
  • Walk the dogs with my husband

I wish I could say that my symptoms disappeared with these activities. They didn’t. The death thoughtspanic, and sadness persisted — at least for some of the time. But I believe that our muscles have memory, and those memories will eventually help us to recover. For example, when I swim, even though I may be in a depressed state, there are subconscious memories of my childhood days swimming — some of my happiness days — and some great adult moments, too, preparing to swim across the Chesapeake Bay with friends. My body knows it has experienced joy before doing this activity, and that joy will return when I’m not in such a biochemical storm.

I remember the words of the psychiatric nurse when I was hospitalized at Johns Hopkins’ psychiatric unit. During group therapy one day, she had us all go around a circle and mention one thing that brought us joy — one activity that we loved to do when we were feeling well.

“You will enjoy those things again,” she said. “You must trust me on that.”

That’s the hard part: hanging on to the optimism that says that joy is near and that it will return, as long as we persevere and continue to do those things that once brought us happiness.

Join Project Hope & Beyond, the new depression community.

Photo Credit: Kohei Hara/Getty Images

Originally published on Sanity Break.

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11 thoughts on “Mission: Joy

  1. I just read your book, Beyond Blue. So many of your experiences resonate with those of my treatment-resistant daughter. After a long, dark year (the worst in her seven years of suffering since age 14), she’s just starting to see some glimpses of the sun. I hope it shines down on you again soon. Bless you for all you do.

  2. I joined your website a couple of days ago. Have just read your article misson – joy. Very well written and insightful. Just as you were honest with your true thoughts and feelings towards your doctor’s instructions, preferring the choice of ‘doing them sometime later’, I have to admit that honesty with oneself can be extremely difficult and confusing. The combination of fear, distress, depression and its accompanying army of self destroying enemies have made being honest with myself very difficult. I enjoyed reading your piece and hope to become more involved as time goes on.

  3. Dear Therese, I hope and pray that you find joy every day, at least in moments or longer periods, from the beauty and love of your family and friends, God’s amazing creation, and the blessings you have so selflessly shared with countless others. You are salt, the lamp hidden under the basket, the lost coin that was found. I am forever grateful.
    Peace, dear sister!

  4. Dear Therese, I hope and pray that you find joy every day, at least in moments or longer periods, from the beauty and love of your family and friends, God’s amazing creation, and the blessings you have so selflessly shared with countless others. You are salt, the lamp hidden under the basket, the lost coin that was found. I am forever grateful.
    Peace!

  5. This was a wonderfully helpful article! I, too, have death-roomy thoughts. I am seeing a doctor soon and I hope to get some good therapy. I find your posts very inspiring and “joyful”!

  6. Lately I have been worn out..depleted means depression is lurking for me. I read this post and I am so grateful for your honesty and your vulnerability. We went out for dinner this evening and the whole time we were in the restaurant they played Frank Sinatra. You were there with me…encouraging me. It will be okay…I must keep doing what I have to do. Thank you so much for your writing and strength.

  7. There was a party yesterday for Scott’s 59th birthday; he wasn’t there because he shot himself to death last Christmas day. Scot had suffered Clinical Depression for over 30 years, had been prescribed every anti-depressive medication and continued to suffer each day, He was an artist in keeping his pain under wraps. Only with me, his mother, could he really say how he was feeling. I felt helpless when he was alive and even more so now, eight months later. One of the saddest things Scott said to me the day before he died was “I just have no Joy”

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