As a naturally private person, what I’m about to share is not the easiest. This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for weeks. But in keeping with the theme of the article – curiosity – there’s another part of me that’s curious to see what will happen when I share this.
So here goes nothing.
During my teens and 20s I had a terrible time with anxiety and depression. My anxiety gave me awful stomach aches and I used to sweat profusely (and embarrassingly), even when I was cold. This made me more anxious. I found it difficult to form lasting relationships with people and things and habits because one day I would love them, then the next day I’d feeling nothing. This is depression. Over the years, doctors suggested medications that helped a bit, but not really or not for very long. I didn’t like the side effects. Another doctor gave me a diagnosis, so I tried different pills with different side effects. At one point I was taking a handful every day.
Though having a diagnosis felt like a label, I recognized the role it played in finding treatment options. I attended group therapies for social anxiety and other personality and emotional “adjustments,” so to speak. They helped in some ways, and not others. I muscled my way through years of rigid one-on-one psychotherapy – sessions I’d leave feeling nauseated and mentally exhausted. Nothing seemed to “work” right away. I kept taking the medications because I accepted they were helping at a level I might not be aware of, which they were. I met a social worker who said that this process I was going through would be my “life’s work.”
On top of my prescribed remedies, I did my own research. I read books. I asked others for advice. Once on the College streetcar, just as I was passing University Ave., I noticed that I had stopped sweating. (More to the point, I realized I no longer needed to sweat.) I’d also started looking into alternative therapies that I could pair with Western ones. I went to someone’s house in the Annex to learn meditation for free with a bunch of strangers. It didn’t stick. I found more books to read, and more research to consider. Some books were interesting, others were not. I kept going to psychotherapy.
Exercise kept popping up in information I’d find about relieving anxiety and depression. I started going to the gym. I hated it for the first year, but I kept going. After a while I noticed it had become a part of my life. I started reading about nutrition, too. I learned, for example, that some nutritionists believe a high-carb diet and vegetable / seed oils can make anxiety and depression worse (i.e., the standard Western diet I’d grown up eating). I began to think more mindfully about what I was eating. I tried different diet regimes, like the ketogenic diet, to see what would happen.
Eventually, I weaned myself down to two medications. Then, a year later, just one, and the year after that, none at all. Then I broke my ankle and couldn’t work out or play hockey, and my job at that time wouldn’t give me permission to work from home. I felt hopelessly trapped in the basement apartment I was living in, so I went back to one medication for a spell. But then I stopped again, for good.
Nothing happened overnight. There was no single epiphany that “set me free.” There were steps forward, and steps backward. A lot of it I realize in retrospect.
This narrative is my life’s work. It’s what I work at, every single day. It’s what this blog is all about. While I would never try to singularize this body of work, I do however recognize that one element ties it all together:
Psychotherapy taught me many things, but one that stands out is the realization that a big part of life-fear, and the anxious/depressed states that fear leads to, is fear of facing a difficult truth. That truth for me was accepting that, ultimately, my happiness is a choice that I have to make for myself. My happiness is not up to anyone else. It is not something someone else can do for me, or bring to me. It’s all up to me.
That’s a really fucking scary thing to face.
Sometimes it’s the simplest truths that take the longest to sink in. When we avoid those truths, unhappiness can become our mind’s go-to response, especially when that state of unhappiness protects us from confronting what we don’t want to face. I have learned to never underestimate my capacity to choose familiar pain over unknown fear.
Unhappiness can be the burning barn we run back into, over and over again.
Simply wanting a happier life doesn’t mean your life will be a happy one. You can want happiness until the cows come home, but it won’t happen until you choose it. Choosing happiness for me was an act of listening to my curiosity, and following it to where it led me – which is where I sit now, writing this piece.
What Is Curiosity?
Curiosity is a force that lives inside each of us. It’s an energy. It inspires us to take a chance on a left turn when all of our fears are telling us to turn right. Curiosity is an experience. Where a logic-centred approach to life and happiness is focused on a destination, curiosity lives in the moment. It reveals a truth about who we are that logic will never answer. Curiosity is a beautiful juxtaposition.
Fear can be stronger than a desire for happiness, but curiosity can be stronger than fear.
In spite of my deepest darkest bouts of anxiety and depression, I recognized a curiosity that I slowly, but surely, gravitated towards. I wanted to understand why I felt the way I did, and I chose to listen to that want. I was curious about medicine, therapy, and alternative approaches, and I chose to learn more about them. I asked questions and tried my hardest to be open to the answers. I arrived to doctor’s appointments with my own thoughts and ideas. I was curious to read all the theories, and collect advice from all sorts of people. I was curious how healthy habits would change my experience of myself.
Some of what I learned helped, some of it didn’t. Some of my experiences benefitted me, some of them didn’t. Some of the people I met inspired me, others didn’t. But that’s not the point. The point is that I listened to my curiosity, I followed it, I chose it. In doing so, over time, curiosity began to replace unhappiness as my go-to response to this scary world we all live in.
I stopped running back into the burning barn.
Curiosity is not necessarily about not looking before you leap. You don’t have to gallivant around the planet with no fixed address. Curiosity can be slow. If I could condense the last 20 years into a moment, I would compare it to a cat at the dinner table. Cats are famous for their curiosity, and they are slow about it. Cats test the boundaries first. They start by hopping up onto the chair, peeking cautiously over the edge of the table. Then after a few minutes, they tentatively put one paw on the table, then another, waiting to see what happens. They might pretend to be disinterested, hiding their curiosity by looking off at something else in the distance. If no one responds, they might hop right up onto the corner of the table. They will wait there for a spell. If still nothing happens, they will start approaching that plate of food, one slow step after another.
Maybe they’ll get a bite, maybe they won’t.
Being curious is about choosing to follow your curiosity. It can be slow and calculated, or spontaneous and adventurous, or a bit of both. Ultimately, you have to decide what a life defined by curiosity looks like for you.
Being curious doesn’t mean choosing curiosity everyday, either. You’ll need breaks. That stuff that used to pain me in the past still hits me. I’m not “cured,” nor do I think that I ever will be (and nor do I think I need to be cured). I have a naturally anxious personality, but I have found a way to live in tandem with it (at least, more than I used to). Sometimes I still feel down in the dumps, and when I do I know that how I feel during those times, and how I feel about people and work and everything in my life, isn’t a true indication of my feelings. On those days, I am free to make another choice: to be kind and gentle with myself.
It will take time and practice, too, like strengthening a muscle. Right now I am trying to learn how to do a clean and jerk at the gym with a coach telling me all the things I’m doing wrong, and the few things I’m doing right. You’ve gotta dip at the waist, then lean over with your butt back, then jump up with your heals, shrug your shoulders, while pulling down with your arms. It makes no sense. Sometimes I leave the sessions feeling frustrated, other times I leave feeling like I made progress. That’s the nature of how humans learn, and learning to be curious is no different.
Start by envisioning the stronger, happier, healthier version of yourself you want to be – and simply be curious about him (or her). Who is that person? What is he like? How did she get to where she is? It’s fun, really. It makes life interesting. It takes away our need to understand end results and instead define success and happiness by our experience of life. One of my favourite authors, Alice Munro, said that “The constant happiness is curiosity,” and I really believe this to be true. Happiness is not something you arrive at, it is not something separate from curiosity.
Happiness is curiosity.