I once told a friend “I wish I knew what the rest of my life will look like, I can’t stand not knowing.” I was all of 23 and very anxious about what I would do once I graduated with a Master’s degree. What if it wasn’t a first class degree though? What if my dissertation wasn’t a revolutionary essay that would forever change the course of social work in India? What if I didn’t get a well-paying job? What if I got a well-paying job and then everyone judged me because social work isn’t meant to be about the money?
By the time I turned 25 I had moved to London, had a job that paid extremely well (by Indian standards, oh the judgement!) and had started living my dream of travelling the world. Yet I remember spending sleepless nights after hours on Facebook looking at people’s seemingly perfect pictures of coupledom, marriage and babies. I don’t even have faint love-interest let alone a boyfriend, what kind of an Indian girl isn’t married by the time she is 25, worse yet what kind of girl doesn’t want to have babies, oh my God what if I’m not married by the time I’m 30?
I travelled to Berlin on my own in June 2013, the day I was coming back to London I had some time to kill before my flight. I remember sitting at a roadside café in the sunshine (I am aware of just how posh this could sound, but stay with me!) looking through my journal. This is a journal I’d brought with a flourish way back when in 2006, and I would have spurts of writing furiously followed by months and even years of blank pages of silence. I took it along with me thinking this would a trip of introspection and achieving self-actualisation, and of course I didn’t crack it open until it was time to head back! Berlin is such a fantastic city yet my most vivid memory is of not being able to sleep at night worrying about work. I was about to rant in my journal about just how stressful my job in social work is, I needed to figure out something different to do with the rest of my life, once I switched jobs of course everything was going to be perfect.
For the first time since I bought my journal, I looked through it from the very beginning and I had a massive Oprah-esque AHA! moment…my journal was proof that at every stage of my life I’d been anxious, restless and hankering for that next big thing to make life perfect: once I pass this exam, once my crush likes me back, once I’m skinny, once that horrible person that is mean to me goes to a land far, far away, once I have a lot of money. It is now blindingly obvious, but at the time I remember the revelation sinking in that it was something in me I had to change: I was the constant through changed circumstances over the years. Anxiety, stress and worry had become such an intrinsic part of my life that sadly I didn’t know what it was like not to feel those things on a constant basis. It struck me then that I could win the lottery and never have to work again, and yet I would find something else to worry myself sick over, catastrophize and ruminate about the elusive perfect life I didn’t have.
I wish I could say from that moment on I was a changed person, Mary Poppins and Little Miss Sunshine rolled into one. But changing years and years of thought and behaviour patterns takes more than a little hard work, and I really struggled. What do you do when you’re used to waking up every morning feeling sick with anxiety and you don’t even know why? Or when all you’ve ever thought about are the things you’re seemingly lacking in, it’s impossible to think of yourself as being complete just as you are?
It’s called gratitude. I started off practising it in quite a militant fashion; I remembered Oprah (yes I love her) talking about a gratitude journal on one of her shows…somewhat dubious I looked it up anyway, and started making a list of things I was grateful for. Uhh…what? It felt so forced and trite but I kept at it anyway, didn’t do it again for a few weeks, and tried it again when I’d had a particularly hard day, forgot about it and then came back to it again. Sometimes it was things as basic as having a bed to sleep in, other days it was being grateful for a chance encounter with a friend or having a handsome stranger wish me a good day.
It apparently takes 21 days to form a new habit, or is it 40? It took me much longer than both put together, and I’m still a work in progress. What I am thrilled about is the fact that with time, effort and practice my perception of myself and my world is slowly shifting. I don’t own a house, car or a husband but I’ve been to Iceland and seen the Northern Lights in all their glory because I wanted to. My job can be insanely difficult, but at least I don’t have to work as a butcher (no disrespect to any butchers, but this is about me and I cannot think of anything worse than having to kill and dismember hapless animals to make a living!) Anxiety and worry have slowly been replaced with feelings of well-being and contentment. During difficult times I have the foresight to remember that this too shall pass, and there will be lessons learnt. When I’m particularly angry or frustrated I want to tell the voice in my head to shut the f*ck up enough with the clichés already, but time and experience have proven her to be annoyingly right and I’ve started believing her more.
I remember trying to share some of my newfound wisdom with my sister when she was going through a particularly rough time in the not too distant past, and she pretty much told me where to go and where to shove it too. I persisted as I annoyingly do with her, and today I take immense pleasure in telling her I told her so: everything does work out one way or another just not necessarily the way we think, analyse and plan.
I’ve started to realise and accept there is no such thing as happily ever after. What’s important and real is happiness in the here and now, and hey my sister is just about 23 now and there’s hope for her self-actualisation as well!