Trovare la Gioia (or, How to Train Your Brain to Be Happy)

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Trovare la Gioia (or, How to Train Your Brain to Be Happy)

People are often surprised to find out I have tattoos. I’m not sure what makes it so surprising, but I have some theories: It might have something to do with the fact that a.) I look like I’m seventeen; b.) I dress like a modest kindergarten teacher; c.) I tend to spontaneously burst out in song and dance, like a child; due to factors a, b, and c, I give off a “sweet and innocent” vibe, which I tenderly refer to as “the polka-dots and glitter” phenomenon.

To exemplify this point, a few weeks after meeting me, one of my friends told me that she assumed I spent all of my free time chasing butterflies and picking flowers. I don’t, I promise; although I guess it proves that I tend to strike people as the skipping through fields type (ok, I do actually do that sometimes), and not the tattoo type. But hey, I am a millennial after all. And Generation Y tends to express itself by permanently scarring bodies with ink.

But this blog post is not about tattoos per se, rather the meaning behind the tattoo on my left wrist. In a fancy-ish script, it reads “Trovare la Gioia,” which in Italian translates to “Find the Joy.” And when people ask about it, that’s usually the extent of the explanation I give.

But that’s not the extent of the meaning. Because if I’m going to mark my body with something that will never come off, it sure as heck better be something that resonates so deeply within my soul that at age 83, when it’s all wrinkly and hard to read, I’m still glad I chose to get it.

Needless to say, “Trovare la Gioia” has that power. And because I’m a writer by nature, I of course have a story to explain why.

At age sixteen, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I don’t typically tell people this because, if someone has never experienced depression first hand, it is extremely difficult to understand exactly what it is or does. And trust me, I cannot over-exaggerate that statement.

There is such a stigma surrounding depression and so many unfair stereotypes revolving around it, that if I’m not careful I will end up writing a 20 page rant. So I’ll save that for another post, and just simply say this: depression sucks. 24/7.

But back to the story:

Depression defined my late teens and very early twenties, and like a hole that you cannot crawl out of, I honestly thought I would never be free.

When you are clinically (as opposed to situationally) depressed, you can’t see light or hope in anything. You become so haunted by the depression that life becomes this huge daunting picture in which you get lost in shades of grey.

Life is overwhelming. Life is terrifying. Life is exhausting. And so to cope with all of this, your brain numbs everything until you cease feeling at all. No highs. No lows. No joy. 

Luckily, my father is a wise man. Even though he couldn’t wholeheartedly understand what I was feeling, he wholeheartedly wanted me to feel. He knew I couldn’t find joy if I kept looking at the big picture. He knew I needed to start smaller. And so he used to tell me to take one day at a time and, each day, find one small minuscule thing that I could find joy in.

Now I am an extremely stubborn creature and I therefore do not heed my parents’ advice often, but places of desperation tend to make you try things you normally wouldn’t.

And so each day, I would force myself to be happy about one small thing. And then something strange happened.

One small thing turned into two. Two turned into four. And before I knew it, I was finding happiness in more and more things. I was by no means out of the hole, but at least I was climbing. I was feeling. I was finding the joy.

And so the “Trovare la Gioia” written in bold on my left wrist is a permanent reminder that no matter how bad things seem, no matter how dark things get, there is always something to find joy in, even if that something seems small and insignificant.

The reason I bring all of this up (other than I really wanted to get a second blog post in for January and this is the last day of the month, oh hey procrastination, we meet again) is because depression is as stubborn as I am. It is something that, while you can slowly crawl out of and learn to function with and beat down again and again and again, will never completely go away.

I would estimate that around four years ago is when I first started feeling like I had depression under control. But I have good days and I have bad days, and it’s going to be something I battle for the rest of my life. Luckily, I’m surrounded (mostly) by people who understand that.

But I have never been as low or as far down as I was in those first few years of the diagnoses. Until now.

This is not meant to be a pity-seeking post. This is meant to be a reality post. Because depression is a reality for a lot of people, and those people are misunderstood and name-called constantly. So no, I am not seeking attention. I am seeking to educate.

My brain does not work the way a “normal” (I hate that word) brain does. It will always be leaning towards depression, and if I’m not actively working against the gravitational pull, it will inevitably suck me back in. These past two months have proved that.

But while I am in a mental place similar to that of my sixteen year old self, I am lucky enough to have a little more maturity, wisdom, and life experience than she. I can look at things, including my mental state, more objectively.

Which brings me back to my left wrist and the message I paid someone to scar me with; It is now a precious tool that I am re-learning how to use. I am re-training my brain to find happiness.

Because happiness cannot be situational. It has to start from inside, where life circumstances can never touch or mar it. It’s not something you attain, rather something you grow.

So that is what I am doing: growing happiness by training my brain to find the joy in the smallest things.

For example:

Life Circumstance: crutches are really annoying and incredibly painful and extremely frustrating and just overall very time-consuming.

Trovare la Gioia: with crutches, I always know what to do with my hands (anyone who knows me knows that this is a really big pro).

I found the joy in something small. And tomorrow, I’ll find some more.

For anyone who’s going through a rough time, I empathize. And I truly hope you can find the joy in something small today and every day.

Because sometimes the small things can end up making the biggest impact.

Trovare la gioia (and DFTLY),

Ali

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