Being conscious is a double-edged sword. It allows us to plan for the future, and remember the past. But often we are so busy worrying about what might happen, or stressing about what already has, that we forget the miracle of today. Add to this a mental illness where anxiety is a daily struggle and the unfortunate result is often the perfect storm that over the years has robbed me of my happiness through disease and dis-ease.
Living in the moment is currently a popular subject: 17,434 possible purchases pop up in an Amazon search suggesting I can read, display posters, listen to CDs, watch movies, download an app, even weave a rug to tap into the elusive happiness it promises to deliver. And yet, as much as I might mock this, a big part of my recovery has focused on learning to live in the here and now.
I have lived all my life with paralyzing anxiety. It causes me to relive and rehash all those moments that I wished I had said or done things differently, recall every embarrassment, real or imagined, agonize on the road not taken. Then, just to change it up a little, I worry about how I will manage in the future – from finances, to relationships, to my work and back to finances again. It was this crushing anxiety that contributed to my last debilitating episode and abusive self-medicating with alcohol. I just couldn’t get that hamster to stop running in the wheel in my head. I would be so consumed by stress that I had to pull over my car most mornings on my way in to work to throw up at the side of the road. At night, the alcohol would slow down my brain – my control/alt/delete – and force it to shut down, but only for a short time: in the morning, the rebound anxiety would be so much worse. That little voice in my head returning to whisper in my ear every ‘you should have’ and ‘what if’.
Then my world came to a crashing halt, literally, and so did my dysfunctional coping mechanism. The silver lining was that my car accident allowed me the time, space and tools to learn to program my brain to work in a different way. I did lots of reading and research and was fortunate enough to participate in a treatment program that explored some of my dysfunctional patterns, warped belief systems and inconsistent boundaries. I began to learn how practice using new tools and functional coping strategies.
Living in the moment isn’t a new paradigm – Buddha believed that “the secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.”
Abraham Maslow stated “the ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.”
Mother Teresa advised us to “be happy in the moment; that is enough.”
Knowing a concept and living it are two very different things, and I have to admit it is work for me. But, slowly, I am beginning to appreciate life in the present tense. This doesn’t mean I don’t fall back into the ruminating about past or potential issues from time to time, nor have spent my retirement funds in a moment of ‘now.’ It’s more about acknowledging that happiness isn’t something that I will find just over the next hill; it can be found where I stand if I open myself to it.
I practice using all of my senses. It can be as simple as listening to the lyrics of a song, pausing to feel the sunshine on my face, really tasting the sweetness of my favourite red cherry ice cream, or inhaling the heady scent of the lily of the valley in bloom. When I am successful, my anxiety is contained and I am able to be with the people I love without having my attention hijacked out of that moment by my own thoughts of the past and future.
As I approach the anniversary of my accident, I appreciate how fortunate I am to still be in the here and the now. Simply put, in the words of a silly old bear:
“What day is it?”
“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
“My favorite day,” said Pooh.
About Susan Mifsud
Susan Mifsud is a 49 year old mother of two adult sons who has worked in university administration for the last 25 years. She is an active volunteer and advocate in support of the elimination of stigma and shame related to mental illness and addiction. Follow Susan’s story on HMC’s Supportive Minds blog or additionally follow Susan on Twitter.