Put On a Smiley Face (Smile Optional)

This is NOT a sad post. While 2020 presented a mental health challenge to many, some also have found kinder self-management practices when faced with lockdowns and uncertainty on a mind-f*cking scale. I am a person coping with chronic depression and anxiety. It’s a hit or miss, touch and go, pass/fail process… in a good year. Previously, I shared five ways in which depression systematically tries to rob me of memory, agency, and joy. I want to share a technique that has made a tremendous difference in ensuring my survival this past year:

PUT A SMILEY FACE ON IT 🙂

It’s not what you might think. No braving the despair, no faking goodwill, no pretense. I decided to literally put a smiley face sticker in my planner anytime something “nice” happened to me. To qualify, something had to take me by pleasant surprise, make me feel genuinely “warm inside”. It had to snap me out of my routine doomgloom, for a bit. I wanted to try this as my depressive mind erases positive vibes to maintain its default state. I used to look at calendars and not be able to conjure any feel-good memories from weeks, months, 2004. I suspected I must have experienced nice(r) moments but had not retained them. Trauma does that.

Me & Pablo, for example:

On June 16, I had lunch at Piko’s, one of my favorite Valencian cafeterias. It was my first time eating outside my home since the pandemic quarantine began in early March. It was a long-awaited, emotional “reunion”. I shed an overwhelmed tear between the starter and the main course. I don’t remember what I ate, but the experience was smiley worthy. Then Pablo Alborán, my fanboy crush one of my favorite music artists, came out as a member of the LGBTQ community. While it had nothing to do with me, per se, the way he communicated his truth and been supported by fans and industry colleagues moved me deeply. “Music is freedom, I want to feel as free as my songs,” he said. Given my history of activism, somehow this felt personal. This felt smiley face.

The Big Reveal

I felt stingy. Stickers had to be earned. No willy-nilly smileys! Whenever warranted, I noted them and moved on. I did not count, review, revise. Until the end of December when I correlated stickers from my planner with a blank calendar. Boom. Wait, what? How could there be so many “nice” moments in a year I was ready to file under Bad-Worse-Worst?! Who decided there was anything nice in a year of increased isolation, decreased opportunities and general wtf-malaise? Turns out, I did. As I lived it. Depression and trauma also rob us of self-trust. I had proof in my (smiley) face.

The Small & Future Reveals

I then circled back through my planner and tried to identify each smiley reason. Some, like the first lunch and Pablo moments, were readily available while others remained a mystery. I cannot tell you what good occurred in my life on August 6, but I must trust myself that it was a well-lived moment. Even the horrid lockdown month of April spent in solitary confinement (in a non-penitentiary sense) managed to provide a whole six (!) smiley face experiences. I look forward to maintaining this practice in 2021 as a way to manage my chronic depression and anxiety in the face of forthcoming challenges.

What about you?

Please, share your mental health management techniques with me. What I did was not a patented knowhow. I picked it up somewhere along the way. Many people employ similar strategies. For example, digital wellness coach Saiyak Rakeeb suggests a color-coded system of pixelating your daily experience to monitor its flow. It takes a village! Spread the word, a pixel or a smiley face at a time. F*ck depression, 2021!

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