Montauk.

The sea wants to kiss the golden shore//
The sunlight warms your skin
//
All the beauty that’s been lost before
//
Wants to find us again.*

I woke before my alarm, song lyrics in my head. I heated up a mug of hot water, squeezed a slice of lemon into it, and put my headphones in. From the weathered armchair in the corner of my living room, I watched the sun rise over New York. I watched the clouds turn pink, their color deepening before dispersing, bathing the buildings in gentle light before bidding them goodbye. I watched from my eighth-floor window as a crammed subway train made its way downtown, filled with people going to jobs I didn’t have, leading lives I didn’t live. I watched the day begin, and then, I wrote.

I’m not sure when the shift began. I think it was twelve days earlier, on the way to Montauk, when from outside the window of my eastbound train, from over a bank of snow, I first glimpsed the Atlantic Ocean. And later, on a Long Island beach, when I climbed over more snow to get to sand and stood, watching the waves crash, watching the water recede and return, breathing in cold salt air, that for the first time in a long time, I felt like myself again. There was no grand epiphany, just a quiet voice whispering, “Remember?” And I did. And then I went back inside, to work.

I came to New York to write. And though I’ve been writing every day, I haven’t enjoyed it. The process has been torturous, and slow, and has often felt – to me – without purpose. But as a friend of mine once said, “Sometimes we make the story so big, we can’t tell it.”

When I tell you that writing saved my life, I’m not exaggerating. A few years ago, when I was in the worst part of my depression, when the world felt like it was collapsing around me, writing was the only thing that gave me any relief. I’ve always harbored a secret worry (not so secret any more, I guess) that I feel more than most people. That I feel more than what is normal. So, when real tragedy struck, the emotions were so big they threatened to drown me. That was when I first started experiencing panic attacks. When I couldn’t swallow food without feeling like I was choking. When I struggled to get out of bed.

I should have asked for help. But I didn’t. I wrote. And as I wrote, I learned something. I learned that if I could find a way to articulate my emotions so that other people could feel them too, if I could turn them into real, tangible things in the form of essays or blog posts, if I could get them out of my body and into the world, then they wouldn’t swallow me. Call it sharing my pain in order to survive. I don’t know if it worked, but it sure felt like it did. And it made me feel a hell of a lot less alone.

I don’t write to survive any more, but sometimes I forget that. Sometimes, I’ll be working on an essay or a section of dialogue or a scene in a play, and something will come out that’s intense or unexpected and knock me sideways and I’ll have to stop for a while. And I’m reminded that the thing that brings me the greatest joy can still, occasionally, be dangerous.

When I went out to Montauk, the weather had already begun to turn. By the time I got back to the city, the snow had melted, the streets had cleared, and it was – dare I say – pleasant. I took the subway downtown to look at a theater space, and using Google maps as my navigator, I experienced a feeling that can only be described as relief. There was no headache, no bitter cold. Being outside, walking around, was fun. Were people on the streets actually smiling? In New York?

I guess that’s the thing about winter. The storms can be brutal. But on the other side of them? Beauty. And every so often: moments of pure, unfiltered joy.

Until next time, friends.

*Lyrics from the song “Ordinary Love,” by U2

Chasing happy.

Miranda: When was the last time you were happy?

Samantha: Six months ago.

Miranda: I think that’s normal for L.A.

Yes, I really did just quote the Sex and the City movie. I couldn’t help myself. Ever since it was on HBO some night a few weeks ago when I was up way too late and unable to sleep, I haven’t been able to get that scene out of my head. It’s the scene where all the girls have gathered for Charlotte’s baby shower and they’re grilling an obviously unhappy Samantha about her new life in Los Angeles. The bit of dialogue quoted above made me laugh out loud. In a, it’s funny because it’s true, kind of way.

In just a couple of weeks, I will mark sixteen years of living in Los Angeles (minus a scant five-month study abroad semester in London in the early 2000s). That’s longer than I’ve lived anywhere. And in that time, I’ve met and known and befriended a great number of people in this sprawling metropolis – some of whom still call L.A. home and some of whom have long since moved on to other places. And of my friends who still live here – other than a handful of exceptionally grounded folks who seem to have it all figured out – there aren’t many that I would describe as happy.

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Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t some hit piece on L.A., nor is it an attempt to legitimize the swarms of stereotypes that exist about this fair city – the suntans and silicone, the hot cars and hot spots, the fame seekers and the fabulously wealthy, the beautiful and the damned. No, this isn’t that type of essay. Nor is this essay even about L.A., not really. L.A. is just the place where I happen to live and therefore it’s a lens through which I view the world.

But it is my lens, and through that lens I see constant seeking and striving, struggling and searching. I see good people who are making the best of things, people who believe that better days are ahead but just can’t quite seem to get there, people whose real, unfiltered lives rarely match the glossy surfaces of their Instagram feeds. And it has left me wondering: is this sort of slow, seeping sense of dissatisfaction an L.A. thing, or is it more pervasive? Is everyone, everywhere suffering from an epidemic of, I’m not as happy as I want to be?

My obsession with the subject of happiness began nearly three years ago, when a series of tragic events left me – someone who, as a girl, my Dad teasingly called “Pollyanna” – wondering if I would ever feel joy again. Prior to this major life shift, I’d never really thought about whether or not I was happy. I moved through my days with relative ease, eyes ever on the horizon, mind focused on the next thing. If I’m honest, I didn’t do a whole lot of self-examination or press myself to answer the difficult questions. I kept going. I was fine.

Except I wasn’t. It took pain and tumult to unearth the truth. I had been living with the same sort of silent malaise that I now recognize all around me, but I had been too passive, too complacent, to do anything about it. All the while the question nagged, Is this all there is?

But recognizing that there was a problem wasn’t enough to present a solution. In fact, it got much worse before it began to get better. My lowest point came last summer, when more than once I collapsed on my bathroom floor, sobbing, unable to get up for what felt like hours. In fits of desperation, I scribbled inspirational quotes on the pages of “get well soon” cards and mailed them to myself. And I documented it all (well, not all) in blog posts that prompted worried (read: frantic) phone calls from friends.

A year later, I still wouldn’t describe myself as “happy,” but when I look back on those dark days, I do have to give myself credit for how far I’ve come. It was impossible for me to have any sense of perspective when I was “in it,” but with time and distance I can see that I really was growing and changing all along.

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For nearly three years I have been chasing this elusive thing called “happy.” Along the way, I’ve tried many different tactics in order to feel better. I’ve consulted palm and tarot readers, astrologers and spiritual counselors. I’ve traveled extensively:  to Europe, to my childhood home of Alaska, and all up and down the Western United States. I’ve talked to friends. I’ve gone into therapy. I’ve worked out obsessively, and then not at all. I threw myself into my writing. I became a mentor to a teenage girl. And I kept going, even when I didn’t feel like it. I kept going, because I didn’t feel like it.

This may seem counterintuitive, but some of the darkest moments of my life have also been bookended by some of the most joyful ones. A pair of Orca whales breaking the surface of the water in graceful arcs while I pressed my nose to the window of a ferryboat. Sitting in the warm, inviting kitchen of a friend’s home in London, drinking wine and discussing politics. Seeking refuge from a rare New Orleans ice storm in a small jazz club with my sisters while the rest of the city remained shuttered indoors. Watching the sunset settle over the ocean from the window of an open air trolley car coasting along Pacific Coast Highway, with nothing to do or nowhere to be except right there.

I think that what all these singular “happy” moments have in common is their sense of hope, their sense of possibility. A feeling they evoked, that, in the words of Shel Silverstein, “Anything can happen. Anything can be.”

Conversely, the worst, most miserable moments of my life didn’t impact me so intensely simply because I felt sad or broken, but because I felt powerless to change those feelings. I was helpless, stuck, and I couldn’t see the way out. The darkness is most unbearable when it appears unceasing, when we can’t fathom the possibility of light ever breaking through.

After nearly three years of “chasing happy,” I certainly don’t have it all figured out. But I have learned some things. I’ve learned that I feel better extending a helping hand to others than I do ruminating about my problems. I feel better using my own life as a yard stick to measure my progress, rather than comparing my achievements to someone else’s.  To that end, I feel better when I limit my time on social media.  I feel better being honest instead of making everything OK; better telling uncomfortable truths than biting my tongue. I feel better writing than not writing, better creating than not creating.  I feel better going for a run than I do sitting on my couch. I feel better moving forward than I do standing still. And I feel better trusting in the hard-won knowledge that whatever dark clouds may gather in the skies above, that they too, will pass.

Until next time, friends.

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On depression, and empathy.

Matthew: What are you working on?

Cory: Actually, I’m working on a book about the depression.

Matthew: So, you have an interest in historical material?

Cory: My depression. I’m writing a book about my depression.

Matthew: I see.

Cory: It’s an epic.

From the play, Private Eyes, by Steven Dietz

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I have an embarrassing admission to make. For most of my life, I didn’t believe that depression was a real, legitimate thing. Don’t get me wrong, I have always known that it exists, but as someone, who, for the most part, always found it pretty easy to be happy, I took it for granted that other people could do the same. I dismissed those who were frequently sad – including my own mother – as negative, or simply not trying hard enough. Like most people, I would get an occasional case of the blues – the result of a tough day or receiving some bad news – but I found that if I just went for a run, or watched a funny movie, or played some upbeat music, I could chase away the doldrums pretty easily. This too shall pass.  Because it always did.

And then, in an instant, everything changed. My dad got sick. My mom went crazy. They both died. On the heels of my mother’s death, my maternal grandmother was diagnosed with advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Suddenly, she too, was gone. And in the midst of it all, a close friend from college dropped dead in the gym of his apartment building, less than two weeks after his 31st birthday. A life full of promise cut abruptly short. Just like that.

All of this happened in the space of less than a year. For a while, I was in shock, moving from one tragedy to the next. But eventually, I was forced to confront the person left standing: me. A series of impossible events held a mirror up to my own life and what it reflected back was soul-searing. I was lost, unfulfilled, unhappy, but it was worse than that: I had given up. Given up on my dreams, given up on the idea that I deserved to be happy, given up on the person I had always wanted to be. I didn’t recognize myself anymore, and it was terrifying. Confronted with the choice of change or die, I chose to change. And that’s when things got really scary.

I suddenly found myself alone, trying to build a new life from scratch, with no idea what to do or how to start. I was 33, feeling utterly adrift while everyone around me seemed to have their lives figured out – relationships, kids, fulfilling careers.

And that’s when the sadness shifted into something more: the big D. Depression. For the first time in my life, it was no longer easy to get out of bed. I found social events with even the closest of friends exhausting, and anything that involved meeting strangers nearly unthinkable. My everyday worries and anxieties became worse; an above average fear of heights turned crippling. My motivation to tackle even the most basic of tasks was utterly nonexistent. I (once again) took up smoking, and continued to smoke even though it made me feel sick, taking some sort of perverse pleasure in how destructive it was. I hated myself.

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But I also found something else in my spiral into sadness, something that I didn’t expect: empathy. As a former ‘ happy girl,’ I never understood the monumental effort it could take someone with depression just to get dressed, to leave the house, to plaster on a smile, to make the requisite small talk that fills life’s daily interactions. But now I did. I understood all too well.

I’m pretty sure that depressed people – or at least this depressed person – don’t want to be depressed. If given the chance, they’d prefer to be joyful rather than sorrowful, prefer to find it easy to be with people rather than difficult, prefer to be up, rather than down. Who wouldn’t?

But the thing I never understood until I started wrestling with my own depression was that in the face of all of my friends’ well-meaning advice about focusing on the positive, about choosing to be happy, about the fact that our thoughts make our worlds, for some people, the pursuit of happiness is a constant, ongoing battle. I am tough, and relentlessly stubborn. I don’t give up easily, and throughout this dark period I’ve fought. I’ve worked really damn hard: forcing myself to be social when I didn’t feel like it, exercising regularly, practicing gratitude, joining organizations, going on trips, getting involved in my community, and doing all the things you’re supposed to do to shift your outlook. But the key words here are hard and work. I never could have imagined that a simple quest to feel lighter could be so damn heavy. That the most basic tasks could spend me as though I’d just run miles through beach sand. That sometimes in spite of my best efforts, there wouldn’t be one single solitary thing that would make any of it better.

But here’s the flip side of sitting with this darkness, of living in it, of trying to learn from it: gratitude. I’m grateful for what my struggle has taught me. Being incapable of walking through this phase of my life as anything other than a broken person has stripped away all pretense and artifice. It has attracted people into my life that the old me never would have met, and it has caused me to chase new, different experiences, things the old me never would have done. In my battle to get better, I’ve met some truly beautiful souls – both in person and online through writing this blog – that have known profound pain, pain deeper than anything I’ve experienced. And like me, they too, are doing the best they can.

We all have our particular prejudices, our long-held beliefs, our wealth of experiences that form the framework through which we view the world. Sometimes – as in my case – they can cause us to be too judgmental toward other people, to feel self righteous about their choices. Human beings are naturally curious and though we want to understand each other, sometimes we don’t, we can’t. What the last couple of years have taught me is that there is always more to the story than meets the eye, that no one has it easy, and that, while some of us are better at dealing with hardship, none of us are left unscathed by the joys and sorrows that make up this beautiful, difficult, complicated life.

As a former happy girl currently engaged in the battle to get better, I have learned patience, gained self-awareness, and discovered the true value of gratitude. But empathy, above all, is the gift that my depression has given me.

Until next time, friends.

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