How can the circumstances that lifted me out of anxiety and depression be recreated effectively and reliably? ...my skills as an engineer, no matter how complex the analysis, could not get me there. Instead, I turned to a radically different approach, surrendering to my circumstances, refocusing on gratitude, and acting within my field of influence.
What seemed like a herculean task four months ago seems to have unfolded on its own, and as I sit here recounting it, I reflect on my tendency to reach for the parameters that got me from where I was then to where I am now. How can the circumstances that lifted me out of anxiety and depression be recreated effectively and reliably? It’s just like an engineer to pick through the evidence in search of the one governing law which explains the result every time. As I’m sure you can imagine, my skills as an engineer, no matter how complex the analysis, could not get me there. Instead, I turned to a radically different approach, surrendering to my circumstances, refocusing on gratitude, and acting within my field of influence.
If you read my previous blog post, Wellbeing Over Wishful Thinking, you’re already familiar with my experience last summer. The transition to online classes because of the COVID-19 pandemic coincided with my sixth academic semester in a row and not being able to secure a position for the co-op I’d been looking forward to. I’d sit down at my computer every morning to study, with a freshly brewed cup of coffee and begin taking notes. Ten minutes later, my attention span would be nearly exhausted. And, ten minutes after that, I would give up on taking notes altogether. Then it was time to get up and grab some food, or work on a project, or go for a workout. My days cycled between twenty-minute bursts of focus and getting up for another distraction.
In 2017, I’d gone through a similar experience. I’d just returned from Germany where I did my first internship over the summer. My first meaningful relationship had ended quickly and abruptly before I left and I hadn’t fully resolved my feelings around it. Between denying myself the experience of post-break-up emotions and starting an intense semester of second-year classes, I ended up feeling progressively more anxious, unfocused, unmotivated, and depressed. After finding a counselor to work with and consulting my academic advisor, I decided to go back on co-op just one semester after I’d returned from one. I succeeded in changing my environment and reducing my workload when I accepted an internship at a tech start-up in Vancouver. Over the eight months that I was there, the way I was feeling improved significantly. I began feeling more energetic, less nervous, and passionate about my work. I challenged myself by reconnecting with my goals and values and trying things I hadn’t done before like attending Toastmasters. The most rewarding part of my time in Vancouver, though, was moving into a student house in Kitsilano for the latter part of my work term. My roommates and I connected deeply and regularly spent weekends together at home or outside in the mountains around Vancouver. If I could recreate the conditions I had when I was living in Kitsilano, I believed I could productively work through what I was struggling with this past summer before I decided to take my year away from the classroom.
Where I left you with the blog post I mentioned earlier, was my decision to take time off. I scrambled to find a co-op with only a few weeks left in the term. Luckily an opportunity as a “junior mechatronics engineer” in an industrial manufacturing facility in Langley came through, and I signed the four-month contract. It was just what I thought I needed: an opportunity to work in a mechanical/electrical role in person with a regular work schedule. I’d have to leave friends, a relationship, and a familiar environment behind, but it seemed worth it for the shift toward a more structured daily routine.
My job started a week after I got settled in Langley. I rode my bike 10km down the hill from Fraser Heights to make it to the office at 7:30 on my first day. There, I met my boss who had interviewed me, and the rest of the team I’d be working with. And at 4:00, I packed up and rode back up the hill to the house I was staying at. Much of my time in Langley continued in that fashion, with the addition of interesting projects at work and getting to know my colleagues better. What I did between getting home in the evening and leaving for work the next morning didn’t change much either. I reached out to people interested in backpacking and cycle touring, but everyone was apprehensive to meet up given the new COVID restrictions limiting even outdoor meet-ups. So, instead, I planned my summer adventure, keeping up with my training, researching the bike I’d need, and building this website.
I’d managed to add structure and routine to my life and believed I’d accounted for everything I’d done to change the way I was feeling in 2017. I was not seeing the same improvement in mood, though. This was compounded by the frustration of having exerted a great deal of effort trying to figure out what it was that I had to change. And closure to my relationship from the summer crept as the slow but persistent onset of withdrawal as the distance that separated us became more significant. Every day the disappointment of trying harder and struggling more exhausted me and I was running out of tactics.
Eventually, I came to terms with the equation of happiness and fulfillment not being as simple as building more structure into my daily routine. I realized that the people I have in my life and how close they are to me are significant as well. As the end of my work term in Langley approached, I decided to decline my boss’s offer to stay on for another four months. I would return to Victoria, where I had an already-established social circle, for an internship at my university instead. The decision was nerve-wracking because the few months I’d spent in Langley had shown me that I had little power to influence my inner experience with my outer circumstances. I knew that any changes to the way I felt had to come from within.
The habit of reflecting on my long-term goals and values came at the right time. My return to Victoria coincided with the transition to the new year. In the days leading up to the start of my internship at the university, I sat down and reflected on what I wanted for the coming year. Somewhat unexpectedly, the introspection directed my attention to everything I had to be grateful for. Through the summer I’d enjoyed open water swimming, running, and cycling with my friends, which was afforded to me by the added flexibility of working at home. Most weekends I spent investing time and energy into a relationship with someone I cared deeply about. Even my time in Langley was not without value. It applied just the right amount of pressure directing my attention back to what’s important. Not the things I have, what I’m doing, or where I am; but how in touch I am with what’s meaningful to me, the ways I choose to interpret my circumstances, and the decisions I make about investing my time and energy.
When I reconnected with my authentic goals and values, chose to be grateful for my circumstances, and started investing my time and energy where I knew I had influence, my inner experience changed for the better. I was able to start the internship at my university calmly and confidently and the energy and focus that was stuck in suffering previously started returning to fuel the things I am passionate about. Even though I’d continued to struggle in Langley, and my relationship didn’t work out, I became able to value those experiences for the lessons they offered me. The irony of my situation was humbling: Instead of having to obtain a perfect solution and implement it as an optimal set of circumstances, happiness and fulfillment became available to me when I chose to give that pursuit up.