Pursuit of Happiness

It’s been a couple months since my last blog post – and what a strange couple months it’s been. It’s been a time marked by a lot of confusion, frustration, uncertainty, and at times, clarity and excitement. I’ve found myself in a position where I’ve had to face some unexpected realities and encountered situations that have put my patience and trust to the test.

If you’ve followed along with this blog at all you’ll know that I’ve talked a lot about these “pits” I fall into from time to time – periods where I feel incredibly lethargic and unfulfilled. I find myself low on energy and short of motivation. I more or less go through the motions of each day. Typically, some fun, exciting event will snap me out of it, at least temporarily. A lot of what I’ve written about in this blog has centered on those events that make me feel alive and more like myself. One of those events is usually the Steubenville retreat.

Steubenville is a huge retreat conference that I go on with my youth group every summer. I absolutely love Steubenville. It’s something I look forward to for months in advance and it never fails to disappoint. Even since I’ve been a teen it’s been one of my favorite weekends of the year because it’s filled with so much fellowship, love, and spiritual growth. This year, however, felt…off. That same excitement and eagerness that usually accompanies Steubenville felt a little more distant. I was still looking forward to the weekend but I didn’t feel the same sense of anticipation. No matter. I would simply find all of that over the course of the weekend and rediscover that joy once I was there. That’s just how Steubenville works.

We finally embark for the retreat and still something doesn’t feel quite right. Normally on retreats is when I really bond with the teens in the youth group and have fun. We joke around and play games and I usually like to be right in the middle of it. I initially took part in the games but something about it felt forced. It just didn’t feel natural. That old familiar lethargic emptiness was creeping over me. That interaction with people became a chore and a burden. That scared me. Time with the youth group is usually my break from all of that. It’s where I come alive. And now, during one my favorite experiences, it started to take over. No matter how much I prayed that weekend for it to go away it just slowly crept deeper and deeper. One night of the retreat, during adoration, I was praying about what this could be. I tried searching for a rational explanation for it and as I prayed a word I’d been trying so hard to avoid crept into the back of my mind…depression.

To be clear – I have not been diagnosed with depression. I cannot say with 100% certainty that depression is what I was/have been dealing with. But in that moment it just made so much sense. These “pits” I’ve talked about were just ways of avoiding it. For months now I’ve been expecting something to just change. Whatever it is I’ve been struggling with will somehow disappear and I’ll go back to my normal self. Yet I’ve just been bottling it in, refusing to acknowledge the severity of it. In that moment I was equal parts relieved and horrified. I was relieved because I was finally addressing within myself what I’m dealing with. That’s truly step one. However, I was horrified because I had no idea what the next step was. Who do I tell? What do I tell them? What if that’s not what I’m dealing with, then what?

My mind was racing. As I sat there in adoration I started to piece some things together and wound up forming a makeshift talk that I would wind up giving the next night. I shared with the teens and other core members the realization I had during adoration and what I had been dealing with. That was the first time I really let on the extent of what I was going through and that depression may be at the center of it. It felt incredible to speak candidly about it and share my heart with these people. It was definitely cathartic and encouraged me to be more open about it.

However, finally acknowledging that I might be depressed hit me like a ton of bricks over the next couple days. So much so that my coworkers all noticed that something was wrong. Over the next few days I began to talk to more people about it – including my family and some of my closest friends. Each conversation I had with someone was revitalizing as they offered me support and encouragement. I began to gain confidence that this was something I would overcome. I started to formulate a plan of how I could move on from this. Essentially, there are four aspects of life that I could improve – physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Here’s how I planned to work on each:

Physically: I would start running more. Running has always been an incredible outlet for me. It’s an opportunity for me to clear my head while also getting healthier, which would in turn give me more energy.

Emotionally: I would be better about talking to friends about my struggles instead of just keeping it all in. By talking to friends I’d be be better able to process and articulate everything. I would also blog more often (ha, that didn’t happen).

Mentally: I would focus more on reading and doing things to challenge myself mentally. I would spend less time in front of a TV and more time doing something productive.

Spiritually: I would spend more time in prayer and adoration, making God more of a priority. I would make more of an effort to go to morning mass, etc.

Before hand there were too many days where I would do none of these things. Most of my days consisted of going to work, maybe hanging with friends or doing youth group stuff, and then spending the rest of the night in front of a TV. Even if I did spend time with friends or go to mass it was always empty. I was so unable to focus on what was right in front of me that I may as well have not been there. My goal, then, was to work on at least one of those four categories. Even if all I did for that day was run 20 minutes or read a chapter I considered it a victory because it was more than I had been doing previously. I was weirdly excited about this new challenge. I saw it as an opportunity for me to grow and truly discover myself.

Yeah, that lasted about two weeks. My new plan got off to a great start. I found myself running just about everyday, reading as often as I could, spending more time in prayer, and talking pretty consistently with friends. I honestly started to see some improvements! I felt like my interactions with people were much more genuine and I was regaining more focus. The things I love were starting to bring me that same joy. And then I got sick.

What started out as a sore throat gradually grew into one of those weird illnesses where nothing major is wrong but you just feel off. I ended up going to urgent care and missing about a day and a half of work. What I expected to be a short two day bug ended up lasting well over a week. That meant no more running. My desire to leave the house evaporated. And when I was home I just wanted to lay in front of the TV instead of open a book. The progress I had been making in the previous weeks was fading by the day. Despite the sickness, though, there was something I was looking forward to – the PGA Championship.

My brother-in-law Kevin got me a ticket for Saturday for my birthday and I was so excited. I love going to unique sporting events like this when they come through town so I wasn’t going to miss it. The morning of I still didn’t feel 100% but I felt a ton better than I had even two days before. It was going to be a great day. We got to the course crazy early in the morning and I immediately loved it. The atmosphere was amazing and it was so cool to be part of such a unique event. We spent the next few hours walking the course, following along with some of the best golfers in the world. We eventually settled on a hole to stay at for a while later on in the day. Up to that point I had eaten a breakfast sandwich and a pretzel and had two bottles of water while walking around for a few miles in the hot sun. Unfortunately, the damage had been done. I had a growing headache and later in the afternoon I began to feel nauseous. It eventually got to a point where I realized I had to go to first aid. I booked it across the golf course to the nearest first aid station and got there just in time. Probably within 30 seconds I began throwing up nonstop (TMI, I know) and had the absolute worst migraine of my life. Nothing changed after about 15 minutes  when I was told I was going to be taken to the emergency room due to dehydration. I was eventually taken outside to a cart where I had to lay down as they drove me through the golf course to a waiting ambulance. I can remember thinking during that ride that this was one of the lowest moments of my life, especially given the context of everything that had been taking place in the months leading up. How did I get here? How did I let this happen?

Before too long I was in the emergency room, feeling embarrassed but also much better. While I was in the ER, however, I came to learn something else. After running some blood tests the doctor told me that I was slightly anemic. That meant I wasn’t getting enough iron in my blood, which after some research I discovered can oftentimes lead to fatigue and a lack of focus. Hmm, that sounded familiar. And the thought crossed my mind…maybe this is what’s been wrong with me all along! I can fix this! In the immediate aftermath I viewed my trip to the ER as a blessing in disguise.

In my research I found the foods that were rich in iron and discovered that I had an absolutely terrible diet. I was excited to make changes, though. I went grocery shopping two days after my ER visit and completely revamped my diet. I was already envisioning the meals I’d make and how much better I’d feel. I got home from work everyday looking forward to cooking dinner, which was a first for me. Normally my dinners consist of ramen noodles or chicken strips, whatever is quickest. While my cooking skills were (and still are) lackluster I was truly enjoying this experience. And while I’m sure some of it was a placebo effect, over the next couple weeks I did start to notice a difference. I was feeling more energetic and was starting to settle into a nice little routine. I unintentionally found myself working on those four categories I mentioned earlier, however, really prioritizing two of them: physical and mental. I was feeling better physically from my new diet and was starting to run again. Mentally I was feeling really great because I was reading every single morning, getting into a good mental state to start each day.

However, there were the other two areas that I felt like I was lacking in: emotional and spiritual. When I first hatched my plan to work on those four aspects of life I intended to blog because I felt it would help me emotionally. I thought it would help me to continue to process everything. This blog has been an unbelievable outlet for me to do just that. So why has it been so difficult for me to sit down and write?  It’s not that I ran out of things to talk about, I just didn’t feel that pull. I think a lot of it stems from the fact that I haven’t really known how to put everything into words. Everything I’ve talked about up to this point has been at the forefront of my mind for two months now. I’ve been wanting to write about all of this but it just seemed so daunting. I wanted to be totally honest about everything and didn’t want to leave out any details. But so what if I did? I thought back to my previous blog posts and how freeing they were, regardless of whether or not I left any details out or not.

I’ve also felt myself severely dragging spiritually. It just flat out hasn’t been a priority and that’s something I’ve felt really guilty about. When I first started to confront the possibility of depression I came to a conclusion that I was overexerting myself. I felt like I was constantly on the go, expending every bit of energy I had. In turn, this negatively impacted my relationships with the people around me. I wasn’t totally present in conversations, finding it hard to maintain focus. I feared that if I kept pushing myself to do fulfill every obligation I would run the risk of it no longer being something that brought me joy. To remedy this I decided that I needed to take a step back and slow down, which I thought in turn would make everything more enjoyable. Whether intentional or not, youth group has been the thing I’ve sacrificed the most. I’ve gone to Lifenights and participated but I haven’t felt totally present. I haven’t been doing any additional youth group stuff during the week like I typically do. That’s meant no adoration, pray and play, or Friday Fundays. I’ve essentially boiled it down to the bare minimum, justifying it as a temporary fix. This has negatively impacted my spiritual life. The one thing I should be prioritizing over everything else has become my least area of focus. Again, I can’t help but feel guilty. After all, my faith is the one area where I can truly grow and gain the most. I’ve slowly been pushing myself to move my spiritual life back to the front but I’ve realized it’s something I need help with.

Overall, though, things have been pretty good the last couple weeks. However, last week I had a followup doctor’s appointment in regards to my anemia. I ended up getting some good news – the anemia had subsided! I was weirdly confused, though. Okay, now what? It sounds strange but I was excited to have this concrete obstacle I could overcome. I saw it as something that gave me focus and motivation to improve myself. And now it was already resolved. Where do I go from here?

One place I did go just this past weekend was Stockton Lake. I went on a trip with my dad to go stay in a cabin for a few days and hike a couple trails. It turned out to be exactly what I needed. I can’t say I came back with an answer to every question or problem I’ve had over the last couple months. But one thing I did learn is that I’ve been selling myself short. Earlier I said that I considered it a victory if I did something to work on one of those four aspects. I realized this weekend that I am capable of so much more. A lot of what I’ve been going through stems from my lack of fulfillment and a desire for more. I want more out of life but I’m afraid to really take chances and go for it. And so that complacency takes hold and warps itself into something restraining. Why not push myself more and see what happens?

Over the weekend my dad and I went on two hikes. The first was on an overcast and windy day. Pouring rain threatened us at any moment. The ground was wet and muddy and at times there were weeds and shrubs up to our knees. Daylight was running out as we got turned around on the trail. We were still on the trail, so we weren’t quite lost, but it was a matter of making the right turn to get back to the trailhead before dark. Despite taking the long way back we finally made it to the car after 2 hours and 4.5 miles on the trail.

The next day we had a drastically different hike. It was beautiful and sunny outside and the trail was much easier to navigate. Our views were incredible and our feet weren’t soaked afterwards. We didn’t get lost or turned around and finished our 2 mile hike in just under an hour.

I absolutely loved both hikes despite how drastically different they were. I find that they were both very appropriate for everything that’s been going on. One was more challenging, filled with more uncertainty and doubt, and overcast with fear. All of that made getting to the end all the more rewarding and satisfying. This trail is my depression, my anemia, whatever it is I’m struggling with. In the moment it’s dark and confusing. At times I’m not sure which direction I’m supposed to be going, afraid that I might be stuck out on this trail longer than anticipated. And yet I know it’s temporary. I know eventually I will find the end of that trail and that it will feel so great when I do.

As for the other trail, it is illuminated by beauty. It is pure, easy, and filled with sunshine. It is filled with hope. This is the trail I have been on before and the one I know I will be on again. Both of these trails have immense value because they teach you to be appreciative of the blessings in your life, just in different ways. While I may not always enjoy or understand why I’m on the first trail I know that I’ll come out the other side a better man because of it. That, in turn, will only allow me to enjoy the second trail that much more.

If you’ve read this far, wow. Thank you. Seriously. When I started writing this one I honestly had no idea where I was going and I’m sure that’s pretty evident, so thank you for bearing with me. I know I jumped around quite a bit but that’s okay. So for those of you that have read this far I can’t tell you how much I love and appreciate you. One of my biggest takeaways from all of this is that I’m surrounded by some pretty unbelievable people, and if you’re still reading I consider you one of those people. I’m genuinely excited to see what’s next on this trail called life.

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