October is the Month When Things Start

This post originally appeared in October 2018 as one of the essays I send to my email subscribers every month. If you’d like to receive one essay a month on the themes of overcoming the challenges in life by exploring, embracing and expressing your own unique individuality, you can sign up for that email list here.

October is the month when things start.

The concept of a “happiness project” was born out of my first visit to Lewis Howes’s Summit of Greatness in 2017. That event took place in mid-September but after I returned from Ohio I started to think deeply about happiness, my own and others’, about what happiness was, where it came from, how to recognise it, how to experience it.

I travelled to the Summit of Greatness that year with an intention to connect with people who I might be able to help with my online marketing and communications business. It was a business networking opportunity with a difference, with an audience assembled full of people who wanted to improve themselves or improve the world, or both. But at some level, in my head, it was still a business networking opportunity. Sometimes, when I spoke to people there, I was thinking of ways I could help them, but when I was thinking of ways I could help them foremost in my mind I was thinking of ways they could help me, by paying me.

At some point that weekend I started to look at things differently, inwardly and outwardly.

Chris Lee, one of the speakers and a leading self development trainer who specialises, it seems, in helping people elevate their self-worth, spoke about life lessons from 30,000 feet and about “putting your own oxygen mask on first”.

He said,

“How can you help everyone around you if you yourself can’t breathe?”

During October 2017, I began to think about what a happiness project might look like. What form sharing my experiences of depression and happiness might take. Because writing is the mode of communication I love most, I decided on email. This email. I hired a graphic designer in Brazil to design an email newsletter layout, and I started putting people on an email list. I prepared the first email and sent it on the first Friday of November 2017, with a commitment to sending one email on the first Friday of each month thereafter.

Today marks the one-year mark of that project.

It feels like a milestone, all the more so because as I write this I’m sitting in a hotel lobby in Columbus, Ohio, where the idea started to coagulate and where I started to think about how I could help myself and help others in a spirit of compassion and abundance rather than fear and scarcity. Where I started to think, perhaps for the first time, about giving instead of taking.

Today, I am reflecting on this project, about where it’s come from and where it might go.

The point of this week is the next phase of this happiness project, transitioning into what I might call instead the Life Well Lived Project.

It is a project about how to navigate the challenges of life, and make the small daily choices that add up over time to a life well lived.

October is the starting point.

This month I will set live the first episode of a new podcast I’ve been working on for the last six months, a series of interviews with people who have inspiring personal stories to tell or who are doing inspiring work, and what all of them have in common, I think, is a sense of how we can navigate the challenges of life to live a life well lived.

October is the starting point for the next phase of this project, and October is the starting point for a lot of things.

Two years ago, in October 2016, I walked out of a job that was making me ill, I was broke and without any idea of where my next income might come from, and I had three different financial institutions calling me up almost every day about debts that I could not repay.

That month I went through a few weeks where most of each day was spent in bed, coping with the challenges of life primarily by withdrawing from them. I turned off my phone, I locked the front door, I pulled the curtains closed and the duvet over my head and I fired up House of Cards on Netflix.

I spent full days with Frank and Claire Underwood. I journeyed in my mind to the White House in Washington D.C. and I was happy there, because there, for an hour or so, reality couldn’t get to me.

When the credits rolled and the red button with “Next Episode: 5 Seconds” counted down, I let it go through 4, 3, 2 and 1 and onto the next episode.

Bringing myself to press the Home button that would stop the video was beyond me, and I was happy with that, because if I had had to press any button to continue, that might well have been beyond me too.

This way I could sink into passiveness, and allow episode after episode to wallow over me. At the end of the day, when sunlight had gone and business hours were safely closed, I could leave the tablet screen to one side and doze in an anxiety-filled sleep until morning, when the cycle would begin again.

I remember watching Breaking Bad and Stranger Things and Narcos and Master of None, and I lost myself in Albuquerque and Indiana and Colombia and New York City because anywhere was better than here, even if the anywhere was in my mind. I remember almost nothing about any of those shows other than the fact of the purpose they were serving, as my bridge from one end of long days to the other, and often one end of long nights to the other too.

Somehow I got through it, and I know in this how fortunate I am, because many people do not get through it.

I was fortunate to have been able to find something deep inside me that wanted to go on.

I was fortunate to have had strong support and understanding from my wife Lorraine, who had lived with me long enough to understand my depression better even than me, and who helped me to chart a path through it that I would not have been able to chart alone.

I was fortunate to be able to speak to our solicitor about the financial troubles that were one of the manifestations of depression in my life, and I was fortunate when he sat me down and explained that this, where I had found myself, was a good thing, that this was an opportunity to restart, and that if it came to a choice between repaying a bank or putting food on the table, that there was no choice there at all. (I was so wrecked from self-loathing that prior to that day I had never believed that I could put the basic needs of me and my family before those of a faceless institution.)

I was fortunate to have heard other men (two Irishmen, the musician Niall Breslin—no relation—and the footballer Alan O’Mara among them) talk about their challenges in a way that made it seem okay for me to talk too.

I was fortunate that when I did start to talk I was able to recognise that talking honestly, openly, truthfully was the thing I most craved and most needed if I was to come out the other side of depression.

I was fortunate that some force inside me tilted and it became more necessary for me to reveal what it was that was going on inside than for me to continue to keep it hidden. (For so long so much of me had been battling to keep it hidden, because to admit to it would be to admit to weakness and failure and vulnerability, and those were things that as a man I could not admit.)

I was fortunate to talk for the first time openly with people close to me who had dealt with depression for large chunks of their lives but who had kept it hidden from view as much as possible, because keeping it hidden from view was a coping mechanism in its own right.

October is the starting point.

October is the month that the trees transform into the most beautiful shades of yellow and orange and brown, when it is likely that you will be walking or driving somewhere, lost in your own thoughts, and you will turn a corner or round a bend and be instantly struck by the magic and wonder of the universe in all its glory, making you stop right there where you are, grounding you in a single moment, making you breathe for a few seconds in the wonder of it all. That might feel like the end, not the beginning, but in perfect cycles there is no real end and no real beginning, and any moment that makes you stop and breathe and wonder can be a starting point.

October is the starting point.

October is the month I was born.

My birthday appeared in some horoscopes as Libra and some as Scorpio, something that always added to the uncertainty of who I was. (It’s a curiously self-eroding thing for someone to ask “What star sign are you?”, and to be unable to answer in less than a sentence.)

October is the month I was born.

October is the month I came to an almost-end.

And October is the month I was reborn.

Thanks for reading.

Shane