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Learning to celebrate life

Author: Gillian Smith

Please note: this piece contains descriptions of mental health that some readers may find upsetting.

Celebrating life's wins, big and small, is what we live for. Without the ability to celebrate the things that keep us going each day, we risk losing our reason to keep going completely. Once upon a time, this was me. I had nothing to celebrate and no reason to live. Once upon a time, I was suicidal.

All throughout my teenage years, I struggled with depression and anxiety. When I was 14, I was violently attacked and humiliated by people who I thought were my friends. On seeing how cruel and uncaring the world and the people in it could be, I lost my faith in the world and in humanity, and sank into a deep depression. My whole world went grey, like the colour had washed off in the rain. I suffered in silence, too afraid that I would be judged or that nobody would care. On the surface, I was still a regular teenage girl trying to find her way in the world, and just trying to fit in. But underneath, every step I took, every social interaction, every breathe taken, was forced. I felt completely alone.

One of the thoughts that got me through my teenage depression, was thinking that one day it would be over. One day I would grow up and be happy, just like everybody else seemed to be. But when my depression followed me into adult life, at a time when I should have been happy, I lost all hope that I would ever be truly happy, and I decided to end my life. I didn’t want to die, I just didn’t want to live anymore. I convinced myself that I had tried my hardest but failed. I told myself that I was a burden, that the world would be better off without me. But when I woke up the next day, still alive, I felt even worse, knowing how much I had hurt those around me.

I knew then that I had to try to find another way to live. I had to learn how to see the beauty in the world again. I had to know that there was something out there worth living for. So I left my comfort zone, and went out into the world, in search of a reason to keep on living. I travelled to the most diverse place I could think of, somewhere as far from home and from my comfort zone as I could: South Africa. A country famous for its poverty, corruption and discrimination. If there was anywhere in the world that I could learn how to be happy in an unfair world, it was there. As I travelled, I saw beautiful sights and terrible sights. I saw rich people, poor people, sad people, happy people. I saw that the world is a mixed bag of dark and light.

As I travelled along the east coast of South Africa, I passed through one village which I will remember for the rest of my life. A rural village set on the coast where the people live in destitute conditions, but they do so with smiles on their faces. Women sat on the ground outside mud-hut houses, stirring pots between their knees. Children in rags ran barefoot across the dirt ground as they laughed and played, completely unaware of the hardships they face in life. When we arrived, they came running over, desperate to welcome us to their village. They smiled and laughed at us, they reached out wanting to touch our hands, happy to welcome us to their home, happy to show us their world and how they lived; so differently to us. They did not discriminate between “having” and “not having”, they played the card’s life had dealt them and they were happy with their hands. Was it really that simple? Is it possible to just be happy with what you are given? Is it possible to be so poor, yet be so rich? Is it possible to live with depression and be happy at the same time? That day I learnt that I don’t have to be happy or depressed, I can live with both. The world can be cruel, dark and unfair, but it can also be beautiful, peaceful and full of hope.

That evening, the locals entertained us with a bonfire on the beach. As we sat around enjoying the heat from the fire in the quickly cooling evening, the sun gently setting on the horizon, the local children sang songs as they danced around the fire. The boys beat their palms against a chorus of bongo drums with such passion that I could almost hear their heartbeats sync with the beat of the drums. As I watched one young boy drum along with the others, I saw him transport into another time and place, like it was him and drum, and nothing else in the entire world. I thought to myself I would have given anything to be so completely content as he was in that moment. But, as I took it all in, the energising beat of the drums, the captivating beauty of the fire, the roar of the ocean behind me, I realised that I was. I was content. I was more than content. I was seeing everything in colour. Bright, vibrant, captivating colour. The world was beautiful after all, just as I always knew it could be. All I ever really needed, was to know that it was all worth it, that the world could be beautiful.

And even now, ten years on, every time I smell the burning wood in the warm summer air, or I hear the ocean roaring in time with the breeze in the air, I’m transported straight back to that moment on the beach and I am reminded to be thankful that I kept breathing long enough to realise that I still wanted to.

I am reminded to celebrate life.

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