I was in love. Deeply in love, claiming the life I always wanted. Pursuing the effervescent dream that everyone tells you is unattainable – the clichéd one of being a musician, an artist. To the surprise of some, and even myself, things began to stick. I was successfully publishing my own songs, making an income. The music industry was taking notice of my work. My husband’s tech company, that he co-founded, was launching and making big news. And after a year of trying, we ﬁnally became pregnant.
Everything was falling into place. A year and a bit later, we conceived our second child. Young, healthy, with a dream job, an amazing and supportive husband, balancing my career with motherhood. I was thriving. We were thriving.
And then. Yes. Life. It happened. Or shall I say, it was happening.
For reasons I can’t explain, and still remain a mystery to this day, my husband fell very ill. A Major Depressive Episode was what the doctors called it. Anxiety escalated and led to a clinical diagnosis that eventually landed him into the hospital. Less than six months later, his mental illness overtook him and led to his suicide. My sons were just 2 weeks old and 2 years old. In a perfect storm that was also further intensified by my mother’s late stages of Cancer, Multiple Myeloma, I found myself ﬁve months later addressing her eulogy on my late husband’s birthday. He would have been 42 years old.
In a dizzying kaleidoscope of events that could have sunk many a ship, I stand here today to share my story of hope. And because I believe that most of us are struggling with our own personal storms, it is my wish that the details, not of the event, but what came after, can serve as helpful insights or inspirations into ways that may help others to cope or push through their own adversities.
Sleep deprived, nursing a newborn, caring for a toddler, dealing with my own trauma, intense grief amidst funeral arrangements, and a life move to the other side of the country to be with my family, was the biggest undertaking of my life.
In the depths of the dark nights when I sat in a rocking chair, nursing my newborn while my toddler slept, I recall asking myself, ‘How the hell do I get myself out of this?’. But there was no way out. There was only a way through.
I had never been a great journaler despite always aspiring to be one. But on the eve of one of my hardest days, I bought myself a journal. I still to this day have the journal and on the one and only page, there is a singled scribbled entry. It says:
2. Take care of your boys.
3. Eat. Eat vegetables.
Clearly, I was taking every possible step, albeit small, to stay healthy for the sake of my children. I was in survival mode, focussing on only what I was capable of doing at that moment. Just One. Step. At. A. Time. One day at a time. Rebuilding. Recovering.
I worked on one thing every day. And that one thing didn’t rely on anyone’s help to make me feel better. Doing kind things for myself but most of all for other people, writing songs and producing music, doing yoga, meditating, challenging myself to stay physically healthy, travelling with my children (despite it being very daunting), discovering new things, places, ideas…
Years later, I noticed a pattern emerging. Every time I did these things, I felt better about myself and my surroundings. I felt capable. When I looked to help others, I served Humanity and felt connected, happy. When I engaged in the Arts and Awareness through meditation and living in that state of ‘flow’, where all time seemed to stop, I felt proud, creative, evolving. While Travelling, I felt rejuvenated and enthusiastic for life. Discovering foreign lands or simply travelling to the core of my own hometown to explore made me feel the childlike sense of wonder. Sports and Science/Nature helped me to test my physical boundaries, to seek out what my body and my will was really made of. I discovered how much I loved to run in forests and mountains.
Life appeared fuller. And with time, the joy derived from these acts became habits of self-compassion. Even if it was for just one moment, I could relish in the positive emotions. In an adjacent space in my heart, grief lived. But its presence was less profound, and over time, it took up less room.
Then one day while campaigning for Men’s Mental Health for Movember. I set out a challenge for myself and for others to join me in this act of self-compassion that I discovered helped foster positive mental wellbeing. Those joining also accompanied me in an act of solidarity for all those living or caring for someone with a mental illness.
I knew from my own experience that my model of self-compassion worked because it had taken me from a very dark place to a place of hope and happiness. It helped me to get back on my feet again. It helped me to rebuild my pride, my integrity, my confidence, my sense of worth. And because of it, I launched my blog, Ode to Wonder. I began advocating for Mental Health. I did a Tedx Talk and re-ignited my creativity through my writing and songwriting. I was not only getting through, I was getting up, standing up for myself and the life I wanted to live. My life was enriched because I chose to experience it fully and completely. I didn’t ignore the hardship, I sailed straight into the wind. And I was able to do so by using self-compassion.
This self-compassion, mental wellbeing regime I eventually titled ‘H.A.T.S. OFF’. It is a socalled Hats Oﬀ to oneself for making it through, one day at a time. It is also an acronym that stands for the habits or the rituals :
H. Humanity Giving back and serving others. Paying it forward. Feeling compassion for others.
A. Arts and Awareness The art of experiencing ﬂow through being creative or engaging with art. Engaging in being mindful, practicing meditation.
T. Travel Travelling and exploring, whether it be discovering a new café or something new in your own backyard, or abroad to a foreign country. The key is accessing that sense of novelty.
S. Sports, Science/Nature Grounding yourself through nature, feeling yourself within your body, tapping into your personal strength, testing your will.
I do one or up to a combination of all of them every day. I schedule the time into my calendar, just as I do with physical exercise. With so much focus on how we treat our bodies, what we feed our bodies, there is little emphasis on how and what we feed our mind. Connecting my mind, body with my essence, acknowledging my feelings, and supporting ways to process them in a healthy way, has helped me to right my keel. It is thanks to ‘H.A.T.S OFF’ that I have navigated through my storm and my hardest days ever.
Paula M. Toledo is a former Brand, Promotions and Marketing Manager for Coca-Cola, Evian Water, Grouse Mountain Resorts, turned Storyteller for Causes and Compassion. She is Tedx Speaker, a Mental Health Advocate/Featured Guest for Global TV, writer for Thrive Global, Founder of Ode to Wonder blog and podcast, published Singer/Songwriter and Single Mom. She dedicates her storytelling mediums to foster compassion and positive mental wellbeing.
Learn more about Paula’s story via @odetowonder