Six months ago, I had a really hard time accomplishing anything. I had a manuscript for a short story that I had been working on for five years sitting on my desktop. I was enrolled in an online college course, but making progress was like pulling teeth. My friends dwindled in number because I didn’t have the energy to see them or even return their messages. Holding down a job was out of the question because of my depression, anxiety, and volatile sleep schedule. Art, school, friends, work – all the major joys of being alive were nonexistent for me for months.
My panicked brain went into overdrive trying to figure out how to fix all of my problems simultaneously. Following advice from my doctors, I started a to do list to help plan my recovery. Not following advice from my doctors, I tried to cram every major life fix into a single day.
“Tomorrow,” I told myself, “I’m going to return my friends’ texts, answer all my emails, fix up my resume, read twenty pages of my psychology textbook, and edit my manuscript. Yes. This plan is foolproof.”
The next day rolled around. I did none of those things.
So what went wrong? I had written out – on paper! – everything I wanted to accomplish, but none of it got done. I decided some introspection was in order.
This led to my discovery of a long-term process I call spiraling up, where I utilize the snowball effect to incite positive change for myself. Basically, by accumulating a series of small successes, each building on the last, I develop a sense of mastery and self-worth that grows until my whole life is more or less back in order. And the beauty of the spiraling up process is that it can be used again and again if hard times return.
The essential qualities of a successful upward spiral can be remembered by the acronym ARISE, which stands for abling, rewarding, incremental, self-sustaining, and exponential. When I follow these steps in order, I find that over time, healthy patterns begin to emerge and my mood improves dramatically.
In order to tune myself up, I had to figure out the root of my problem, and then enable myself to move past that barrier.
Step 1: ABLING
I remembered a helpful question my therapist asks me in difficult situations: what is the hurdle that stands between me and what I’m trying to accomplish? The morning I was supposed to fix my whole life, I slept in because insomnia had kept me up late. Then, when I finally got up, I was too tired to get anything done.
I realized that my stumbling block was my lack of energy. I knew logically that getting to work would pay off with lower stress levels, and I was emotionally determined to be productive as well. But I didn’t have the physical energy to do it. It’s like my rational thoughts were trapped in a cage of lethargy where they were unable to crystallize into usable motivation.
Well, I figured, I couldn’t talk myself out of being depressed.* So I turned to my favorite lifehack: medication. I didn’t need a catchall antidepressant cure. All I needed was a little energy to get out of bed.
My psychiatrist gave me Adderall. It worked magnificently.**
The spiraling up process began when I sat down to figure out what was keeping me from doing what I wanted. Once I identified the heart of my problem, I was able to focus on effectively treating it, instead of hitting a wall again and again because I was going down the wrong path.
Adderall didn’t fix my melancholy mood, but it did get me moving. It also made me better able to concentrate, which allowed me to pick a task to focus on.
Step 2: REWARDING
When choosing what I wanted to accomplish first, I picked the most gratifying – yet relatively easy – task on my list. I was drawn toward the book I’d started writing in high school, The Satellite. The manuscript was done; I just needed to publish it. Over the course of three productive days, I formatted the story to print and ordered my first finished copy. I was officially an author.
This particular item on my to do list was a good starting point because working on it was easy and fun. Completing the task didn’t get too frustrating, so I never lost my momentum. It was also immensely rewarding to finish.
Without spending too much time or effort, I already had an accomplishment under my belt. I turned back to my to do list.
Step 3: INCREMENTAL
With one gratifying accomplishment behind me, I felt empowered to check another item off my list, so I tackled my online class. Hunkering down with Adderall’s gentle assistance, I finished the course two weeks later.
Doing homework isn’t as much fun as publishing a book, which is why I chose to do it second. I knew I’d need some sense of accomplishment from a previous task to motivate me through the chore of studying. Thus, completing the first item led to completing the second item, because I chose to approach them incrementally. Instead of tackling every problem in my life at once, I handled them consecutively, allowing my achievements to build on one another.
I was creating momentum toward maintaining a self-sufficient life.
Step 4: SELF-SUSTAINING
When I told my doctor sometime later that I felt anxious more frequently, he said it was probably due to Adderall. Reluctantly, I agreed to stop taking the medication, and my symptoms improved.
By then, I had built enough of a life that I was in a groove that sustained itself. I no longer needed the drug that started my upward spiral because each of my small achievements gave me the energy I needed to do bigger and bigger things.
Step 5: EXPONENTIAL
With my accomplishments racking up at home, building a life outside of the house felt like the next important move. My to do list was much lighter, so I was less stressed. I found the time and energy to explore an open mic at one of my favorite coffee shops. The people were extraordinarily friendly, and I quickly made several friends. Incrementally over the course of a few weeks, they introduced me to dozens of other members of their poetry community. From there, I started to write poems again, and began to perform them at the open mic.
Not only did my achievements build on one another, but that building process actually sped up. For every poem I wrote, I was inspired to write two more. For every friend I made, I met two more. My schedule filled up exponentially.
Several months passed, and I established a good pattern. I started to attend a regular writer’s workshop in Boulder. I published a collection of original poems called Paper Stars. My friends and I drove to Denver once a week for a competitive poetry slam. Eventually, I reapplied to universities. I signed up for a low-stress part time job. Life picked up pretty quickly, considering a few months previously I had been sleeping all day and wondering what to do with myself.
My days naturally settled into a rhythm as my confidence to take on more and more responsibilities grew. Using the spiraling up technique, I slowly but surely transitioned into living a busy and satisfying existence.
* No one can talk themselves out of being depressed.
**Doctors can’t just give out Adderall to everybody who wants to be more productive, unfortunately. It’s a dangerous drug that can have serious side effects, like heart problems. It was prescribed to me because I have a genuine depressive condition and I needed it in order to function at a normal level.