Almost 10 years ago, I was struck by a series of life events. The way I see it, life as you have it, is like one domino cascading to the next. We never know when it will zig and take a turn for the better, nor do we quite know when we will find ourselves at the end of a heaping mess.
After a very unforeseen and rapid decline in mental health, my love and late husband, a successful entrepreneur and tech founder – with a brilliant mind and generous heart, became very ill. We were together for twenty years. His mental illness which led to his suicide, just two weeks after my youngest son was born, and short of my eldest son’s second birthday, was a complete shock.
Sandwiched between my son’s birth and my husband’s suicide was my own brush with death. Post delivery, I re-admitted myself into the very same hospital that I had delivered my baby in. A retained placenta led to life threatening haemorrhaging, fighting for not only my own life, but my newborn’s life, and that of my husband’s.
Weeks after my husband’s suicide, in a blur of sleep deprivation from the healing, the nursing, the grief and trauma, I received a phone call from my family. My mother had been battling Multiple Myeloma, a blood cancer, over the past two years and she was in her last days.
With the help of angelic best friends, I managed to travel cross-country to be with my family and introduce my mother to her newest grandson.
My mother and husband weren’t my only losses. I decided to relocate my family to be close to my siblings and in-laws, and after my mother’s passing underwent a cross-country move. I lost proximity to friendships and due to the distance, left my work as a Brand Marketer and stopped pursuing my tandem career as a singer-songwriter.
People have often asked me how I got through this period. They look at me and see my TEDx talk or WE Day speech, my appearances on Global TV and think that I must be strong, that I must have worked really hard to get over my grief.
The truth is that I have not worked through my grief or gotten over it. I have played through it.
I recall one day talking to my best friend. Painstakingly seeing me at my worst, she encouraged me to go back to work as soon as my maternity leave was up. “An idle mind is a devil’s playground,” she quoted. I strongly considered going back to work, but dug very deep and listened to my intuition.
And the following are truths that I learned.
Sometimes the discomfort of working through pain is needed to grow, other times playing through pain is needed to ‘know’.
I decided that I was going to take the time required to get back on my feet. To rebuild my life from ground zero needed days and maybe years. But more importantly, I wanted to ensure that my sons, were not only healthy, but thriving in heart, mind and body. Playing with my children was my best social prescription for my mental well-being.
Finding that thing that makes you feel playful, like a kid, where all time stops, can be the one thing that pulls you through, that makes you know that you can and will recover.
As we get older, our childlike playfulness, sense of wonder and creativity can often transform into resourcefulness and innovativeness, leading to more doing as opposed to being.
Being present with my children allowed me to return to my creative origins. In parallel with their world-views, they gave me the gift of access to their same sense of wonder and curiosity about the physical world we live in. In this kind of deep play, I also learned more about my inner emotional world.
Going down that rabbit hole and diving into what peaks your curiosity is not a time waster. Playing around with that thing that brings you joy, that leads to discovery and learning, is golden. Play can lay down the foundation for healing, from which brilliant ideas can grow.
Sometimes playtime can seem gratuitous given all our responsibilities. By engaging in play and accessing ‘flow’, we can learn a lot about ourselves. What are our needs, desires, and dreams? Finding space for play is the best way to ‘level up’ to better well-being.
Regardless of age, learning through play is the ‘stickiest’ way to acquire deep insights and knowledge that leave an impression.
As my children grew older and my time freed up, I began applying the same sense of playfulness and wonder to my work. Instead of going back to corporate marketing, I decided to write about what sparked my curiosity. It was a way for me to ‘Field-of-Dreams/Build-It-And-It-Will-Come’ reconstruct my life. I thought if I wrote about my sense of wonder, discovery, and gratitude, that the life I desired would reveal itself. My blog, Ode to Wonder, an homage to that one thing that I knew would pull me through the heap of dominos, has led to beautiful beginnings. I discovered the pillars for my own mental health, Humanity, Arts/Awareness, Travel and Sports/Fitness that led me to my own personal acronym and mantra, ‘H.A.T.S. Off’; daily rituals rooted in self-compassion and play that nurture my mental well-being. I now share these practices via my writing and speeches.
Playing with others is the social prescription to mental well-being.
Playing with my children, playing with my own creativity, discovering others and interviewing them for my blog, writing songs on restaurant napkins, in doctor’s offices, recording into my computer (at nap times and late late at night), uploading tracks and sharing them virtually with other contributing musicians – was the best way to access joy.
Like running that marathon with your best friend, it can be excruciating, but the joy always supersedes the pain.
Service-based play and learning, not only leads to deep insights, but meaning and purpose.
Finding that thing that tickles you, engaging in it with a friend, a loved one, building a community around it, can lead to more than just fleeting happiness. It results in long-lasting joy.
My eldest son had a very difficult time processing his loss. In a parallel magical world of where his play layered mine, my son took to reading my blog and eventually watching my TEDx talk. Inspired by how joyful he saw me become through my involvement with WE Well-being, he initiated his own service-based playful way to understand his loss while helping other children. Developing a video game in Roblox, (a gaming and imagination platform that allows its users to develop or play millions of 3D online games) about ‘Bob’ the main character who lives with depression and anxiety, became a premise for him to learn about mental health. As it begins, Bob finds himself in a grey Obi jumping from one block to another learning more about his depression and anxiety through panels of information displayed along his journey. With each success, the grey blocks turn to colour to depict Bob’s recovery in his Mental Illness. As he reaches the end of the Obi, fireworks are displayed, leading to an adjacent park and playground where he can go to socialize with his friends.
The beauty of play led to Bob’s recovery, a metaphor, I believe, for our family’s recovery. In my eyes, the fireworks at the end symbolizes the happiness, the celebration, the light amidst the dark skies.
And the best part is that my son’s understanding about mental illness has led him to open up discussions through play, even with his very own peers who are struggling with their own mental health.
My goal in speaking out has always been to free myself and the generations that come after me. My mission is to be the ‘kink in the hose’ in the pain of secrecy that attempts to flow from one generation to another. Now thanks to Roblox, and the power of play through technology, my son has learned to not only ‘be, but ‘be’ AND ‘do’. Empowering his friends and other youth to speak out and talk about their mental health via his video game, my son has unlocked a new way for the next generation to find innovative solutions to care for their mental well-being.
Play, I have no doubt, is an absolute game changer when it comes to promoting mental well-being.
Featured image credit: Lonely Girl Productions