In Recovery: Your Diagnosis is not Your Destiny


The six benefits of smiling no matter how difficult your days may feel


I call her the doughnut Nazi.

Yea, that’s harsh.

She works at a Tim Hortons restaurant in Calgary, Alberta. She’s not difficult to miss. She is in her mid 50’s and she looks like she’s been eating lemons for about 50 years.

neal-flowler_minty-dave_in-recovery-your-diagnosis-is-not-your-destinyShe looked mad before I even opened my mouth. Then she got our doughnut order wrong. I thought it was a simple fix, just exchange the white sprinkly-thing dipped doughnut for the maple doughnut like my son wanted. But somehow, her perma-frown managed to frown a little more.

Then she gave us the wrong maple doughnut.  At this point, my 16 year old son wanted to just cut our losses: Take the doughnut and get outta the store. But for me, this one was personal.

So I persisted and asked for the right doughnut. Then she proceeded to argue that it was our fault. At this point, I was mad and I imagined myself throwing a maple doughnut right at her un-smiley face.

She finally gave us the right doughnut, and yes, she wasn’t happy about it.

My parents frequent this Tim Horton’s quite often, and my mother tells me that the Doughnut Nazi never smiles.

What is it about customer service these days?

Do people matter so little that we just don’t want to bother smiling at each other? How much does it cost to smile? When the woman at the other end of cash register smiles at me, I feel better about my purchase, about the store and about myself. It’s funny how a simple smile can change your day and make you feel a little better about yourself.

Recovery and the power of a smile

I have experienced dark clinical depression and I know what it is like to go through a day without smiling. It’s like hell’s cold needle has ripped it’s way right through your veins.

Some days recovery can feel just shitty. A smile can be the last thing that you want to do. You may not have any  energy to smile, but can do some pretty important things inside of you. Smiling is a little like investing money. Your investments will have up days and down days but you don’t pull your money out just because of the seasons when you lose some of your cash. In the same way, your moods will have up days and down days, but pulling out, checking out after some difficult seasons will just guarantee that your moods will continue into a deeper downhill slide.

Smiling is powerful. It will do six things for you, whether you are in recovery or not:

1.Smiling creates connection. A smile begins inside. I am not a naturally smiley-happy person, and some days my depressive thinking gets the best of me. I have to work at smiling and yes, some days I fake it. When you smile at another person it is an invitation. You respect them enough to look them in the eye and that might just make the difference for them and for you.

2.Smiling creates something new. When you smile, you communicate something to the other person. You make them feel as though they are important. We are in a technologically driven, isolated phase in our culture. Whether or not you see technology as a good thing, there seems to be less engagement, less eye contact with each other these days. If you are in a down mood, if you are struggling, an iPhone won’t help. But looking another soul in the eye might just let them see something in you. If you don’t look at another person, they will never know what you need.

3.Smiling allows you to be seen. Whether it’s real or faked, a smile allows you to be seen for just a moment. When you smile, your eyes express a little of your inner light. There is something about two strangers genuinely smiling at each other. It is a moment of vulnerability in a culture of self-protection.

4.Smiling is a radical, political act of defiance. Culture says that it is okay to smile a lot when you buy stuff, when you drink alcohol, when you are on an expensive trip or on a Friday afternoon. But smiling on a Tuesday morning? What’s that about? Smiling for no reason is a declaration, a refusal to go along with consumerism and isolationism. Smiling is an open door. You drop your guard and invite other people to join you.

5.Smiling is like a body-language contract. When you smile, the other person’s mirror neurons create an impulse to smile. That is, unless culture has created a rule against smiling. Mirror neurons are powerful and they literally cause a response in the other person. Adrian Furnhan in a Psychology Today article on the psychology of smiling calls this a virtuous cycle. When you smile, you create an atmosphere that means that better things can happen. A smile is a way to invite your day to get a little better.

6.Smiling builds positive emotions. A smile broadcasts that no matter how tough life can be, your moods will pass. You may not be richer, you may not have better career opportunities and your kids may argue about the same stuff. But tomorrow is a new day. It can be better.

Your diagnosis is not your destiny

Yesterday, I helped my daughter with a fundraiser for a school trip that she is taking in October. We have to raise a lot of money for the trip, so that means a lot of fundraising. Trust me, no one feels like fundraising. It is just not that fun. But when you smile, you feel a little better and you make others around you feel better. At least, that’s what it feels like for me.

A local grocery store has allowed our kids to bag groceries for free and then invite customers to donate money towards the trip. So far, the effort has been pretty successful. Who can argue with a kid who smiles and tells you they want to explore the world and have a cultural experience?

But not everyone shares the enthusiasm. I spoke to an older staff member several times. Towards the end of my shift, for just a second she looked at me and said “If this day doesn’t get any better, I’m going to slit my throat.” Yeah, that’s pretty drastic. She was on the customer service desk and it is often the worst job, because people complain a lot. But even when I tried to put a positive spin and suggested that tomorrow can be better, she just looked blankly at me.

You will have days where you feel depressed or anxious, you will have days where you have racing thoughts and yes, you will still experience cravings… but a smile can change your mind. A smile can help to pull you out of your experience, just a little.

I don’t know how her life is going. She may have genuinely sad reasons to be sad. It reminded me that each of us has a choice. I have experienced a dark clinical depression and I know what it is like to go through a day without smiling. It’s like hell’s cold needle has ripped it’s way right through your veins. Clinical depression can be dark and destructive.  Recovery is slow. Some days you cannot smile, but then other days you regain a little strength and you can invest a little more in smiling. Smiling does not mean you are not depressed any more, it just means that you are choosing to not allow your illness to take over your life.

A smile is a radical declaration: Your diagnosis is not your destiny. You will have days where you feel depressed or anxious, you will have days where you have racing thoughts and yes, you will still experience cravings… but a smile can change your mind. A smile can help to pull you out of your experience, just a little.

Just for fun, at a training event I introduced myself as one of my diagnoses. Instead of writing my name, I wrote “I have warts.” A few people laughed. I was asked about it, so I explained that I am raising awareness about how we are not our labels or our diagnoses. There were smiles and awkward silence.

You are not your diagnosis. Your experience is powerful, but you can choose to get up and continue to walk on. Life can be better. Smiling does not need to be fake when you invest even a little of your heart, your energy and your life in it.

So today, I invite you to make a smile declaration: Your diagnosis, your experience so far does not tell your entire story. The best is yet to come.

If you enjoyed this article, you will want to check out some of my other writing:

In Recovery: Your Destination is not your Destiny

The Healing Power of Silence in Recovery

When is Being Good A Bad Thing?

I write articles about wellness, leadership, parenting and personal growth. My hope is to deliver the best content I can to inspire, to inform and to entertain. Sign up for my blog if you want to receive the latest and best of my writing. If you like what I have to say, please share my work with your friends.

Lastly, if you like my writing, you can click here to vote for my page on Psych Central’s list of mental health blogs.

Keep it Real

Photos by Matteo Martinello and Neal Fowler

One thought on “In Recovery: Your Diagnosis is not Your Destiny

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s