Find Your Secret Heart Place: A Guide To Surviving Difficult Times

Image by @mightymooseart

Image by @mightymooseart

When I feel like shooting myself into space with a circus cannon and never looking back, I jump in a pool instead.

I will even do this in February, bare-ass naked at 11 p.m. I dive under the water and I scream and scream and scream. And then I float until my body feels like it’s mine again. I go to water for comfort and quiet, be it a coastline, a bathtub, or a barely-swimmable pool during a California winter. It’s one of the things I keep tucked away inside my Secret Heart Place. 

I’m not the only person with a Secret Heart Place; everyone has one, even if they don’t know it. Your Secret Heart Place is that part inside of yourself that feels like home — the place where you can feel safe and centered. You can fortify it for hard times, decorating with bits and pieces of the world that make you feel most yourself.

A few other things that live in my Secret Heart Place:

Hot bubble baths

Hermione Granger

Kiki’s Delivery Service

Animal Crossing

The Monterey Bay Aquarium

A turquoise ring I wear on my right forefinger that my dad got on a road trip in New Mexico when he was a kid

Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison concert

Crunchwraps with no sour cream and Cheesy Gordita Crunches and basically Taco Bell in general

James Spader

The way my little brother’s hair flips up at the back of his head like baby duck feathers

Long showers

Elaborate skincare rituals

Dogs. All of them.

I keep them there so that I can feel the weight of their comfort wherever I go, no matter what happens. I pull them out and list them on my fingers, or give them to myself as gifts when I need them most. I repeat them to myself like a prayer: These are the things that make my world beautiful even when it is ugly. These are the pieces of life that, as Cheryl Strayed once said, make “every tuning fork inside of me [go] hum.”

"Every time I find a chance to breathe amidst all this chaos and hurt, I go to my Secret Heart Place. I look at how beautiful I’ve made it and tend to it with extra love and care. And it, in turn, tends to me."

There are other names for the things that reside in a Secret Heart Place — Carl Jung calls it synchronicity. In Harry Potter, you use them to make a patronus or smell them in a love potion. My mom calls them vignettes and her grandmother called them that too — things you want to capture and frame in your memory like a bug in amber. If it makes you feel like you’ve touched a ley line of yourself, it probably belongs in your Secret Heart Place. Chances are, it lives there already.

It is useful to know what lives in your Secret Heart Place because it is, of course, a secret place. Not a secret from other people necessarily — more of a secret you’ve kept from yourself. It is easy to get lost in the chaos of life and forget about the vulnerable place inside of us that thrums with everything we are and everything we will be. I can’t count the times I’ve been so bogged down in my own woes that I forgot there was anything else the world had to offer. I’d stop going outside or playing the violin or drawing or playing video games or eating at Taco Bell. And when I stopped doing those things, the world got grayer and dimmer. 

I get trapped in the mentality that in the rough parts of life, joy is not possible. But joy is always possible — it’s just sometimes so small that if we aren’t looking for it, we won’t find it anywhere. 

I keep lists of these small joyous things as I find them — in my phone, on scraps of paper, in playlists and bookmark folders and Google docs. I’ve learned that if I pay attention to the things that make me feel more myself, I am more likely to reach for them when I feel like that very sense of self has slipped from my grasp. 

The past few weeks have been some of the worst of my life. They’ve been truly excruciating to endure. I spend a lot of time feeling like nothing will ever be good again. This sort of suffering is the kind that feels like it'll break me from the inside out — but fortunately, I know where to go when it starts. Every time I find a chance to breathe amidst all this chaos and hurt, I go to my Secret Heart Place. I look at how beautiful I’ve made it and tend to it with extra love and care. And it, in turn, tends to me. 

A few days ago, I drove up to the foothills of Yosemite with my best friend and her daughter. We visited an old friend and laughed in his garden. We commiserated about life with chronic mental illness and rejoiced in the solace we’d found in each other. And just as the sun was beginning to set, we left for what my best friend promised would be “an adventure.” I did not much feel in the mood for adventures; she knew better. She usually does.

We drove to a stream next to the house she grew up in. We led her two-year-old baby girl down the path her mother had helped make with her siblings so many years before. It wasn’t a pool or a bathtub or any sort of water I'd visited before — it was something new and much better. It was a corner of her Secret Heart Place. And suddenly, it was mine too. I waded in and watched the current move from the eddies ahead of me to the shallow bank where I sat. I found a rock that was deep emerald green and put it in my pocket for later. I floated in the water until my body felt like it was mine again. 

It did not solve all of my problems. It did not make the reality of this deep hurt go away. But it did make me feel more like myself, which I'd begun to fear I would never feel again. We do not live in a perfect world, but we do live in a world with a beautiful stream on a tiny old road with herds of cows that sometimes block your car and leave their teeth in the stream for your best friend to pick up and show you: so strange and scary and beautiful that you feel it in your bones. 


#OCDame is a weekly column about chronic mental illness by Jenni Berrett. While she’s no doctor or counselor by any means, she does have extensive experience in being batshit crazy — which she doesn't think is as bad a thing as the world would lead you to believe. Each week she puts that ongoing experience to good use by writing things that have been stuck inside her heart for too long in the hopes that they will help unstick somebody else’s heart, too. 

Find more articles from OCDame by clicking here. You can also shoot Jenni an email (at any time and about any thing, just so long as you remember the whole aforementioned Not Being A Doctor situation) at

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