Devin Clevenger knows that when she says positive thinking and being happy is just a matter of choice, it sounds a little trite. But when she explains what she's gone through in order to be happy, she emphasizes how important "choice" is.
"It's a conscious effort and it's a commitment," said Clevenger, who lives in Indiana.
After an abusive childhood, Clevenger was legally emancipated at age 17 and thought she had found freedom. Instead, in her emotionally vulnerable state, she turned to drugs, raves, and the belief that she shouldn't need to rely on anybody.
In a few short years, everything changed. Clevenger overcame her anxiety, depression, and self-sabotaging behavior, and realized she could craft exactly the life she wanted—and is now living it.
"Reframing—my dating life actually—led me to the life I wanted," Clevenger said. And what she wanted was commitment and a family.
"It's awesome," said Clevenger, now in her mid-20s and married. "We travel all the time and we do things I was never able to do as a child all the time—I grew up very, very poor; we never got to travel anywhere or see anything or go on vacation. I couldn't even join sports because my mom couldn't afford to put me in anything. So I'm just gaining a lot more experience with life—the things around me, places, people—it's all really awesome."
"And I come home to my man every night, which is my favorite part of the day," Clevenger said. "We just have a blast. We almost have too much fun."
Clinging to Independence"I used to be so negative, I was one of those people who was so negative I would get irritated around people who were happy and positive, and now it's funny because I am that person, I'm just a positive, happy person," she said.
For more than a decade, Clevenger said, she suffered from suicidal depression. Home life was chaotic, abusive, and manipulative.
Clevenger has good memories of her mother's second marriage and her first stepfather, and her younger sister who came from that marriage is still her best friend. But the second time her mother remarried, it was to a manipulative man, and Clevenger's mother changed into someone she didn't recognize.
"It completely destroyed our family," Clevenger said. Her mother developed bipolar disorder and has since been diagnosed with PTSD, which she suspects she herself and her sister may suffer from as well. Her mother continued the abuse her stepfather began, and Clevenger realized that though it was in her nature to fight back, she constantly let her mother drag her back in and wreak havoc on her mental and emotional state.
"Every single day, there was never peace, there was never joy, there was never happiness; it was constant anger and bitterness and distrust and negativity," Clevenger said.
"Learning to value myself and walking away from my mom was probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do, but it was the most life-changing and beneficial thing that I've ever done as well," she said.
It got to the point where Clevenger was homeless and living in her car for two weeks, because she didn't want to rely on anyone or ask anyone for help, and her mental state was worse than her physical state. She was anxious, depressed, angry, and suffering from insomnia. She had never been further from the life she wanted.
"I got to a point where I was so depressed I just didn't want to live, and I was like, man, something's got to change. I was just miserable day in and day out, and I can't do this for the rest of my life," she said.
Learning to ReceiveThere was a friend and colleague at work who lived her life with a positive outlook, and Clevenger found that to be eye-opening.
"She helped me realize my perspective on things was very skewed; she held me accountable for my decisions and behavior," she said. "I was drifting through decisions like I didn't have a choice, and she was like: 'No, you always have a choice. You have choices: you could have done this, or you could have done this, instead you chose to do this.'"
It was like a light bulb turned on, and Clevenger realized her friend was right.
"I didn't have anybody who showed up for me, and she showed up for me and offered help; even if I didn't take it, she was still offering, which was totally foreign to me," Clevenger said. She ended up moving out of her car to stay with her friend for a while, which led to her getting her own place and back on her feet. Clevenger began to think about her choices, their consequences, and what she was going to commit her life to.
Even from a young age, the most important things to Clevenger were faith and family. She says today that her belief in God was what got her through the toughest times, and that without God she wouldn't even be here today. But at her breaking point, she was angry at everything, at the world, and even at God. She knew what her values were, but she also knew that none of her actions reflected her true values. Even though she wanted a family, she wasn't dating intentionally.
"I was doing what society tells you, that it's normal or common to always be talking or always hanging out, and I would commit early without actually having that commitment," she said. "I never knew I could be proactive about getting where I wanted to be, which was getting married."
It might have been the insomnia that did it: Clevenger got desperate enough for a solution that she tried self-hypnosis through a meditation video on YouTube, and in the process learned that she had wired herself to believe a lot of lies.
"It helped me with my mental health processing, that my thoughts are not reality, or don't define me. There was a lot of negative mental processing I had that I wasn't even conscious of," she said. "By starting meditation, it helped kickstart my journey of becoming positive and rewiring my thought process, to think differently about situations."
"I know that we know that and we say that—you have control over your life—but until you really get that, things don't change, you stay stuck. It's true and it makes sense, but it has to be something you recognize from within, like 'Oh, I really do have the power,'" Clevenger said. She taught herself to make choices that reflect her values, and had to learn to receive the love and nurturing that came from others as well. She'd lived an independent life already, and learned it didn't bring fulfillment.
"I wanted to be more social, so I would go out to things and talk to people and get involved," she said. "Actually being proactive and doing things really changed things for me. Especially for me in my situation, I've been manipulated and abused for so long that I didn't feel like I had any sort of power over my life, so that awareness that 'I have control over my life,' that was a big tipping point for me."
It is definitely hard work, Clevenger says, but well worth it.
Every person has emotions, but Clevenger's default state had been to give in to her emotions regardless of what they were and let them get out of control. She had to consciously choose to separate and let go of her negative thoughts stemming from out-of-control emotions, and instead make her actions and decisions reflect her values. She learned to calm herself down and choose to see roadblocks as opportunities for growth rather than setbacks, and says every situation truly has a silver lining.
"You are committing to yourself that 'I am no longer going to choose negative thoughts because they don't serve me,'" Clevenger said. And in fact, after a few months, it wasn't so hard. She did eventually seek therapy, but did most of the heavy lifting in sorting through her past trauma and self-sabotaging habits even before that. Choosing to be positive is now second nature for her.
Becoming More of HerselfFirst, Clevenger noticed the suicidal depression had lifted.
"I no longer felt like I wanted to die, honestly, though I know that sounds horrible, but it's true," she said. Then she realized, "You know, I actually enjoy life."
"And I enjoyed it, I enjoyed the experience, and I'm thankful for being alive, and that was a huge turning point for me, going from being completely miserable and suffering every single day to not suffering at all and being just grateful and thankful. It's like I'm two different people," she said. She had a vision for the life she wanted, one that adhered to traditional values, and she aligned her choices and actions to obtain it.
Becoming a happier person has led Clevenger to want to do more to help and guide others, and she adds that this comes from embracing her femininity.
"Men and women are innately different, we're just not the same," Clevenger said. She hears from women all the time who insist that men and women are the same in every way and women can do anything a man does, and she thinks they're missing the point.
"There is actually so much beauty in our differences, and we're created to work and thrive together, and it's beautiful in that dynamic when we do share our differences," she said. "That's the beauty in humanity, we're all different, and when we work together, it makes this beautiful bigger picture."
"A man's innate desire is to provide and protect, he feels valued when he can do those things, and he gets the most out of that," she said. "And when a woman feels protected and provided for, when she feels safe, she can be more of what she's best at, which is nurturing, supportive, and creative."
"It's become like a competition, men versus women. Let's just work together like we're supposed to; it's not supposed to be a competition, it's supposed to be a collaboration," she said.
"I've lived on my own, I've been independent since I was 17, but ... I was never happy or content or fulfilled. Just because I can [do it all on my own] doesn't mean that's where my time is best spent," she said. "Now I have more time to pour into not only myself but others around me, which is what feminine nature is good at doing—nurturing, tending, loving, and encouraging."
In college, Clevenger once had attended a conference where she saw a presentation about human trafficking, and the numbers had just floored her. It was modern-day slavery, yet this was the first time she was hearing of it.
"It just completely shattered my soul, it made my heart ache so bad, I just didn't have the awareness of how bad it was," Clevenger said. She wanted to do something to help, but her life had been in disarray and she didn't have the capacity. But now, in a good place, she's picked up that thread again.