I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder when I was 18, and even at that early age the diagnosis had been a long time coming. Near as I can remember (and depression + many years have done their work on my memory), I had my first serious episode of depression when I was 8 or 9 and by the time I started middle school I was dysthymic (mildly depressed) most of the time with 2-3 episodes of major depression every year.
After I was diagnosed I saw a psychiatrist, Dr A, for about a year. This was back in the olden days when psychiatrists did therapy, so in addition to handing me a monthly slip of paper that I exchanged at the pharmacy for a tiny bottle of green and white pills (Prozac was the only SSRI on the market at that time), Dr A and I therapized together.
Most of our therapy hours were a total wash because Dr A was a big fan of sports metaphors and I am allergic to games played in groups. He constantly exhorted me to “do an end run around” whatever problem I was experiencing, the meaning of which was a mystery to me until the invention of Google many years later.
Our time together was not entirely neutral, though. Once, when I wailed about my desire to just be happy, Dr A informed me that no one is really happy, and the best most people can hope for is occasional contentment. True happiness, he said, is mostly a myth, except for special occasions like one’s wedding day or winning a game, which left me out of the running for happiness entirely since I had no boyfriend and played no games.
Dr A wasn’t a bad guy, but he definitely missed his calling. I’m sure he would have been an excellent orthopedist or podiatrist, but as a person whose job was to help people find a way to be their best selves, he pretty much sucked.
Well, except for those green and white pills. They kept me hobbling along in a state something short of suicidal until Zoloft (which worked much better for me and which I took for over 15 years) came onto the market, so for that, I am grateful.
What Dr A didn’t know was that, while I suffered from many wrong-headed thoughts and ideas, over-high expectations were not among them. In fact, the most destructive belief I have been carrying around during my time here on planet earth is the one that says I’m no good, not worthy, incapable (yes, that’s all one idea, but there’s no word that grabs it all at once). My parents both came to parenthood with the belief that self-confidence was ugly and to believe oneself to be special was a sin (ideas they learned from their own parents), so instead of appropriate humility (I am special, and you are special, and each of us has something extraordinary to offer and receive from the other.), I learned to hide. I learned to hate myself, and I learned to believe that I deserved no better than whatever came my way by chance or accident.
Dr A didn’t do a thing to disabuse me of those beliefs, which seems to me now a tragic lost opportunity, but shit happens, and Dr A was just a guy who went to medical school and then did his residency in psychiatry. He didn’t know that when I said “happy,” I didn’t mean I wanted a life of nonstop orgasms. I just wanted to feel like I belonged in my own life. I wanted to feel needed and wanted by the people I loved. Most of all, I wanted the inside of my head to be a less dangerous place.
I haven’t seen Dr A in something like 23 years now, but if I remembered his name I would write him a letter and tell him he was wrong, and I hope he has discovered the truth: happiness is a real thing, and ordinary people can experience it.
Which, can I just tell you? This is not something I ever expected to say. Ever. To be clear: major depressive episodes aside, I have not generally been a miserable person, and I have heard the tempting call of bitterness and resisted. I’ve been content for decent stretches of time. What I haven’t been until this past year (and definitely not the whole year; it seems to me that this is something that actually takes practice) is happy.
I meet none of the qualifications that I would expect a happy person to meet. I’m not rich (in fact, paying the bills is often a challenge) nor do I have a successful career. I’m not thin, my house is a mess, my sister and I don’t speak, and one of the dogs chewed a hole in the couch. Life isn’t easy. Carter is stable but he remains (will always remain) seriously ill. My trichotillomania hasn’t improved, I continue to grieve for the years I lost with my two eldest children, and I still miss Jacob with a breathtaking intensity that leads me to drag his baby blanket out of the cupboard in the middle of the night and hold it under my chin while I cry.
And yet, in the midst of it all, this happiness. When I started to feel happy a year ago, I was sure it was nothing but a product of Abbie’s return and that it would dissipate like thunderclouds when the excitement of her return passed, but no. It has remained.
How cliché, to say that when I wake in the morning I am eager for the day, but it’s true. All of it, everything, is more vivid. The books I read are better, time with Brian is more joyful, hours at a table with friends absorb me completely. The music and the sky and the feel of a freshly made bed are all much muchier. They have regained their muchness. At church, in groups, and during meetings, I am more present. When people I care about suffer, I experience their pain with them (which is apparently a part of happiness; who knew?) and feel deep sympathy. The love I feel for my kids is more open. The concerns I have for them cripple me a little less and when I pray for them I open my hands both figuratively and literally. God is God of all, my kids included.
What I know now is this: happiness is not an accident, but neither is it a goal toward which I may work because I am so confused about what will make me happy. It is nothing like the happiness we see on TV that comes from big houses and children who go to Ivy League colleges and beautiful dresses that drape gracefully over slender hips. For me, it is some mysterious combination of praying, serving, loving people, and creativity. Oh, and the right drugs; don’t forget about those, though don’t overestimate them, either. It’s a rearranging of priorities and the release of some expectations that prevented me from laughing as long and as often as I need to. Happiness is somewhere inside the act of showing up and to hell with doing it with style or finesse (no points for those, anyhow).
It is not, as I had long expected, the product of ignoring injustice in the world, or becoming immune to it. Happiness does not preclude advocacy. It doesn’t come from being very, very good (clean! on time! frugal! organized! efficient!), or from external success or approval. I think maybe happiness has a great deal to do with letting my freak flag fly. God made me this person, the girl I was and the woman I am. If God wanted me to be some other person, God would have made me another person. So simple, and so very difficult.
There is so much more, a thousand more fears to surrender, relationships to heal, and anger to repent. There is a mountain of shame to…what? I have no idea yet what one does with that toxic stuff, though I am sometimes able to see it for what it is, rather than simply accepting its definition of me.
But now I know this: I get to be happy in the meantime. I don’t have to wait for all the anger, shame, fear, and heartache to go away to be happy because I can be happy today. Not nonstop-orgasm happy, not nothing-ever-hurts happy, not everything-is-perfect-forever happy, but I-belong-in-my-life happy.
I’ll take it.
Hey, did you hear? I’m going to be on The Ricki Lake Show. For real! The Ricki Lake Show: Inside Childhood Mental Illness (if you click on that link, you can watch the promo) will air on Wednesday, February 6, 2013. Check your local listings or use the “where to watch” link at The Ricki Lake Show page to find out what time and channel it’s on in your area.