Happy In the Meantime

Real happiness is nothing like what we see on TV. That happiness 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.

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.

Happier and Healthier: Creating a Peaceful Environment

Wow. Alright, based on my email inbox and a few comments, it seems I need to clear a few things up.

I love you all for being concerned. Really and truly, I do. This is meant to reassure, not scold, so please hear it in the manner in which it is intended!

Expressing my feelings is part of the healing process for me. I have spent most of my life hiding my strongest feelings and that has done nothing but make me more and more isolated, and more and more depressed. If these posts are a cry for help, it is only the help that comes from being heard. I don’t expect any of you to fix anything for me; in fact, advice is one of the things that I don’t want.

Be reassured by this: I am under the care of a psychiatrist; I am actively looking for a new therapist; Brian is well aware of my emotional state and if I need a higher level of care he will make sure that I get it; and I have my extended family and some wonderfully supportive friends who will step in and help me in any way they can should I need that.

Writing these posts, making them public, and the wonderful comments and emails that some of you write, are among the most healing experiences I have ever had. Truly, when you say, “I hear you,” or, “I have felt that, too,” I am warmed all over.

I can never thank you enough for that.

One of the things I struggle with (all the time, but even more when I am depressed) is a sort of paralysis born of feeling overwhelmed. I have a hard time seeing the parts and can only see the whole.

If I look at a room and there are dirty dishes, laundry, general clutter, dust, and a dirty floor, I see all of that at once and have a difficult time breaking it up into manageable pieces. If the whole house is a mess (as tends to happen when one is depressed) I don’t know where to start, so I do nothing.

This may seem like a housework issue, but it’s not. Or it is, but only nominally. This is about feeling hopeless and helpless, about making choices and setting standards instead of constantly struggling but getting nowhere.

So yesterday, inspired and encouraged by the wonderful feedback I got after yesterday’s post, I decided to work on cleaning up my office. I want one room that looks nice, to give me a feeling of accomplishment, and my office is the only room I don’t share with anyone, so other people won’t mess it up.

I started with the surface of the desk. Not even that, but one portion. My desk is actually a buffet table and our old kitchen table, so I started with the buffet table. That wasn’t too difficult, so I moved on to the kitchen table. I picked away at it; it took me a long time, and I felt overwhelmed even with this small task.

But I got it done! Carter is thrilled. There is an old kitchen chair across the table from my desk chair and Carter likes to sit there and color or do puzzles when I’m at my desk.

I even swept the floor and cleared off my reading chair, which made Lolly happy.

I feel pretty great about all I accomplished. It ain’t much, but it’s more than I did yesterday, and sitting here this evening, in tidy surroundings, makes me feel more peaceful.

My goal for tomorrow is to box up all the diet books in this house and get rid of them. Those things are poison for me and I don’t have to keep things that hurt me in my house. I’m ashamed to admit that I have two shelves full of diet books, but I can’t change what I did in the past. I can only learn to do something new.

Namaste, my friends.

Happier and Healthier: The Beginning

I have that feeling tonight, the one where it seems that gravity has doubled. The urge to curl up in my nest on the couch and stare at the TV until I fall asleep is almost irresistible.

So I’m here, resisting it. I’m tired of watching the days slide past me, empty of accomplishment or enjoyment, but wow, staying upright is difficult.

Why does depression make me feel like I’m moving through molasses?

It’s discouraging, to look at how far I have to go to return to a fully-functional life, so I’m trying something new: blogging for healing.

It’s already helping. All the gut-spilling I’ve done here this week has lightened the load on my spirit, but it’s only the tiniest of beginnings.

What I know about myself is this: I’m not good at staying focused on the here and now; I have a hard time celebrating the small victories; and most of all, I take on too much, exhaust myself (emotionally, if not physically), and collapse, rapidly undoing all the progress I’ve made.

What I also know is this: if I take better care of my body and my environment, my spirit will begin to heal. If I take better care of my spirit, I will be more able to take care of my body and my environment. And the more I write and stay connected to the life-giving support of the people who care about me, the happier and healthier I will be in every way.

But oh, the sadness. It is so big. Thank you for being here to help me counteract the darkness.

From way deep down, I thank you.