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.

On the Beach

I was walking on the beach in the late afternoon. Low clouds and chilly air meant I was alone; the ocean to my left and the beach unrolling before my feet were empty except for tangles of seaweed and tiny, scuttling crabs. The air tasted tangy, heavy with kelp and recent storms.

I walked for a long time — out of the afternoon and into the evening — in hopes that the throbbing of the waves would drown out the voices that are my constant, malevolent companions: I am useless, a failure, hopeless, bad, a loser, incompetent, stupid, unworthy, weak, unlovable, selfish, contemptible, fundamentally and irrevocably broken…

When the light was fading from blue dark to the black of night, I saw a fire on the beach and next to it, a man sitting on a blanket. As I approached, he stood and reached out to me. “Adrienne! Come sit down by the fire,” and, nearly numb with cold, I sat. The man gave me a cup of coffee and gestured to a plate of sandwiches. “Help yourself,” he said. “You must be hungry after such a long walk.”

We sat together and ate sandwiches and soon I was warm enough to unzip my jacket and take off my gloves and scarf. “Better?” the man asked, and I nodded while he refilled my coffee cup. “You have a question. Would you like to ask it now?”

Too disturbed by the ceaseless, poisonous chatter in my head to hold back another moment, I opened my mouth and disgorged everything — all the ugly, hateful feelings that paralyze me like a giant anchor paralyzes a ship. Shame and guilt, regret and rage, fear and depression, and, finally, from the very bottom of the sludgy, stinking heap came the angry question, “Why? Why would God create me if I was meant for nothing but misery and struggle? Why?”

The man didn’t answer right away, allowing me time to catch my breath. Finally, he said,  “For love. I created you because I love you.”

The taste of salt and the sound of the ocean seemed very far away. “Adrienne,” he said softly, “when you know, and I mean really know, deep in your guts, that I created you for love, everything will change.”

I did not disappear for the reason you probably think I disappeared and that is an awesomely and excellently fabulous thing.

I’m glad blogs don’t have feelings. Otherwise, I think No Points for Style would be feeling sad and lonely and neglected right about now.


No hole. Not a bit. I would forgive you for assuming I disappeared because I slipped and fell into the depths of depression since that’s the usual cause of my disappearing act, but no. In fact, quite the opposite.

Emerging from a months-long depression is a great deal of work, and not just emotionally and spiritually. All winter, I functioned in a mostly minimal fashion. We wore clean clothes and there was food in the kitchen, but beyond that? Let’s just say that things were a bit hit-or-miss.

Now that I am actively living my life again, there are dental appointments to make, eye exams to schedule, and insurance issues to resolve. There are closets and drawers in desperate need of decluttering, vehicle maintenance that’s been too long neglected, and dogs that need grooming.

Also, there is a little boy who is now in the final week of his three week spring break, which means the only way to get any time alone with my computer requires me to skip what little time I have with Brian.

But bottom line? No hole.

In the immortal words of Ahh-nold, I’ll be back.

Now We’re Back To the Beginning

You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.  —Buddha

I began with the hypothesis that exposing truth is more important than building an image.

More than that: exposing truth (my truth, which is not to be confused with something as trite and easily manipulated as fact) is the only way to breathe life and hope into me; into the dark places created by a lifetime of shame, regret, anxiety, and depression.

I started with a belief that truth is a larger virtue than privacy; that secrets are more dangerous than vulnerability.

I open the festering cesspool that is the inside of (some parts of) me and show it to the world because that is what has helped more than all of the everything else—the therapies and pills and quiet, private, secret cures.

The pressure I put on myself says make yourself acceptable, dammit. Be good quiet OK put-together happy pretty thin tidy acceptable normal. Take your problems somewhere secret, somewhere nobody ever has to witness the unadulterated ugliness. Do not wail and gnash and grieve out in the open where all is exposed! Go to the back room the inner office the restroom the confessional the dark and secret places.

I began with a commitment to the truth, to obliterate that internal pressure to hide.

Sometimes, I get scared. Often, I feel ashamed.

Occasionally, the fear and shame conspire to make me feel lost in my words, unable to make sense of my internal reality.

Frequently, I am unaware that I am the only person who expects me to be perfect.

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.

The Sound of the Darkness

Depression is a wily motherfucker. She’ll use whatever she sees to gouge me right in the soul, to suck the life out of me and make me too tired to fight her.

She sees the overflowing laundry hamper and says, “My God, if you can’t even keep up with the laundry, what good are you?”

She looks at the kids’ empty beds and tells me, “You can make all the excuses you want, but they left because you’re a lousy mother and a sad excuse for a human being.”

Depression watches me say “no” to Carter and when he gets angry, depression says, “Eventually, he’ll reject you too. Just make him the damn sandwich (or drive him to his friend’s house, or buy him a toy, or let him have another cookie) if you want to keep him.”

Depression looks in the refrigerator with me and says, “Why bother looking for something healthy? No matter what you do today, eventually you’ll eat a box of cookies and you’ll be fat and unhealthy forever.”

She sees me looking around the house, trying to decide if I should clean the kitchen or vacuum the living room, and tells me, “You think anything you do will make a difference? You’re a slob and everybody knows it. You might as well give up.”

Depression hears the kind things that people say to me and answers, “Oh, please, they don’t even know you. If they really knew you, they would never be so nice.”

She hammers away at me, pounding on the inside of my skull, until I might as well be stapled to the couch. My eyelids are heavy and my patience is short.

I act in ways that depression tells me to act.

I don’t eat healthy foods because I don’t deserve to eat in ways that make me feel good.

Because I don’t deserve to feel good.

I don’t wear pretty clothes or blow dry my hair because who is going to look at me? If I don’t try to look nice, at least I haven’t wasted my effort on something useless.

I want to believe that I am enough. I want to do something different than this. I want to live my whole life, not this tiny sliver I have allowed myself, but I don’t know how to begin.

I don’t know how to have faith that any change I make will be more than just this moment, this day, this week.

I am so, so tired. Tired of myself and tired of the constant struggle.

Tired, so tired, of the noise inside my skull, this relentless heckling that is so much meaner than any real person I have ever met.

Although, much as I am meaner to myself than any other person has ever been, I am very good at surrounding myself with people who are more willing to judge me than to love me.

Medicine helps some; therapy has helped a little. There comes a point, though, at which nothing can help me if I don’t believe that change is possible.

I sort of believe that change is possible, but I don’t know how to start believing it where it matters, down in my guts.

Healthier and Happier: Living In My Body

Several months ago, I wrote a piece called Public Bodies for Blogger Body Calendar.

If you haven’t read it, go do that now. We’ll be here when you get back!

Done? Awesome. Let’s move on.

When that piece went up, I got lots of wonderful support and a few predictable notes of “concern.”

“You forgot to mention that being fat will kill you!”

“Maybe you should try going on a diet.”

“Have you tried [insert any one of half-a-dozen diets here]?”

“Don’t think you’d feel better if you lost some weight?”

Oh, the thousands of assumptions embedded in those statements! Chief among them is this: people who have a “healthy” weight have willpower; people who are fat do not.

It amazes me that people don’t realize how ridiculous that is.

Even more amazing? I don’t realize how ridiculous it is. Or I do realize it, but I forget, and I forget often.

I certainly know the effects that my weight is having on my body. There’s the bulging disc in my lower back that causes constant pain. There are the metformin pills I take to combat insulin resistance. There’s the fact that so many of the ordinary activities of life leave me breathless, my heart hammering in my chest.

How could I be unaware of the many ways I would feel better if I lost weight? I would have more energy and I could sit on the floor without wondering how I’m going to manage to get back up. I could go to any theaters and restaurants I chose without considering whether or not I will be comfortable in the seats. My arms wouldn’t go numb when I sleep on my side and I would be able to cross my legs.

After Jacob was born I lost 90 pounds in 6 months.

And the diets. Oh, the diets. I was a very successful dieter with a lifetime weight loss in the neighborhood of 1,500 pounds. I’m good at dieting. Damn good.

I’m not going on another diet, ever. I can’t think of any other thing I could do that is more self-destructive than to go on a diet (And if you call a diet a lifestyle change? It’s still a diet.).

Nope. A diet is only good for punishing myself, and I’ve done enough of that.

If I could change myself through punishment, self-hate, and general unkindness, I’d be a perfect person by now.

Of course, the other way I punish myself is with food. I eat things that are not nourishing and make myself feel sick, fatigued, and depressed. I eat too much food, which is how I’ve become fat, and being fat is a pretty big punishment.

When I lose weight, I’m always thrilled to be thin, but I don’t like myself any better than I ever did. I feel like being thin is the least I can do for a world that is disgusted by my fat body; that delicious food is for other people and diet food is for unworthy and unattractive me. A diet feels like penance and a thin body like something I did to earn my right to live in the world instead of a gift I’ve given to myself.

So I start to eat again – cupcakes and pizza, cookies and chips. More punishment, more self-hatred, the weight comes back (and more), and around and around I go.

Five years ago, a man at church was giving me a blessing and he told me, “When you know down here [he touched my stomach] that you are a daughter of the creator and you don’t have to do anything to earn God’s love, everything will change for you.” I’m stepping out in faith that love can do for me what self-condemnation has never accomplished.

I don’t know where taking care of myself is going to take me. I don’t expect to become thin, but I hope that my body will become a healthier, more comfortable one. Most of all, I hope I will learn that I am worthy of the air that I breathe and the space that I occupy.

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.