Athena, my dog, who is almost always happy.
My kids are in the breakfast room digging for a dinosaur. A Tyrannosaurus Rex to be exact. In miniature scale, pre-packaged by the Smithsonian buried in manufactured, sand-like, cement-like, wooden-mallet-breakable material. They are both wearing plastic lab goggles and swishing away the gray dust with paintbrushes, happy, as well, archaeo-paleontologists can be in the middle of a kitchen in a house built in the 1890’s in Northwestern Pennsylvania in the dead of winter. Which is to say, after their heaping bowls of Honey Nut Cheerios (kiddie crack), and the day off from school (Teacher Work Day), very, very, very happy.Happiness has been the subject of discussion for the past two of my meetings in a row—Wednesday at my Dual Diagnosis meeting (both addicted to a substance and suffering from a psychiatric condition) and last night at AA. How do we—I—find happiness inside recovery? Happiness seems to be the subject of blogs and books and conferences. There’s The Happiness Project, the bestseller about transforming your life over the course of a year into a happier one. I’m sure there’s even a Happiness! paint color at Home Depot. And Happiness! Chia seeds. Maybe even a Happiness! Pooper scooper. I’ve only known HAPPY in that fast, out-of-control way when my family begins to wonder if I need my meds checked. Too much pressured happiness has too often been a predictor of mania, and then the resulting depressive crash.
It’s difficult to say this, but I’m not sure I even know what extended happiness is—the kind that is generated from within, that withstands the vicissitudes of exterior circumstances. My entire life—at least what I can remember—my happiness has been dependent upon my own achievements and earning the approval of others through achievements. Impressing my parents with perfect grades (though there was the expectation, too, of that—no mediocrity permitted); impressing my teachers with my drive to be more creative and ask for extra, harder work and make it all look so easy (because it usually was); impressing anybody I met in any way I could—did I mention I could out drink you beer-for-beer, shot-for-shot?I have stacks of journals I have kept going all the way back to the 5th grade, and except for the cut-out TeenBeat photo of Rob Lowe, surrounded by a glued-on glitter heart, most of these journals are filled with scathing self-criticism and desperate unhappiness—the kind that generally does not lift. Or, only lifts when I have circumstantial spikes of joy. The initial throes of passion and love. The initial weeks of pregnancy and then birth. The initial week or two after my book, Necessary Lies, was published. Each time I’ve come home after being hospitalized—in the psychiatric hospital or an Eating Disorders unit. Return! Renewal! Joy! Or, only lifts when I’m manic. Or, only lifts when the pharmacological cocktail gets set (for the first time after my first “break,” a post-partum quasi-psychotic episode) and reset and reset ad infinitum.
When it doesn’t last, I feel like a failure. How hard can happiness be? Especially now that I’m sober for almost two years? I wrote about this in my last post. This vision I have for myself? Wanting to be the woman who wakes up every morning in the white nightgown, arms stretched overhead, sun streaming through the windows? (A dear friend read this post and even sent me that nightgown! Thank you, Amy!) But here’s the thing: 1. I think I got that image from an anti-depressant commercial; 2. I live in Northwestern Pennsylvania and next to Seattle, we get the least amount of sunshine in the United States, and, we get 8 months of winter; and 3. Right now, I wake up in the dark, to my son and daughter squashed between my husband and me, and a 65 pound Labrador Retriever jammed up against us all. That calm, untangled, sunbathed vision is pretty far from lived experience. Not to mention that I have never really been a morning person, so I don’t know if I can change my internal clock.Which is similar to what I’ve been trying to do in sobriety and I don’t know if it’s been making me happy. I’ve been reaching for happiness, and only finding frustration these past few months. For instance, a number of people have been urging me to pursue meditation, including just about every health magazine, centered-celebrity-who-has-a-guru, and new research about the benefits in terms of changing brain patterns in depression and Bipolar disorder. I’m trying to become someone who says “Yes,” so how could I say “No” to this? So far, though, it has been an exercise in frustration. Believe me, I’ve started small—5 minutes—no expectations, no judgments. Maybe it’s the manic side of me, the need to be in constant motion. I remember as a kid being stuck in traffic with my mom on the Long Island Expressway; the tie-up could be for one or two miles, and we’d move a few inches at a time, but she’d be pretty aggressive about her inches, and saying, over and over to the driver in front of her, “Oh c’mon. Let’s go.” (Sitting in traffic, I also learned how to string together individual curse words so that they would form compound words: Goddammitshitsonofabitch) Even then, I had a pretty good idea that the driver in front of us wasn’t the cause of the hold-up, but I, too, began to feel the build-up of pressure, tension in my chest, just wanting him to go, go, go, move, move, move, because we had to get going, we had somewhere to be, he was holding us up.
That’s the feeling I get when I sit down to meditate. Even when I try counting breaths. So when the five minutes are over, I am relieved, not grateful, not relaxed, not centered, certainly not any closer to happiness, except happy it’s over and I can get up and get back to my day. I wish I could be better—more peaceful, more OM, able to float the surface. But I certainly don’t want to make Happiness a project, work, something that exhausts me in its pursuit, something that feels more and more elusive the harder I pound the pavement running after it. The other evening, I wasted over an hour on the J. Crew website. I received a very generous Christmas gift card, and usually, I can find something I both love and want—generally a sweater because I’m always cold here, and I can never have enough sweaters. I sat on the couch, and scrolled through everything within price range, then scrolled through again and again, becoming more and more frustrated with myself. Surely, there was something I wanted? There was always something I wanted at that store but generally couldn’t afford, and now I could afford something, and wanted nothing? Anger because all day I had been looking forward to this mini-shopping trip to make me happy. Instead, I was leaving empty-handed, no shopping cart full of happiness. Delayed gratification—I’ll spend it later—but somehow, more important, more telling, delayed happiness.Idiot, right, to get so worked up over a failed J Crew online shopping foray? But it taught me something about how I’ve been treating my right to happiness. Delayed gratification. I’ll be worthy of—ready for—happiness when I finally get stability, when I am finally a “good/right/perfect” wife and mother, when I finally finish my next book, when I finally am a professor again at another university and no longer have to be ashamed to walk around where I live and can get off medical disability, when I have finally achieved everything I set out to achieve and can make every version of myself at every age proud to be me.
Goddammitshitsonofabitch! Of course I’m going to fail that eleven year old girl who wanted to be a writer, a Supreme Court Justice, and marry Rob Lowe. I’m going to fail the seventeen year old girl who never wanted to get married or have kids because she was going to run off to Paris and live in a garret and devote her life to writing, even if she starved (well, I got that part down) and died young (avoided that by a miracle). I’m going to fail the twenty-something who married a fellow writer and believed idealistically that their love would heal whatever was not right inside her damaged brain. I’m going to fail the woman in her thirties over and over who hung on, believing sheer force of will could keep the perfect storm of alcoholism, an eating disorder, and Bipolar disorder from decimating her life as a professor, a writer, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend, and all around decent human being.But mostly, I’m going to fail who I am now, in this moment. Because what must be essential to my sustained happiness now is releasing those standards of happiness, the happiness built on achievements. Not that I’m suggesting I release ambition, otherwise I would simply go into hibernation, moving only to dress, feed, and send my kids out the door (and occasionally use the Happiness! pooper scooper in the backyard). Maybe it can come from recognizing it while its joys are coursing through me. Like now. Writing. Creating movement and meaning beyond myself to you through quick strikes on a keyboard, watching understanding build across and down a page, being surprised as connections are made in the puzzle of thoughts. And except when ECT memory fog hits and I lose the thread of words or just simply words? I’m happy.