Sunday, November 24, 2013

Happiness


Hi everyone!  Long time no blog eh?  But I'm back.  I've been wanting to say this for a long time so I figured this would be a good place to start.  It fits with the theme of thankfulness and this time of year as well.
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I grew up in a pretty ugly place.  I’m not about to say it was the worst anyone’s ever experienced.  I’m sure there’s way worse stories out there.  But I could give many rough childhood stories a run for their money.  In fact, last year I tried going to a support group that was said to focus on the kind of abuse I endured, and was shocked by how different my story was from all the others.  I remember one woman struggling so hard to finally be able to tell the big thing that happened to her.  I had to hide my shock when her “big thing” was barely more than a typical, decent day for me.  I realized then how different I was.

But something else amazing happened in that support group.  At the end of the session everyone was asked to say something good that had happened to them during the week.  My immediate thought was, “Wow it’s so hard to choose!”  I finally settled on telling one funny one and one more serious one.  As it turned out, I was the only one who could readily come up with an answer to the question.  One woman couldn’t at all, and said there was nothing.  I reminded her of my ridiculous funny story (I was very proud of the fact that I hadn’t introduced myself as an alcoholic when starting my new classes….a new fear of mine after saying “I’m River and I’m an alcoholic” at so many AA meetings!), and how she must have at least something like that.  She laughed and thought again and came up with something that was actually really awesome.

What I learned that day, besides that that support group was not the right place for me, was that happiness isn’t based on circumstance.  True happiness can’t be.  I have a wonderful friend that I care very much about.  She is the queen of the “If I could just…” and “If I only had...” attempts at happiness.  “If work wasn’t so stressful I’d be happy.”  “If I could just have a bit more financial security I’d be happy.”  “If people were nicer to me I’d be happy.”  It sounds nice, but it will never work.  Those things all help, but they’re not what bring true happiness.  We’d all like a bit more financial security, but we get a bit more money and we start wanting a bit more stuff.  We get a bit more stuff and then we want the other nice stuff that the neighbors have and we can’t be happy until we get that.  Or if we depend on others to provide our happiness, what happens when someone says something mean?  If I depend on my friends saying good things about me for me to be happy, do I lose my happiness when one is having a bad day and blows me off or snaps at me?  What if I can’t get a hold of one of them for reassurance?  There’s no “just a little more” that can ever be enough. 

I wasn’t any better than anyone in that support group.  I didn’t have any better circumstances.  What I did have is a whole lot of practice finding the good already in my life and inside of me.  This was the kind of good that runs deep, not that’s fleeting depending on day-to-day circumstances.  It took me a long time to find that good.

Just a little over 2 years ago I was locked in the psych hospital having tried to kill myself.  I saw no good in the world then.  None.  I relied on others to make me feel like there was good around me and in me, but I had isolated myself so much I wasn’t able to see that they cared.  When I stopped being able to enjoy the activities I once had, I lost sight of anything good at all.  I’d tried very hard to be happy, but I’d followed the superficial clich├ęs that had only built up my misery inside.  I was chasing the impossible.  I seemed happy on the outside.  No one knew that when I went home at the end of the workday I fell apart completely.

Fast forward to today, I consider myself one of the happiest people I know.  That’s a big change in just 2 years!  It started by learning true gratitude.  I had to learn that true gratitude wasn’t, “well yeah I have that but everything else still sucks!”  I had to let go of the notion that the world owed me anything extra because of the pain I had endured, and start appreciating what I already had.  I remember one particular day when this finally clicked.

I was totally exhausted and super stressed from trying to keep up with school and taking care of my mental health while barely being able to sleep at all.  I was on my way across campus to take a test that I was definitely not ready for.  I arrived a few minutes early, and rather than race to study a bit extra I decided to lay down in the grass instead.  I closed my eyes and felt the sunshine on my face.  And it felt incredible.  The grass was soft, the sun was warm, and in that moment I had everything I wanted and needed.  I wished it could stay like that forever.  But that got me thinking.  All I’d needed was grass and sun.  There’s a lot of grass and sun in the world.  Suddenly I went from being able to list basically nothing I was grateful for to having a giant list.  I’d always loved sunrises and sunsets, but I began to even more.  Just think, no matter what else happens in a given day or night, there is always an unbelievably beautiful gift waiting at the end of it…no strings attached, no fee required.  I’m lucky enough to live somewhere where there’s mountains, and I see incredible views every day.  I’m pretty sure those mountains have been around a lot longer than I have, but it wasn’t until this revelation that I began to truly see them.  Before they had just been a backdrop to my stressful, challenging, impossibly difficult life.  Now they were a thing of absolute beauty and I wondered how I could’ve missed them.  And it wasn’t just nature.  Even the city and its skyscrapers had a picturesque quality about them. 

I began to see that in all those times that I had spent so many years complaining about, there had been people around who had done all they could to care for me.  They were the reason I’d been able to survive.  I began to recognize all the people that I was pushing away, who were willing to keep coming back where I don’t know that I would’ve.  I saw the people out there truly trying to help, and the good deeds that are done every day.  When I stopped seeking out the ugly, my eyes were opened to what a beautiful world we live in.

This didn’t happen overnight.  It is a long, slow process that is ongoing still.  But it shifted my drudgery through the daily darkness into an journey of discovery.  Even better, when I started to see these bits of beauty, I started to see that I could have a positive impact on the world.  At the time I lived in a bit of a rough neighborhood.  I had been homeless before so I was very grateful for my apartment, but it was loud, falling apart in places, and there was trash everywhere.  One day while on a walk I picked up a piece of trash.  And then I picked up a few more.  And then the biggest smile came over me.  Not only was I seeing beauty, but now I was also helping to create it.  True I wasn’t painting a masterpiece or moving mountains, but the next person who walked down that trail wouldn’t have to see those pieces of trash.  They’d still see some but it would be a little better.  I could take ownership of a little piece of the problem and actually be a part of the solution.  Another building block to true happiness!

The funny thing is, it’s actually when my recent circumstances were at their worst (or at least at quite the low) that I really began to discover happiness.  I’m realizing that the benefit of seeing what I’ve seen…seeing some of the depths of human darkness firsthand, I can appreciate things in a way others can’t.  You can’t truly be grateful for your food unless you’ve been starving.  I mean that literally and figuratively.  Of course people can be thankful for food without being hungry themselves, but I remember one night I was full on sobbing over a box of Rice-a-Roni.  I was so glad someone had donated it, and so totally grateful to have it and have good warm food to be eating again.  It’s also true in a figurative/spiritual sense.  Without experience true emptiness, you can’t quite know just how amazing it is to be full.  

You can’t know how amazing a calm night of nothingness truly is if you haven’t lived in true fear of someone close to you.  You can’t know what a blessing it is just to be.  I have seen some truly sick individuals in my life; the kind that do things to children that the average person couldn’t imagine.  I’ve been, as a small child, surrounded a group of the people who are supposed to be caring for me, while they inflict what basically amounts to a mental and physical torture.  And because of that, today, as the numbness of my years of addiction and other ways of burying emotion wear off, I am sometimes simply too overwhelmed to function.  But I’m no longer overwhelmed with anger or sadness.  Today it is gratitude.  In fact just the other day I was walking across campus and I actually had to stop and sit down.  I was just so amazed that here I am today a free person with an amazing, normal life.  To most my life is verrrry basic, but as a child I never could’ve dreamed it.  Even 2 years ago I couldn’t have dreamed it.  I couldn’t imagine that I would reach a place where I was simply ok.  Sometimes it’s still too much to grasp. 

I’m not writing this to give advice.  I don’t have any.  This is a deeply personal journey, and no one could possibly tell another how to take it.  It is a journey though.  People told me for years that I needed to just choose to be happy.  That’s bs.  It’s the right idea, but it’s a process of seeking out your own good.  And it doesn’t require going to the depths of ugly either.  That’s just the way it’s worked for me.  Besides we’ve all had ugliness of one sort or another in our lives.

All I know for sure is that there’s good and bad in every situation, and whichever I seek I will likely find.  That doesn’t mean that the other can be fully denied, but it’s a different perspective.  In a sense I truly love my bad days these days.  Obviously they still suck, but I see things like my friends being willing to be there for me…something I never had before.  My friends today are true friends, who do what they say they will even after learning about the ugliness inside me.  I get to see the fact that today I can overcome pain.  I get to see that nothing today is insurmountable, and there is a satisfaction in making it through the yuck and coming out on the other side.  I get to see how strong and powerful I am for what I’ve overcome.  I then get to turn around and tell others that they can do it too….that they can get to the other side just like I did.  And I get to see how much my life has changed.  Most of my bad days today are about silly stuff like having too much homework or having too many people wanting my attention.  These are the problems I could only dream of before.  Even when it’s the really bad stuff, it’s just different now.  Just a few months after I got out of the hospital I wrote a prayer in my journal asking my higher power to “take away my constant terror.”  Even my worst days are nowhere close to constant terror.  Even in the midst of misery I can take a deep breath and do what I need to do to get through it.  I can see the bridge back to the other side.

When I first felt calmness and serenity inside it was so foreign to me I had to ask someone what it was.  Today it is a part of my life and it is at my core.  It’s the norm that I come back to after the stress occurs, rather than the other way around.  And that, I believe, is true happiness.  It comes from a peace within, that no matter what, I am ok.

(And I just realized part of this story is the same one I wrote in my last post way back in March...I guess it's stuck with me even more than I thought!  And I can't believe I haven't written since March.  Really want to try to get better about this.)