EDITOR’S NOTE: She has done it again – laid bare all the thoughts that many of us have been experiencing for much longer than the 18 months of the pandemic. Anxiety and depression are real and always being happy is an illusion. As Romy commented to me when I asked to share this thoughtful piece, “I’m making myself the guinea pig for these community conversations.” That we really need to have … See below for phone numbers and resources of help; and there is hope. And happiness …
By Romy Carver
“Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Abraham Lincoln
I was a big fan of biographies as a kid, and I liked this Abe Lincoln quote. I used it to motivate myself to take charge of my situation. But what happens when it no longer works?
I became interested many years ago in the concept of positive psychology and the science of happiness, at a time when I was constantly “stressed out,” not realizing that I had an anxiety disorder. I just thought I was defective and bad at life. I’d made up my mind to be happy, but I still wasn’t!
I embarked on a quest to find ways to be happy. I have done gratitude journals, yoga, meditation, medication, social media breaks, hot baths, herbal teas, addressed diet and exercise, and therapy. At the end of the day, anxiety and depression remain medical conditions that I manage. I have great tools to deal with them, and I continue to use them all.
However, I’m not always as happy as Abe Lincoln might expect me to be. I once saw happiness as my responsibility and unhappiness as unacceptable. I have worked hard to be happy, then “failed,” on many occasions. When I learned that anxiety and depression are legitimate illnesses, I came to realize that the Abraham Lincoln quote is a lie.
I can “make up my mind” to be happy, and do all the right things, yet still crawl in bed that night and be completely distraught, sad, and anxious. I listen to a YouTube meditation video and lie there, wondering how to get to sleep, and dreading my dreams.
This past year was fraught with trauma. Some have called 2020 the year from hell and I agree. 2021 continues to be challenging, with a pandemic, political unrest, and disasters and climate change that threaten the existence of the human collective.
It’s okay to feel sad and anxious, and you don’t have to pretend that everything’s okay when it isn’t. I believe it’s even okay to wallow a little bit. I want to normalize not saying “fine” when someone asks how I’m doing. I might say, “I’m feeling really down,” or “this week sucks,” and hopefully they will not be alarmed. How can we honestly be happy all the time? Why put on a show?
While we can and should seek joy and gratitude, being happy feels contrived. I can be totally happy in one area of my life and incredibly unhappy in another area. So, what does “happy” mean anyway? How productive might it be to let go of “happy” as an overall expectation?
Also, what if it makes me “happy” to demean other people or steal things? Do I have the right to seek happiness? As part of a society, we interact with others within certain expectations, and one of those expectations is to not steal things. Happiness seems almost hedonistic, while gratitude implies some deep reflection. I like gratitude a lot better.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. I’ll start since I am trying to get more comfortable with this: 2020 stunk and 2021 hasn’t been much better. I’ve been anxious and depressed. I’ve tried to make the next right choice while watching for that light at the end of the tunnel, even as the tunnel seems to get longer. This is a really challenging time in history and I will make the best of it, while recognizing that it demands self-introspection. I could really use a hug, but I’m not hugging anyone until COVID goes away. I crave fun times with friends, while at the same time, I kind of wish to be a hermit and not talk to anyone. I feel sad and frustrated about many things. I get depressed but I make myself keep going because I am stubborn. I feel better when I write and when I connect with people, especially when I can be a helper.
I’ve laughed and smiled today. I’ve found pockets of joy. But the beauty of this life is that I can be all these things. We humans are complex beings capable of a great range of emotion. I watch for bright spots and try to focus on them. But I’m done pretending the dark doesn’t exist in the hopes it will go away. I am releasing the shame that comes from not being able to “make up my mind” to be happy, whatever that is. Life is beautiful, and part of that beauty is that mixed among the bright colors are splashes of deep jaded tones and somber grays. That’s okay. That’s life and I’ll take it.
I don’t want to be cheered up and I don’t need fixed. I welcome hearing about how others cope with grief and stress and angst, but I no longer reject those feelings as somehow faulty and unnatural. It’s far less pressure to allow sadness than to feel guilty about what I don’t feel.
If you aren’t currently okay, that’s human. If you allow yourself to feel down instead of jollying yourself out of it prematurely, you’ll find deep insights into how to understand your feelings. Sit with it, and know you aren’t alone. You are part of a larger collective of people who are hurting, even if they don’t talk about it.
Let’s normalize the conversation about anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Let’s start to talk about it. And of course, if you are having thoughts of suicide, or hurting yourself, or feel that your feelings are becoming too dark to handle on your own, PLEASE don’t hesitate to seek professional support.
There is a well within my heart
A deep green place to rest my head
A quiet place I sit apart
To touch the stillness, softly tread
A lingering breath, the shutters drawn
Held fast by trembling hands of clay
A softened smile, the night flows on
My eyes, reluctant, face the day
Romy Carver, 2021