Chasing Happiness

Warning: This post is long and discusses depression, shame, body image, and other related topics that may be triggering to some. I’m very honest about my feelings, particularly about my body, but I’m not looking for confidence boosts or compliments. I appreciate everything that you guys do to lift me up when I’m feeling frustrated and stuck, and I do understand that there are some of you who take inspiration from hearing about my struggles and my refusal to quit. As I’m sure you’ve all experienced, however, a person’s personal struggle and their feelings may not exactly reflect those of the people around them. This post was something I needed to expunge from my thoughts. I feel lighter for writing it, though that doesn’t erase those thoughts and feelings. I process my grief and struggles through writing, though, so I’ve decided to publish this despite it being such a negative post. Please don’t worry about me, I’m okay. I just needed to write a few things.

I’ve suffered from depression since I was ten years old. When I look back over my adult life, from the time I left for college until now, I see very few spots of bright light and happiness. They are so few that I can name them off and make a photo collage. The summer of 1999 when I went on a study abroad program to France. The summers of 2006 and 2007 when I was in contact with my favorite band (and got to meet them in person). January 2011 through June 2013, while I was losing weight (more on this later). January through April 2014, after my abdominal surgery helped me regain my body’s true figure. Two weeks in the summer of 2016 while on vacation, which hardly count since it was vacation. That’s it. The sum of happiness in my adult life. About 3.5 years of the last twenty-one. 

Roughly twelve years ago – I forget the exact time – I experienced a traumatic shock when I discovered that so much I believed about my past was untrue, and I had to piece my memories back together with the new information. A few sleepless nights after the discovery, I lay in bed unable to sleep, trying to talk things through with Jason, and I was so exhausted that I experienced an out-of-body moment. Suddenly I was floating over my body, and it felt like all my memories were someone else’s, that my children were someone else’s, that I hadn’t really lived my life. And I knew I could just float away, out my open window, into the dark, and cease to exist. I had one thought that reverberated throughout me: Once, I had happiness, and it had slipped away. It had been years since I’d felt it. And what if that was it? What if each human being had a finite amount of happiness to experience in their lives, and I’d reached the end of mine? Was I doomed, in my mid-20s, to spend the rest of my life without happiness? And if so, what was to stop me from just slipping through that window and fading into the night? In my vision, I snuggled into a hollow made by the roots of a willow tree. I could feel myself being grafted into the tree, and it felt like peace. Like rest.

It was an out of body experience born purely of insomnia, trauma, and my brain’s attempt to distance myself from raw grief. Nevertheless, the experience remains painfully vivid to this day. I was wrong, of course – I’ve had happiness since then – but sometimes there are these years-long periods of misery and I start to question if it’s possible to ever be happy again. It’s not just depression. Depression doesn’t help, but my adult life has been filled with sudden and jolting traumas that tear apart my feeling of personal safety and often take years to overcome. It’s difficult to experience happiness when you’re trying to simultaneously grieve and take care of the people around you, and it’s not as if you can just take six months off of life to sort yourself out. You muddle through as best you can and let the healing take a long, long time.

In the last twenty years, I’ve noticed patterns. I couldn’t say which causes which, but those rare moments of happiness have often centered on or been paired with a couple things. They’re often times of social expansion in my life. They often happen when I’m writing. I couldn’t say whether the writing/social expansion causes happiness or is caused by happiness, or both. They’re just often wrapped up with each other. Ditto weight loss.

I want to discuss this one in particular, because the longest period of happiness I’ve had since I was a kid was that 2.5 years between Jan 2011 and June 2013. During this time, I lost a massive amount of weight and hit my goal. I had all sorts of fitness improvements and achievements. I met tons of new people along the journey, and began to write again nine months after deciding I was going to quit writing altogether. It was the first time I felt good about myself in years. Again, I have no idea how much of the happy was due to losing weight, or how much of the losing weight was due to happiness, but I do know something very, very definite: They claim that losing weight won’t help you to overcome your psychological body issues. If you’re unhappy with yourself at 250 lbs, you’ll be unhappy with yourself at 150 lbs. They say you have to work on your unhappiness separately from losing weight. In my experience, while there’s a smidgeon of truth to that, the greater truth for me is that I was happier with myself at 150 lbs. I felt like a real person again. I’d accomplished goals. I recognized myself in the mirror. Did I have depression during these years? Hell yes! A lot of depression, and a lot of body image issues. But depression while accomplishing goals and visibly improving myself is a completely different thing than depression while feeling like a failure and being unable to recognize myself in the mirror.

It has been over four years since my life fell apart in a thousand different ways. I’m not even close to recovered. I’m back to that same spot I was in twelve years ago, unable to imagine what happiness might feel like. The best I can do is look back at photos of those happy moments and try to imagine getting there again. And I worry, because I know that I won’t get there until I can pull myself out of my current situation. It sounds trite to say that I’m not going to be happy until I can lose weight again, but there’s truth to this. I don’t feel or act or look like myself right now. I don’t exist as myself, but instead exist inside a cocoon to protect myself from my own shame and hate and despair. I don’t write on my manuscripts, I don’t meet new people, I rarely leave my house, I dress up to prove to myself that I’m okay all the while feeling like a fraud, and I’m just uncomfortable in mind-body-soul all the time. I’ve spent years working to not feel this way, but it makes no difference. It’s not about losing weight, not really. It’s not about being thin or pretty or whatever. It’s about looking and feeling like myself, and being able to choose how visible I am to the outside world, and accomplishing the things I want to accomplish. And every day that I continue to be not-all-those-things, the further I am from happiness, which pushes me further away from achieving those things, and the cycle spirals on and on. I’m chasing happiness, but it’s elusive, and I have no practice at catching it.

About Amanda

Agender empty-nester filling my time with cats, books, fitness, and photography. She/they.
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2 Responses to Chasing Happiness

  1. Michelle says:

    Life is messy and difficult, filled with changes that we don’t want but sometimes we need. I don’t believe in God or any organized religion, but I do believe that everything happens for a reason. Often, we won’t see that reason without the perspective of hindsight, but it is there. I also believe that everything works out in the end, whether it is the direction you wanted to go or a completely different path that you never thought possible. It doesn’t make the journey any less painful or traumatic, but I do think it helps you recognize that whatever it is you are going through has a beginning, a middle, and, most importantly, an end.

    I will admit that I often wonder if we delude ourselves into thinking that 100 percent happiness is obtainable and sustainable. I question whether social media has helped in this regard or hurt. It is so easy to look at others’ pictures and wonder what you are doing wrong with your life because you don’t have close family relationships or a happy marriage or a large group of friends for fun nights on the town – all the things that society tells us should make us happy. I do think that we spend a lot of time chasing happiness that may be unobtainable and that maybe our focus should be on feeling content. Feeling content is so different from feeling happy, but one I feel is more sustainable and achievable. It removes the pressure that social media may create to be happy, to eat healthily, to exercise, to wear the latest fashions, to wear all the makeup, or whatever it is that causes you to look at yourself and wish things were different.

    I am not saying that you are doing any of these things. I do think you are more self-aware than most people, which is both good and bad. On the one hand, you know “who you are” and know what you are striving to obtain when things get out of balance for you. On the other hand, I wonder if knowing “who you are” makes the journey of getting back to yourself and obtaining happiness that much more difficult.

    I guess this is a long-winded way of asking whether anyone is truly happy or if society has duped us into thinking we should be. Is happiness an inalienable right or is it just the pursuit of happiness? There are so many people who fight anxiety and depression on a daily basis. While it helps to know we are not alone in our suffering, it is a red flag to me that something about this scenario is not right. Have we let this push to be happy – the picture-perfect images we see on social media, the ads bombarding us with false promises, the articles about self-care that seemingly indicate we can heal ourselves – have we let all this get in the way of what is truly important, feeling content with all of life’s little pleasures?

    Deep thoughts for this Monday morning.


    • Amanda says:

      I understand what you’re saying here, but to be honest, I think I’m using happiness in a different sense, more like the way you’re using the word contentment. There are bursts of happiness in the traditional sense, sure, but I’d like to sometimes experience just a general sense of being okay, rather than falling apart constantly. I’d like to feel safe in my own life. I’d like to feel like there’s some reason for me to exist. I’d like to feel like myself. It’s not JUST depression, because as I said, I had a lot of depression during that long happier period of time. For a big chunk of 2012, for instance, I WAS depressed. But I was also happy, or content, or satisfied. I felt sure of what I could do, and able to work through my issues. I felt safe in my family and home. I was working toward goals even when they were difficult. Now, I’m just flailing around, going nowhere, always afraid, never anything but miserable. I guess when I think of happiness, I think of it as “the absence of perpetual misery.” And maybe that’s a really sad way of looking at it, but perpetual misery pretty much classifies most of my adult life.

      Social media has never done much for me. I don’t believe in the happy things other people post and never really aspire to them or feel jealous of them. I know people only post those good moments online most of the time. It probably helps that I have a lot of friends on social media who are very upfront and public about their struggles. (Not in a melodramatic look-at-me attention-seeking way. Just in a way that asks for support when needed.)

      I’ve been talking to Jason a lot about this, and I know a lot of it stems from his mental health issues and therefore not ever knowing what life will be like from day to day. I feel like I’m constantly standing on quicksand trying not to move, terrified of sinking under. I don’t have solid ground underneath me, and I need that in order to move forward with my life. Ever since 2014 in particular, I haven’t been able to plan for the future at all. I was supposed to go back to school and I can’t. I can’t volunteer places or get a job. I can’t be sure that my family will still exist tomorrow much less in a year or five. I have to hold everything in my house and family together because Jason cannot help do so right now, and that hasn’t changed in more than four years. All my energy goes into everyone and everything else, and I CAN’T take a break or time out for me except in the most tiny ways, or things fall apart and the stress piles up even more. All my energy goes into that, and I have nothing left to take care of myself, or to find a place to feel safe in myself again. And this has been the recurring theme of my adult life.It just takes years to recover, and at the moment, I can’t really even START recovering, so I don’t know when I’ll be able to feel okay again, much less happy, and I’m not sure how to face that unknown.


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