“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” ~ John Lennon
Whenever I’m faced with the question of what I want from life or what I want for my kids the answer that always pops into my mind, without hesitation, is happiness. I’m not talking about the ignorance-is-bliss kind of happiness. No, I’m talking about the kind of joy that sustains you even when life isn’t so great. The kind of happiness that comes from somewhere within.
I spent my twenties building a life that I thought would make me happy. I did all of the things I was supposed to do, in mostly the right order; college, marriage, nice home, career, kids. And it was hard work. So hard in fact that I didn’t have time, or at least didn’t make the time, to think about what I was going to do when I actually acquired all of those things. To ask myself if all of these things were truly going to make me happy. Then, I woke up one day, looked around at a life that I had fully participated in creating and felt… empty.
From there I spiraled into what I thought was depression, what I (and my health care providers) treated as depression, but now looking back I’m not so sure. For me, and I suspect a lot of other people like me, what looked like clinical depression was actually a deep, deep dissatisfaction with my life accompanied with a feeling of helplessness in ever finding a way to be satisfied within the circumstances I’d created.
Maybe that’s what depression is, perhaps those feelings of dissatisfaction were triggered by synapses misfiring in my brain. But it wasn’t only that. I was completely disconnected from my life and the people I cared about. I began pushing people away and diving deeper into the abyss. I was completely aware of what I was doing (well, maybe not completely, but mostly) and I did it anyway. I didn’t know how to stop myself. I was pretty good at going through the motions in life and most people had no idea anything was wrong. I went to work, took care of my children, kissed my husband goodbye every morning, laughed with my friends. But when I was alone there was the dissatisfaction, always waiting.
Finally, I realized that I was letting my entire life pass by, and worse I was letting my kids lives pass by so I went to see a therapist. I’d like to tell you that I was magically better but that’s not how it works, at least not for me. But it was a start. Deciding to go to that therapist (who wasn’t very good and didn’t really help a whole lot) was the first step in my road to recovery. Over the years I had other therapists, other support groups, other coping mechanisms. All of these things worked together to help me realize that I had been living the life I thought I should live instead of the life I wanted to live. I stopped trying to please everyone and started asking myself what I wanted. (Well, mostly anyway, people pleasing is still an issue but at least I’m aware of it now and don’t do it as often. And I still have that little voice that says asking for what I want is selfish but it’s not as loud as it used to be either.)
Looking back I have to say, I was really, really lucky, I got to find my path without deconstructing my entire life. My marriage was battered but stronger after I learned to be a partner who could be honest about my wants and needs instead of playing the role of wife. I began to parent by following my instincts and building a relationship of trust instead trying to control my kids because of my own fears and insecurities. Unfortunately some of my friendships changed or were lost; not because anyone did anything wrong but because my new found awareness of myself changed the dynamic of those friendships. And since I was already trying to find my way through the changed relationships with my husband and kids I didn’t have the time or energy to do the work with more people. My family took priority and that’s the way it had to be- but it still makes me sad sometimes when I think about those friendships.
It’s been nearly a decade since I looked around at my life and realized I wasn’t happy. It’s been hard work but I think I’ve come through the other side better for it and understanding that happiness, truly unabashed joy, comes from a life that is authentic. One with honesty and trust in ourselves and in our relationships with other people. I think that’s the kind of happiness John Lennon’s mother was referring to. I know it’s the kind that pulled me out of the abyss.