When I separated from my, now, ex-husband 10 years ago, it sent me into a spiraling world of depression that would last for about three years. At the time I didn’t realize it. Logically, I was happy to be free from this awful, debilitating marriage to a narcissistic, immature, insecure, and irresponsible man.
But even so, there is something about divorce that tears you in two. If the marriage was more negative than positive, it’s like having surgery to remove a tumor. Even though you are glad the tumor is gone. You feel free from it, the wound still has to heal. You will forever be scarred. You don’t have to worry about the tumor invading your body and taking over, slowly poisoning you until you die. But if you react poorly to this separation, it takes much longer for the wound to heal. And when it does heal, it is filled with infection and it comes back to make you sick, over and over again.
Instead of living with my pain and dealing with it, I shut down. I drank. I spent time doing things that would relieve me from the awful thoughts about my dead marriage, my dead life. I avoided. I denied my pain.
I don’t blame anyone but myself for my poor reaction to my divorce. I don’t even blame my ex for the divorce anymore. I was just as culpable in our bad marriage as he was. One of the many times I got angry at him for not doing the dishes that he promised he would do, my reaction was to scream at him and smash all of them on the kitchen floor. (Luckily they were not expensive dishes.)
Should he have done the dishes? Sure. He said he would. It was the umpteen millionth time in the five or so years we’d been hitched that he said he would do something and then didn’t do it. But my reaction to it wasn’t helpful. In fact, it likely gave him the satisfaction he needed to convince himself that he hadn’t done anything wrong. That I was the one who was the lunatic. My reaction to his lies only made me feel worse. It didn’t do anything to bring us closer. Even though he started the negative spiral, I joined in.
There are lots of things and people that we can’t change. Instead of trying to control other people, we can only control our reactions. The only thing we can do is to change ourselves, or leave the situation.
Having a child is one of those life-changing situations where you cannot do the latter. When you have a child, you must be in control. You must be the one to change when something isn’t working. You must be the adult. You must be the one to learn self-control. Children are still learning. We cannot expect them to do the hard work. The parents must do it.
I’ve recently learned about myself that my happiness bar is set at neutral. Somehow, when I was a kid, I got the message that as long as something bad wasn’t happening, that meant I had nothing to complain about. If nothing bad was happening, that must mean that life was good, or at least, as good as it was going to get.
Joy has never been a goal for me. I’ve had plenty of joy in my life, but I always saw it as a luxury. I didn’t work to find joy, I waited for it to find me.
I am an adult now and if something is going wrong in my life, it’s up to me to fix it. I cannot blame anyone else if things aren’t okay with my life. Even though I know this logically, I’ve struggled with it for several years.
I’ve been in the midst of some pretty hard emotional work lately. I’m working on fixing the old wounds that have been poisoning my life, making me feel unhappy. For a long time I’ve known that my happiness was up to me. But was going about looking for it in the wrong way. I thought that if I acted happy, I would feel happy. I think that’s backwards. I thought that if I told myself I felt happy, then I was happy. But joy and happiness have to come from within, then they radiate outward. It’s like falling in love. You can’t tell anyone how it feels, but when you feel it, you know it.
And then this weekend, I watched something that gave me the new goal of setting my happiness bar higher. It has become even clearer to me that joy and happiness are a choice. You must seek them out. They don’t just come along. Finding joy and happiness is work. It’s work that parents should do for themselves, because our children imitate us. If we aren’t happy, it is highly unlikely that they will be happy.
Over the weekend I watched on Netflix a documentary called, This Emotional Life. It is a three-part series done by PBS that talks about the range of emotions that we have starting at birth and going through life.
I wanted to share a few things I learned from this film and recommend it to you all because it seriously made me do some heartfelt reflection. It didn’t necessarily teach me anything new, except for some scientific findings, but it clarified some things for me. The stories reflected the realities of this life. The idea that we aren’t always in control of our bodies, but the mind is more powerful than we often realize. We are resilient.
At the beginning of the film, there is a story of an American couple who adopt two children from a Russian orphanage. They take home a boy and a girl. The boy is 2 and the girl is 9 months old when they adopt them. As the children age, they realize their son has mental instability and they come to find out that he has never attached to them because he had so little human contact during the first years of his life. He literally cannot feel love for them because he was not given love during his formative years as an infant. He is damaged for life.With therapy, he might be able to learn how to love, but it will always be something he struggles with.
Another story in the film is about a girl who is depressed. She is a twin. Her twin sister is not depressed. But she is. There is no reason that any life circumstance has made her depressed. She simply is. Psychotherapy doesn’t work. Anti-depressants don’t work. When she is 18, her family finally makes a decision to give her electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), formerly known as electroshock therapy. She required almost double the sessions than normal to help people feel better and even then, her family is not certain that it worked to completion.
Another story in the film is about a Vietnam War veteran. This man spent less than one year in Vietnam, yet he spent another 30 years reliving the horror of that time. He couldn’t work. He stopped leaving his house. He completely shut down. He finally tried a new form of therapy where he was made to relive the horror in a safe situation and talked through it. He learned to face his fears instead of avoiding them. After three decades of torturous memories, he is finally able to live again.
Since the Vietnam War, science has learned that post traumatic stress disorder is actually a physical reaction to severe stress. We have learned that when people are in highly stressful situations, their brains kick into high memory mode, making them have photographic memories, which is why PTSD is so traumatic. These war veterans literally cannot make the memories go away. They cannot forget. They relive the memories over and over again.
Another, even more uplifting story from This Emotional Life is another war veteran. This man was a P.O.W. in the Korean War. He spent eight years in isolation. The only thing that kept him going was the thought of a house he would build for his family when he got out. The only positive communication he had during those years was a form of Morse code he and the other prisoners worked out, tapping on a wall so they could talk to each other. At the end of his interview he said he would not change his life if he could. He would not take away those years in that prison camp because they taught him valuable lessons about himself that he would not have learned otherwise.
Another uplifting story is about a married couple who consider each other soul mates. They agreed that they had never known such joy as when they first met. But then they experienced married life. Things weren’t always blissful and he cheated on her. Instead of just giving up on their marriage, they sought counseling. Even though they weren’t feeling it all the time, they knew that they wanted to fight for their life together. The wife eventually accepted her own culpability in their problems. She came to understand that her husband’s cheating was not the ultimate sin and that she was just as responsible for their problems as he was. It was truly a thing of beauty to watch their process because at the end of their interview, you could see in brief snatches, the anger and pain they had gone through, and yet, at the end, they were more in love than ever.
Watching these stories, and hearing the science behind why people behave the way they do, was uplifting, even during the hard moments. It made me look at my life rationally and realize that I can decide at any moment to step out of this endless loop that I’ve been coming back to all my life. (BTW, this isn’t coming completely out of the blue. I have been soul searching for years, and I’ve also had some therapy.)
I didn’t know it at the time, but I spent most of my childhood feeling depressed. I was depressed more than not, so I did not know that what I was feeling wasn’t normal. I spent a lot of my early adulthood reacting poorly to that depression. And then I spent a good part of my later adulthood feeling depressed and reacting poorly to it.
But I’m done. I am determined to work my way out of the spiral. Even though I know I am broken, I am going to live with the mental brokenness.
I was inspired the most by this final story.
This story was of a young man, just out of college. Had moved to New York to work in the publishing industry. Life was good. He was living the dream. Then he dove into a pool and snapped his neck. He was told he would die. Then he was told he would never move any of his body again. But he didn’t give up. He started physical therapy. He set a goal in his mind that he would be able to move his arms again. He did. And even though he will never walk again, he was able to find happiness, again.
During this part of the film is where the host tells us that in studies surrounding happiness one of the things that research shows is that most people generally go through life with the same amount of happiness. The young man who was crippled had been happy before his accident and he found a way to be happy again. In watching the film, you could see it in his face. He wasn’t just saying he was happy. He really was. He beamed when he talked about his family and his business and his physical therapy. He set his happiness bar high and every day he did things to keep it up.
I’m done reliving the spiral between neutrality and angst. I’ve realized that for so much of my life I spent it thinking that only if “this” would happen, then I could be happy. But that elusive thing out there isn’t going to make me happy. All I have to do is set my mind to a higher goal. And then live it.