The thing about happiness is that it feels abnormal.
I was out with a friend recently and before I even realised quite what I was saying, the words slipped out of me. I said, quite naturally, “I feel happ-” before I suddenly clapped a hand over my mouth.
I managed to recover my composure before my friend even realised what I’d said. It didn’t seem to resonate with them as being anything out of the ordinary. But it shocked me to the core. Happy? What is this ‘happy’ of which you speak? I haven’t felt happy since my brother died. And may never again. Certainly not until the grief fades and I recover my sanity. That could takes years yet. It must have been some mistake. I must have been in Pretendland too long and was just feeling a bit calm … or vague maybe?
But the very next day, I found myself blurting out, “To be honest, I actually feel happy.” My friend smiled, “That’s great!” I shook my head, “No. Not so much.”
I thought maybe the feeling was specific to that weekend. To being out with friends. To straying too long in fairyland with spritely, lively people who don’t share my problems. I figured that getting home, settling back into the drudgery, would return me to the comforting normality of grief and depression.
But I stayed happy. It bled into my week like indelible ink across paper. It soaked into my hands and for the life of me, I couldn’t wash it off. It wasn’t just me that saw it. I met up with a few friends and family members who, all independently of each other, commented that I looked happy. Or at least looked different. Even my psychologist remarked that he hadn’t seen me laughing and smiling so much in all the time he’s known me. Scary when even your psych notices. I thought I was going there to vent all the sads. Who laughs their way through their psych session? Crazy people like me, clearly.
It’s strange that I should have such an aversion to feeling happy. I mean, it’s just an emotion. Completely natural. But after more than a year and a half of being perpetually depressed, down to the depths of despair … happiness just doesn’t seem like a very natural feeling. It feels fake, forced and like a betrayal. Is it betraying my brother to feel happy? I’m really not into the whole “your brother wouldn’t want you to be sad” as I tend to respond with “yeah well, my brother wouldn’t want to be dead. But he doesn’t have a say in the matter. And he certainly isn’t here to tell me to feel otherwise.” But truly, is it even okay to feel happy now? Is it too soon?
I disagree with the concept that grief is a linear experience. As though you get through a stage of denial, then anger, then bargaining, then a long stint in depression, and then find yourself at the sweet endpoint of acceptance. In fact someone even said, in all seriousness, with no hint of irony, “So which stage of grief are you up to?” Seriously? Do you think that I just tick them off the list on my way back to sanity? Gosh that would be a hell of a lot easier than actually living with grief. At least you’d know where you were up to and how long you potentially had to go.
So I can’t just say that I’m finally up to the shiny acceptance stage just because I’ve been feeling a bit clearer. I mean, my head’s restored some clarity. I can think a little clearer. I still haven’t recovered the memories and the dreams are still as bad. In fact, the night terrors got so bad I woke up one night screaming and then the next night choking. But the tiny space I’ve managed to clear in my mind is wonderful. I can go and sit in the corner and look out upon the clutter with some hope that I can chip away at it over time. Make that tiny space bigger. Liveable. So I’m not hiding there, but actually living there. In an immaculate mind.
But the thing is, I have no idea how long the happiness will last. It’s been fairly consistent lately. And not dependent on external factors. I have had some of the worst panic attacks since the event in the last few weeks. One of my most recent ones lasted for about 3 or 4 hours, after which I became virtually catatonic. And yet I sort of bounced back to a happy state once it was finally over. It seems that my base line has lifted just a little. I still get just as despairing and wretched. But maybe now I’m not entirely inconsolable. But who knows? This could be the eye of the storm. I’m trying really hard to believe that I’m healing. But like I said, it’s not linear. And it’s been really hard to tell anyone that I’m feeling a bit better because I don’t want people to just assume that I’m cured and not take any subsequent depression seriously.
It’s been really lovely being able to default to a kind of contentedness. But I think my doubts have been eating away at it a little. I’ve been resisting it, shrugging it off, playing it down. And I think if I kept this up, eventually I could whittle it down to nothing. And retreat to the safety of grief. I know grief. It knows me. We don’t like each other. We loathe each other. But we’ve tolerated each other for so long now that I don’t really know how to be anything else. It would be so easy to carry the grief around forever. Become one of those bitter people that others look at and whisper, “Why are they like that? What happened to them?”
And so I find that happiness is a choice. My base mood might have lifted, but it’s a daily choice to keep it there. Not to let it slip back down. I’m not going to be happy everyday. I probably won’t be happy most days. But the days that it seeps back in, I need to embrace it. It’s the last day of winter as I write this. And it will be the first day of spring when I post this. It may be completely arbitrary but it seems rather poetic that a change of seasons should represent a definitive change in self. Grief isn’t a linear journey. But maybe it’s seasonal. Maybe I can leave winter behind and move into spring. Growth. Rebirth. The frost melts from around my heart and I find it’s replaced with blossoms. Much like the honey-smelling white blossoms that used to adorn our old plum tree.
I’ve been listening to “The Winter I Chose Happiness” by Clare Bowditch as I write. The album ends with her singing, “are you ready yet / are you ready yet / to be happy?” And I can honestly say yes. Yes I am. I choose happiness.
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