April 27, 2017 by Julia
As a teenager, I used to listen to the cassette tape of “The Partridge Family: Greatest Hits” every night as I fell asleep. I got it by accident from one of those music clubs that would send you a tape every month if you forgot to mail them a card saying “don’t send me your selection this month.” It was the mid-90’s, and I obsessed over contemporary music of all genres, too, but for whatever reason, this music from an early 70’s TV show featuring a groovy family band (I still have never seen it) was comforting to me. The music is surprisingly good! Not at all conducive to falling asleep. People are weird.
Anyway, the opening song to the show was “Come On Get Happy,” which if you know me at all, is not really my style. It was probably my least favorite song on the tape. As a teen, I hated the idea of forcing happiness at any cost – SO OFFENSIVE AND INAUTHENTIC, jeez – and even as an adult I have a slight aversion to that kind of pressure to be positive. My pessimism, which I often try to disguise as “realistic expectations,” doesn’t always work out so great for me, though.
Can I just get happy, now? It seems fun.
Now, I am not willing to throw my depressive, anxious nature under the bus completely. I need to believe there is a use for everything, including mental illness.
Some of the uses I’ve discovered for depression and anxiety are:
- Increased empathy for people who can’t always think, feel or act reasonably. I know what reasonable looks like, and I still can’t always get there despite my best efforts, so who I am to judge others who can’t get it together, either? My fellow crazies are more fun to hang out with, anyway.
- By the same token, mental illness keeps me humble. We’ve all got a thorn in our side; this is mine.
- Having experienced darkness for oneself deepens everything – creative work, relationships, experiences, wisdom.
- Mental illness teaches me that there is not always a five-step plan to fix every problem. I can’t always be or feel the way I want to. This dissolves the illusion that I am in total control of myself or my life, and forces me to depend on loved ones during episodes of weakness. Painful and often humiliating, yes, but otherwise I would never experience the trust of letting go in the presence of others – which is how emotional intimacy is forged.
There you have it. Clearly, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why this particular brand of suffering is necessary.
But again…can I be happy, too? I’m American, I’m supposed to pursue happiness. To do so is patriotic. My family needs me to be happy. It’s springtime. Summer, with all its fun and family time will be here soon. And I need to enjoy these times.
Thus, I have that old Partridge Family song stuck in my head, admonishing me, like it’s a moral duty: C’mon! Get Happy!
First step: don’t hate yourself for not being happy!
Let me preface this by saying that I may have turned a corner in the mood department, and at this particular moment am doing quite well. It’s wonderful and I never want to be depressed or anxious again, because it sucks. If this has been posted that means I have finally stopped writing in isolated circles, at least.
My current bout of depression and anxiety (hopefully recent, rather than current – fingers crossed) – let’s call it The 2016-17 Depression – might be the longest and most intense since my first diagnosis at age seventeen. I don’t know for sure. There are always ups and downs; you think you’re better, you think you’re worse, and then you have a good weekend, or a terrible one. The mind plays tricks. I know some people in my life might insist that I have not been very depressed, because I’ve done all the things people are supposed to do (unlike when I was seventeen). But my sense is that the struggle has been real. I think if you’ve ever been clinically depressed, you know when it’s back. It might be triggered by something, but the depression or anxiety goes beyond the expected emotions, and then you can’t even remember anymore why you’re so upset, and it becomes its own entity, separate from circumstances, un-explainable. General blah fogginess, self-loathing, a sense of the world on your shoulders, and crying jags. You start to assume everyone feels as bad as you do, and are surprised to find that they don’t. I am always wondering what being a supposedly “completely mentally healthy” person feels like – is it so different from what I feel like?
It’s hard to know, too, if you’re physically sick and in need of medication, or just a bad person who can’t get her shit together. That part especially sucks. This
current recent depression was the first where I really got to thinking about it as an illness, where my brain is sabotaging me. I’m also aware of contributing factors that may have sent me further down this road, starting last year: trying new medications, the political insanity of the election and Trump’s presidency, and personal change and disillusionment.
One phase of parenthood came to an end, as both kids entered full time elementary school, and suddenly I realized the expectations I’d built up for this time of life were too high. They came down like an avalanche on me. I really thought it would be the best of two worlds that I love – parenting and writing. I still believe I can make it work. But at first, my expectations buried me: “I can turn writing into a career!” “I won’t be stressed out, now that I finally have some time to myself!” “I will surely never yell at my kids again; it will be so easy in comparison to what I’ve done for the past eight years!” “My dream life begins NOW. DON’T SCREW IT UP, JULIA.”
The learning curve has been steep since both kids started full-time school. Although I wouldn’t change a thing, disillusionment keeps hitting me over the head: in general, it’s easier to have the kids in school for seven hours a day, but it’s also harder in some ways. I’m the only one in the family with no job or school demanding my presence. Sounds like a dream, right? I certainly thought so.
But try it for more than a week and think to yourself: this is my life. Is it enough? I have no one to blame anymore but myself if it’s not.
It’s been illuminating to see how the external, inflexible demands, like jobs and school, which we often struggle against or complain about…are good for us. I’ve finally grown up enough to see this. I watch as my kids fight going to school in the morning, just like I did, and then they come home happier for going. I see how my husband is creatively challenged at work and has lunch almost every day with close friends. As an outsider to these institutions, I can see the benefits of built-in social structures more clearly than ever. With work or school, you don’t have to make up a life from scratch – it’s there waiting for you.
I guess this is what classic disillusionment looks like: you finally make it to the end of a phase (mine were pretty standard: school, then work, then full-time childcare), but then the next one is not as easy or wondrous as you’d imagined. You spend all that time working for other people, fantasizing about the day when you no longer have to, and then you find that your dream life doesn’t just magically appear once you’re on your own. You have to figure out your own life, now, and build it from the ground up in a way that works for you and your loved ones – and that in itself is a lot of work.
And time fills up so quickly it’s frustrating, no matter what kind of work you’re doing in your life. Somehow, we are all busy. I am still busy. The housework is still here, the sick days and snow days and holidays, the endless stream of papers coming in from school, the Secretarial Mom Work of scheduling and phone calls and errands – minus the drag of bored or demanding children for those seven hours a day (unless it’s one of their many days off), but also minus their humor, their company, their cuddles. And all that housewifery is not interesting enough for me (or most people) on its own, so I am also busy writing things that may never get published, trying to keep hope alive that it will eventually get good enough to share, and turn into enough of a career that I can call myself a writer without cringing. Also – I am busy trying to get out of the house and see people, so I don’t get too isolated or lonely – because despite all my declarations about loving solitude, surprise, surprise – I am human, too, which means I am a social creature in need of human interaction! Who knew?!?
Even knowing this, I’d still rather stay home and write, and be a little more poor, but a lot less stressed about managing out-of-home work and parenting. I’m pretty sure the only work that is worth taking time away from home and family for me is writing, and it’s flexible, which helps with all those sick days and such. I’m so grateful that it’s possible for me to do this; we are okay on one income, for now.
Anyway. This is how I’m learning to be happy:
To keep myself from getting stuck in mental paralysis while at home by myself, or to keep myself from focusing too long on just one thing while letting everything else fall apart – I structure the hell out of my week. I have my habits, and if they prove worthy over time, I stick to them. Lately, I have two lists for each week: the unchanging, regular to-dos, including exercise, writing, and housework, and the particular to-do list of all the other random, changing crap. Sometimes, when I realize I haven’t seen people or left the house in too long, I force myself to put something fun on my changing to-do list, like “Schedule dinner with a friend” or “Plan and book family trip, ” or “Go to library.” It’s been an experiment, figuring out what is possible AND good. I’ve been through so many self-prescribed weekly schedules I’ve lost track. When I start to get depressed or anxious, I think: What do I need more of? What do I need less of? And then I change the schedule accordingly. It’s a work in progress, but I can be very disciplined even if I know it’s “just for this week, to see how it well it goes.”
I don’t know how many others feel the need to diagram out their lives with total intention, but I do, apparently. I’m learning how to pace myself well: to work enough, and enjoy enough, and love enough. When you’re building a new kind of life from scratch, it’s helpful for me to write it all down. Better out than in, as they say.
But of course it’s not that simple. Not everything fits into my disciplined weekly routine, and thank goodness for that. There must be enough wiggle room in life for loose ends, unfinished projects, waffling, boring writing that never sees the light of day, and spontaneous joy, too. That last one, especially, is something I don’t think I can pencil in. I must follow my structured days to keep my anxiety at bay, but be ever willing to let go when life wants to surprise me with something good. Discipline is not a problem for me; it’s letting go without panicking that’s hard for me. When life calls, I must remind myself that there is always tomorrow for cleaning, or writing, or helping the world get better. Maybe for now all I need to do is talk to my kid, or take a nap.
Any preconceived ideas I had before of “a hard life” versus “an easy life” have changed for me. Lives are mostly just different, each phase with their own challenges. Of course, most of the population faces more serious challenges than I do. I am still figuring out what to do with this awareness.
After doing yoga the other day, I came up with a ritualistic prayer to help me calm down and be grateful. If you don’t believe in God, you could easily substitute “nature,” or “divine energy,” or whatever. I call it my Trinities Prayer, because it’s three sets of three:
Thank you for yesterday
Thank you for today
Thank you for tomorrow.
Help me to love others better
Help me to love myself better
Help me to love you better.
Help me to be kind
Help me to be strong
Help me to have hope.
As I say each part in my mind, I think about how it applies currently – to my day, to my current struggles or joys.
This was scattered, like all my writing has been, lately. I am desperate to get something out into the world though, to open a window and get some fresh air onto the page. Things have been musty here at my writing desk. So, here it is, here I am, not for the first time and not for the last, not knowing if it’s any good, but exposing the writing anyway, out of creative selfishness and the ever-present hope that it will help someone feel less alone with their own repetitive issues. (We’ve all got ’em.)
My First Room in Paris – Akseli Gallen-Kallela 1884 Finnish painter 1865-1931
I will justify it with what is possibly my favorite quotation of all time, by Leonard Cohen.
Oh, and here are some of my Partridge Family favorites. They’re not so deep, but they’re ever so much fun:
I Can Feel Your Heartbeat