Friday, October 17, 2014

Taking Happiness Seriously

When I was about nineteen, fresh from a conservative Christian high school, I began to slowly transform the way I looked to match the way I felt. For three years, I had tried Jesus as a fix to a deep abyss that sat heavily in my stomach.  After reading, Frank Peretti, I even entertained the idea that maybe I was oppressed with demons. Real demons. Not metaphorical demons of depression. When I left school, I also left my faith on the stage, and walked out into a world no longer enchanted. Over a period of months, my clothes got darker, my hair shorter, and I added some holes to various parts of my body. Sure it was an act but it was also a telling moment where I began to accept that the feeling inside. I can mark this as the beginning of a time when I went beyond naming my depression and turn into an intricate part of my identity.

Of course depression was not just a fashion accessory for me. Depression was something that I had experienced for many years but not something I really understood. I didn't see a psychologist until I was 22 but I first remember being depressed around twelve. There was this feeling inside me that told me I'd never be happy. Days when I could barely get myself out of bed. Days when I wished I'd just never wake up. Days so filled with pain and sadness that I couldn't even cry. But I didn't really have an understanding even if I had the word. The understanding would come much later when I was older.

At the point, I started to retell my story depression became the fuel for my creativity. It was not difficult to reach this conclusion in the artist biographies I read, and in the people with whom I had friends in my early twenties. Among this group, depression was romanticized and idealized. Instead of being the thing that kept me bed for hours upon hours, that made it difficult to even shower, depression was made me special. For a young woman longing to feel special this was heady stuff.  I refused treatment. My rejection of antidepressants became a badge of honor. I accepted my suffering, wore it proudly, marched about as if I was a martyr.

And I also began to see happy as a shallow emotion something upon which to look with disdain. It was easy to re script my past by carefully editing out all the happy moments. My childhood was a gray sea of sadness in this new story. I struggled with the moments I was happy, and self-sabotaged any joy I felt. I ruined relationships, destroyed happy scenes, and stomped out any laughter that wasn't underlined with a bit of sarcasm and cynicism. In the end, I didn't really understand my depression anymore than I understood how I could be happy when the world was burning around me.

Over the years, I've softened my attitude about antidepressants. I no longer see meds as an easy way out, and I've even put myself on them. Depression doesn't do much for creativity when you can barely get out of bed. I reshaped my ideas about depression and along the way discovered that antidepressants, therapy, all the tools out there, were not escapes that erased my personality. But with this important shift, I still was disdainful of happy.  Happy people were shallow, simple, and lacking in creativity. The pursuit of happiness in a world that was screwed up was selfish. And this made embracing the joy in my life incredibly difficult. I knew that I was holding back but I came up with a lot reasons for why I was holding myself back: fear being the biggest excuse. I suppose it was fear. Fear that being happy, enjoying happiness would somehow make me less complicated, less interesting. I remember experiencing moments when I was so happy I felt that the lightness would carry me away, and I would stuff that feeling deep down away from the light. I got to a point where I couldn't imagine how I could experience happiness with depression.

Thus you can imagine my horror when I told people that Jude had Down syndrome and the first thing so many people said to me was "Oh everyone I've meet with Down syndrome is just sooo happy." And what ran through my mind was that old playground taunt "Happy and dumb." I thought about how many ways we have of saying this very thing: "I was happier not knowing." Ignorance is bliss." Christianity's very origin story revolves around the idea of ignorance being paradise.  For someone who spent a great chunk of her life looking down on happiness as a personality trait, I was horrified even as I knew it was a stereotype. Obviously no one is always happy, and it's absurd to paint an entire population of people with any one characteristic. Of course I knew this. But what I didn't even pause to question was my attitude towards happiness.

A few weeks ago, I took a photo of Jude crawling towards me with a huge smile on her face. Her hair is up in pigtails; her eyes are shining. The whole picture screams "Happy." As I added the picture to a group on Facebook, I wrote a small justification about how Jude wasn't always happy, and I ended with how I almost didn't want to put the picture up because I knew people were going to harp on how happy people with Ds are.This has happened often over the last two years. I find myself seeking photos of Jude's rare moment of having a fit. I joked to H that I wish I could snap a shot of Jude having a fit in the middle of the night because I'm not latching her on fast enough. The thing is that Jude is happy most of the time. She loves life with a joy that is intense in and of itself. She is almost always smiling with her eyes bright as she explores the world. Whenever we go out people comment on it "What a happy baby!" "She's loving that lollipop?" "What a smile!" "I wish I enjoyed life like that!" And while sometimes I feel like I have to argue because not all people with Ds are happy, I do have to also acknowledge that Jude is pretty damn happy (and no not all babies are happy. I've had four besides Jude and only one was a happy baby).

No Jude is not always happy. Just like I am not always depressed or moody or gloomy. She is like me a multifaceted person. She's not happy when R is stealing a toy from her. She's not happy when we don't let her dump the hamper. She doesn't enjoy all things. She's not overly fond of our cats. She's a little eh about her physical therapy. She despises her car seat. She's shy as well, and like most toddlers hides behind my legs when she first meets grown ups. She has days where's a little cranky but overall Jude is very content. She likes to play. She likes going to the library and to the park. She adores dogs. She has a huge smile on her face most of the time. She lives life with a breathtaking kind of intensity that has made me question my own ideas about intensity.

And that's where I am this evening as I finally type out this jumble that has been rolling around in my head. I don't want my child to be limited by a stereotype. But I also don't want her to be limited by an unquestioning definition of happy either. Our society has a complicated relationship with happy. There is a drive to be happy. The Declaration of Independence tells us we should pursue it. There are  a million and one zenish quotes that tell us how to achieve it and why we should. But yet there is all the cultural baggage I mentioned earlier that tells us that happiness is simple, uncomplicated, not really smart, not really creative. One hand we long to be simple and on the other hand we look askance on simple. Is happiness even connected to "simple?" What does it mean to pursue happiness? Does feeling happiness really prevent one from seeing the ills of the world? Is it really selfish to be happy? I have no answers to these questions. I am not even sure if I could give a decent definition of happiness. What I do know is that in order to fully appreciate Jude I am going to have explore these questions, seriously. Jude  and other people with Down syndrome do not deserve to be corralled into one emotion. The absurdity, and danger, of labeling a group of people with any one thing is something we must speak out against. But an equally important objective for me, as a parent, as a guide, is to fully explore along with my child, the dimensions and richness of her personality including the part that is happy.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I just spoke to my midwife this morning about going on an antidepressant after this baby is born. I was on antidepressants years ago but took myself off of them because i got pregnant, since then it's been 5 years of pregnancy/ nursing/ pregnancy/ nursing etc. that i haven't been able to go back, but this is my last baby and I am ready to take back my mental health. I am so stubborn and I always saw depression as a weakness and something that was somehow my fault because if I could just find the magic combination of eating right/ taking supplements/ exersize and sleep then I wouldn't be depressed but it was all just an excuse ( and who in the world with 4 small children gets to eat sleep and exercise?)
I'm done living in fear of the next crash. I'm done watching my children and husband suffer because of my depression. I'm done seeing everything as dark and shadowy. I know that SSRIs aren't electric manic happy pills and they don't make all the problems in the world go away- but my brain needs them. my brain has a circuitry problem that needs a little help. I'm so done fighting it.

Ginger Stickney said...

I think that I went through both stages of attitude with depression: the swaying between here's my artistic power and this is because I'm weak. Somewhere along the path it became a weakness if I took SSRIs. But when I finally realized that the depression was something that was effecting not just me but my family I decided that weakness or not I had to do something. Interesting the experience wasn't nearly as dramatic as I had expected. The Zoloft offered me just enough push to function but I still had to deal with my shit. It just gave me the energy to do this.

I too get caught up in the cycle of thinking if I could just sleep, eat right, exercise, I'll be ok. But I can't even begin to think of doing these things when I'm depressed. I'll be adding talk therapy this time as well. Where I'll fit it in I have no idea but I'm going to try.

Good luck! And keep me posted on this go for you. My email if you want it is gstick61@gmail.com