when happiness is work

One of the odd roles I’ve taken on in a lot of my friendships and other relationships has been “the happy one.”

The first time someone told me that I was the “happy one” in our particular group of friends, I was…well, let’s say “confused,” rather than “offended,” because it sounds nicer. It wasn’t that being happy is a bad thing–it’s obviously not, and the work I’ve been doing on my happiness project is part of my effort to move toward the whole happiness thing–but that I’ve just never thought of myself as an especially happy person. I didn’t (and often still don’t) think of myself as unhappy, either, just not super happy.

At the time, I asked my friend what she meant by that, and she shrugged. “You look on the bright side of things,” she said. “You find good things in people. You smile a lot. You just come off as a happy person.”

Okay. All fairly true things–I will totally admit to being the sort of warm and fuzzy person who hopes that the person tailgating me on the highway is speeding to deliver a baby and not just being a dick, I have one of those weird smiles that seems to prompt people to talk to me and tell me about their feelings (basically the opposite of resting bitch face. Resting therapist face?), I don’t like cutting people off when what they’re saying seems important. But does that really make me seem like a happy person?

Apparently yes, because over the course of the next several years, more people in various walks of life–coworkers, friends, clients, relatives–commented on my positivity, my bright mood, my smile, my idealism, all that jazz. Meanwhile, there I am, looking around in confusion, because my head feels like a jumble of depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and brain fog, and all the happiness that everyone else seems to see coming off me just doesn’t feel visible to me. In fact, I usually feel like I have to force it to show up.

Spending most of my working years in various “helping” fields, from childcare to higher education to mental health, means that I’ve rather inadvertently put myself in professions that require me to be more emotionally “on” than, say…I don’t know, working in accounting or something (sorry, accountants. I just assume that spreadsheets don’t bring that many feelings to the game). For most of my day, whatever my actual mood might be, I needed to be plugged in to the feelings of the people around me to offer support, advice, problem-solving, insight, etc. I’ve been lucky to work at places where I can be a little more “off” when not interacting with whoever the client base happened to be (students, campers, mental health clients, etc), but it still involves a significant amount of emotional labor on a day to day level that can get incredibly draining, especially when the positive emotions you’re expected to display might not be entirely reflective of your genuine feelings. But when people start taking your manufactured happiness as real, they start to expect it, and then you start to assume that you have to project that happiness at all times.

Being and looking happy, then, turns into a job. This is a problem that other women have talked about all over the internet and I won’t repeat their very good points, mostly because this is more about my personal experience than about my feminism, but then, it can be hard to separate the two. Would I be feeling so nervous about not feeling the happiness I project if gender norms didn’t expect me to be smiling and cheerful to every person I meet? I don’t know.

The big question I’ve always had for myself, though, is whether there’s a difference in my mood when I’m not making the effort to act positive compared to when I am. There is something to be said for the “fake it till you make it” effect, and I found that out the hard way over the past few weeks.

I haven’t been shy on this blog about my struggles with chronic pain and depression. Living with chronic physical and mental health issues isn’t a walk in the park, but they’re my everyday existence, and I find myself generally able, for the most part, take a bunch of meds, put some product in my hair, smack a smile onto my face (HELLO HAPPINESS IT’S SHELLY HOW ARE YOU TODAY) and get out the door. But that’s the thing about chronic issues–they’re chronic. You get used to them. You know what to expect, you know what they feel like, you get a feel for your bodies aches and pains and occasional-oh-hey-it-feels-like-there’s-acid-on-my-skin moments. But when you get something else on top of your usual chronic illness (for example, the ass-kicker of a flu I came down with two and a half weeks ago and am still getting over), all bets are off. The things that usually work stop working. All the energy you’ve saved up to get you over the hump of compensating for crummy joints or nerves or serotonin receptors is suddenly gone, and the spoons you’re used to having to get through your day promptly disappear.

Over the last two weeks, all of the positive energy I usually try to summon up to project my happy attitude–to be “the happy one”–went out the window. No more Shelly happy face. I was stuffy and cranky and sleepless and exhausted; I was coughing constantly and couldn’t breathe through my nose (my nose! the only part of my body that I can usually rely on to work! wtf??), I was, in conclusion, a mess. I meandered from my bed to my couch to my bathtub, I slept constantly, I mustered a few smiles for my nephews and family but overall didn’t really even try to be sociable during our Passover seders with my in-laws. I was cranky toward my husband and often asked to just be left alone, and didn’t take much of time to ask how he was doing (except for the occasional thank-you for the many, many sweet things that he did for me while I was being a brat toward him).

It sucked.

But now that I’m finally on the mend and had a bit of my spark back yesterday and today, I’ve started to realize that what sucked about it wasn’t that I felt like crap, but that I was wallowing in feeling like crap. Don’t get me wrong, the flu is miserable, and I think everyone’s entitled to a few “woe is me” days through the worst of it. And in all honesty, throwing a crappy flu on top of an already messed-up body should probably earn me a few extra days. I didn’t bother with any of the usual self-care I took on even on my worst fibro flare days, and losing that probably made things worse. I took baths, but spent them just staring at the wall instead of lighting something that smelled nice and putting on an audiobook or some music. I put the same pajamas on again and again. I didn’t brush my teeth. I didn’t eat and barely drank any water. It felt a lot more like a bad depressive episode than a physical illness, and I think that my total lack of attempt to do anything to take care of myself because I was just in such a bad mood could have very nearly turned it into one.

It’s still strange to think of myself as the “happy one,” as I continue to struggle with the same health issues (both physical and mental), but the past few weeks gave me some insight into just how much I miss that positivity, mostly manufactured or not, when it’s not there. I don’t know if the positive attitude and forward-focused mindset I project are becoming parts of my personality that I like more than I resent, but my time spent feeling miserable and sorry for myself certainly didn’t help me with my healing process.

When we’re kids, no one really tells us that happiness can feel like work, and that sometimes you have to make your own, and that sometimes it sort of feels forced. But I think that I’ll take a little bit of manufactured happiness over my self-sustained misery bubble any day.

It might be faking it until I make it, but I think the faking it helps.

a grateful letter to my body

Dear Body,

So, the last few days have been pretty rough on all of us. After we went on our Super Fun Big City Adventure last week, you basically crashed. Friday to Sunday was a non-stop disaster of exhaustion, poor sleep at night and constant inability to stay awake during the day, bone-deep physical weariness, emotional and mental fog, and delirious stumbling around the house unable to really think, hold things, eat real food, or drink more than water. It was a pretty miserable experience all around.

I guess I should probably apologize. I put you through a hell of a ringer last week–we did a lot of travel in a seriously short amount of time, and you don’t tend to do super well with travel, late nights, lots of walking, and huge amounts of physical/mental engagement and stimuli happening all at once. That’s my bad, and you were a champ for putting up with all that craziness. I knew your limits, and I pushed you past them. I’m sorry for that.

We’re on the mend now, or getting there. We had another rough night’s sleep last night, but I think we broke five hours, which is pretty great. And we even managed to get a cup of coffee into our system today, and had the mental energy to see our clients and even do some writing when we got home. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for decent sleep tonight!

Body, I want to express some gratitude to you. I don’t do that very often because I’m often so frustrated with you. We’re in our mid-twenties, what feels like it’s supposed to be the healthiest time of our life, and instead I often feel overwhelmed with irritation and frustration at my inability to travel, to run, to keep plans with friends, to tolerate certain fabrics and temperatures. But you are my body, the only one that I have, and even though you are often exhausted and in pain, I owe you my thanks.

Thank you, body, for the ability you give me to experience the world. You are the gateway of my senses, and without you I would not be able to see the smiles of my friends and family, to hear music or laughter, to touch my dog’s soft fur, to smell freshly brewed coffee in the morning, to taste cool, sweet water. Thank you for being the conduit through which I feel the sun on my face and the wind in my hair.

Thank you, body, for carrying me through my life. Sometimes our steps are slow, sometimes they are halting, sometimes we feel like we are not moving at all, but nonetheless we are taking steps. Thank you for the press of my feet to the ground, holding me to the earth and keeping me moving.

Thank you, body, for helping me to learn my limits. Your warnings let me know when I am pushing myself too hard, and you tell me, clearly, when I have crossed a line. I don’t listen to you like I should, and I owe you better.

Thank you, body, for being my ally in this adventure of health and illness. We have changed so very much together, and have sometimes fought against one another, angry and frustrated and sad and frightened, but I think that we are learning, slowly, to find a peace. Thank you for continuing to teach me and guide me, even when I don’t listen to your lessons.

Thank you, body, for holding my heart, that has received so much love. Thank you for my hands, for helping me to write stories into existence from nothing more than dreams, for allowing me to craft the narrative of my life in pen and ink. Thank you for my toes, which have wiggled in sand and mud and grass and water. Thank you for my arms, which for all their aches have nonetheless held so many embraces. Thank you for my back, which for all its pain allows me to carry my head and my mind. Thank you for my head, where my migraines and fogs and confusions still make room for thoughts and dreams and questions and goals.

Thank you, body, for growing with me. Thank you for your ability to change and heal and endure.

Thank you for being mine.

Love,

Shelly

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if you’re going through hell (keep going)

As someone who has always favored stability over uncertainty, I’ve been feeling totally unbalanced by the number of changes that have happened over the past few months. Some of these changes have been truly amazing (marrying the love of my life, starting (and almost finishing) an awesome internship working with some of the most wonderful, supportive people I have ever met, adopting a crazy but adorable dog) and others less amazing (losing my modest but important income at the end of my grad assistantship in May, having my chronic pain go from “manageable” to “barely tolerable”, having my marriage be a bit more long-distance than originally planned, losing some of the function in my hand thanks to some broken bones and torn ligaments), but change in general can make me feel like I’m treading water and barely keeping my head afloat.

A week from Friday, I’ll be leaving my amazing internship and heading up to Maine. I’ll be going from having a lovely little place to live and a job (well, an unpaid internship) to, as of now, a friend’s couch and a continuing job search. This means more changes–lots of them–very quickly: destabilizing my living conditions, figuring out how to move more stuff (wedding gifts: awesome, yet so bulky!) with less space in the car (because dog), trying to find an apartment without (as of this writing) a job offer to figure out the budget, finding a new vet, trying to see my own doctor to figure out the cluster-you-know-what of my own health, adjusting the pup to a new place and a new routine as Husband heads back to school and I (hopefully!) head into work, trying to re-establish a support system of friends so that we don’t all go off the walls. Needless to say, my anxiety is through the roof, bringing my stress-induced pain levels along with it. I’m holding regularly-scheduled prayer circles to hold off the stress-induced migraines; all are welcome to join in.

UnFortunately, there is a time and place for showing how anxious you are, and (fun fact) working as a therapist with traumatized children is really not one of them. My general rule of thumb: these kids have been through enough crap, so they definitely do not need my crap on top of it. Noooope nope nope they do not. So there might be a lot of this going on in the moment from when they leave my office to when I close the door behind them:

but the rule is that from the minute they enter the office to the moment they leave, my problems are not in the room. I’m there for them, they’re what matters, etc, etc. That’s how it works. My job is to be there for my kids, to listen to them, and to let them feel like they’re first. They have had plenty of time being second (or third or fourth or fifth or not even listed) priority, and I want to make sure they have at least one hour of the week where someone is there just for them.

To help out on this venture and to get more positive thinking into my life, I went and downloaded the Transform Your Life: A Year of Awareness app. It’s a nifty little app that gives you an inspiring quote and a daily assignment to try and incorporate the quote into your life for that day. Cheesy? Yep, 100%, but it gives me a moment of thoughtfulness in the mornings when the alarm chimes and I read the quote or think about the daily message. And I’m getting to the point where a few moments of positivity are enough to give me a boost for at least an hour or two, which can be the difference between actually getting some progress notes done or just putting my head down on my desk and being dead for a few minutes. So, yes. Mindfulness. Hooray.

On August 5th, the quote was one from good ol’ Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” The day’s assignment: “Today, whatever you’re going through, keep going–and smile!”

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(AM I SMILING YET. AM I DOING THE THING.)

Being told to smile when I’m not happy is one of those things that makes me want to hit my head against a desk. I have always been of the belief that you don’t owe anyone a smile. Now, again, given my line of work, I’m also not going to go around looking like Grumpy Cat (who is apparently totally misunderstood, poor critter), but putting a big smile on my face that a kid who is hyper-alert (which almost all my clients are) is going to see through in a millisecond and then get suspicious over isn’t the solution, either. But the first part of the assignment, I like.

In health fields, particularly mental health and trauma fields, we talk a lot about resilience. There’s a lot of back-and-forth about the definition of resilience–is it a construct, a characteristic, a process, an outcome, etc–but to me, what it really boils down to is the essence of that quote: resilience is going on when you’re going through hell. And “hell” comes in all shapes and sizes–medical trauma, social trauma, emotional trauma, physical trauma, illness, abuse, mental health, adjustments, pain, relationships, conflicts, the list goes on forever–but to be resilient is to go through it. And that doesn’t always mean taking on your issues head on, solving every problem you’re facing all at once. Sometimes it’s taking a breath before you respond to a statement that made you angry. Sometimes it’s going to work even though your body hurts and your social anxiety is through the roof. Sometimes it’s making it home and watching Netflix instead of having a cigarette or a drink. Sometimes it’s having one glass of wine instead of four. Sometimes, it’s just getting out of bed.

There’s a sense of freedom that comes with acknowledging the quiet forms resilience can take. We put a lot of emphasis on boldly tackling issues, even in the language we use to describe resilience: “power through” your problems, “face your problems head-on”, etc. In fact, acknowledging personal struggle without also providing a list of the things you’re doing to counteract those struggles is often seen as asking for sympathy, or just whining. For those with chronic struggles, people get sick of hearing about the same things: “Aren’t you over that, yet?” To own the softer forms of resistance, to say, honestly, “I can’t solve this, but I am still trying, and I’m getting through every day, and that’s enough” gives a certain sense of release, like letting out a breath you’ve been holding so long your chest has started to hurt. It’s a good feeling, even though your ribs still hurt for a few moments until you’ve really started breathing again, and then you wonder why you ever stopped.

Last week, I was sitting with one of my clients, working on a puzzle, nursing a headache and trying not to think about the epic to-do list that’s been building up in the margins of my planner.  After a few moments of working in silence–my usually-quiet client had just spoken for almost four minutes straight, and was taking some time to recover from her surprising moment of verbosity–my client said, “Miss Shelly, you seem tired today.”

In clinical practice, there’s a line between appropriate and inappropriate self-disclosure. When working with kids, you need to be even more careful about this line. But kids are often more perceptive than adults, and if you’re trying to hide something from a kid who’s hyper-vigilant, they’ll figure it out, and it’ll hurt their feelings. This particular client has had to deal with a lot of dishonest adults, and I didn’t want to be one more of those. I put my puzzle piece down. “I am tired,” I said. “There’s some stuff going on for me at home that is a little stressful, and it makes me feel tired.”

My client looked at me. “I feel that sometimes, too,” she said. Apparently satisfied with this part of the conversation, she turned back to working on the puzzle.

A few moments later, she turned back to me. “What do you do when you can’t fix it?”

“You do your best,” I said. I handed her another puzzle piece and she tried to slot it into place upside-down, then reversed it and put it into the picture correctly. “And then you try again.”

unapologetic (but probably questionable) financial decisions

My generation talks a lot about paying for experiences rather than paying for things. I like this idea. Memories last a lifetime, if you’re lucky, and things tend to end up in the back of your closet covered in newspapers or magazines or whatever else piles up all over houses. Experiences are great. You can go to a new place, learn a new thing, take pictures to post on social media and make your friends jealous, etc.

Well, this week, I paid $36 for the experience of having a stranger do my laundry.

(the person who took my laundry did not look like this)

Confession: I really don’t like doing laundry. It’s time consuming and, with the way my body tends to (not) work, often ends up being totally exhausting–to the point where it’s usually the last thing I do in a day because the time everything is schlepped around, switched, folded, hung, etc, my shoulders and hands have essentially stopped functioning. But hey, doing laundry is part of that whole “be a grown up” thing, and I don’t think anyone’s done my laundry for me since I was 13 and deemed tall enough to reach the machine (although I will 100% shout out to my mom for collecting all those quarters for me to fund my college laundry experience; thanks mom!), so, since I don’t have live-in laundry at home, it was off to Google I went to find a laundromat that was in the vague vicinity of my commute so as to not spend more time away from my very hectic dog, who tends to get all sorts of wonky when left on her own for too long.

So, with my grown-up to-do list in hand, I put my laundry in my car and headed out. Also on the to-do list was to drop off the dry-cleaning (because Husband tends to spill things on nice clothing), so I found a laundromat that is also a dry cleaner. Huzzah, Google. So, in I stroll, Husband’s dry cleaning slung over my shoulder because I am a High-Powered Business Lady In Charge Of My Life And Definitely Not a Crazy Person, and am chatting with the lady at the counter when I see a sign for valet laundry.

“Hold up,” I say to Lady Behind the Counter. “What does ‘valet laundry’ mean?”

Looking at me as if I am a complete plebeian, Lady Behind the Counter says, “You leave your laundry with us, and we do it for you.”

Hold. The fucking. Phone.

I can give my laundry to someone else? I just leave it with them, and then I come back and it’s…done? Just like that? Like magic? This is a thing that normal, non-celebrity people can do?

WHERE HAS THIS BEEN ALL MY LIFE?

So, barely containing my ecstatic joy, I scamper out to my car, grab my overflowing laundry hamper, and then stagger back to the laundromat, because it’s hard to scamper when you’ve got a giant fabric hamper over your shoulder. But inside, I was scampering indeed. I plop my giant bag o’ laundry on the little scale, stagger a little bit when I realize it’s 26 pounds of laundry (Sidebar: WTF HOW DID I GENERATE 26 POUNDS OF LAUNDRY?), and Lady Behind the Counter breaks out a calculator and gives me the number: $36 for the valet service.

Now I’ll be honest. I’m an unpaid intern. I’m living this summer off savings, some writing commissions, and my A+ hustling skills (that last one’s a joke, dad, I promise!). I’m budgeting out everything from groceries to meds to dog food. Do I have really have $36 to spend for someone else to do my laundry? Not really.

But here’s the thing. I could have just gone back to the laundromat after work and done my laundry like I planned. So that’s probably $5 worth of quarters, not actually a big deal. But then I start thinking about the rest of it: two to three hours in a laundromat is two to three hours away from Sammi, who tends to freak out when left by herself for more than 4 hours at a time (a topic for another day), which means two to three hours anxiousness worrying about what she might do to the house while I’m gone. Then there’s the night of escalated pain levels that always accompanies long periods of time doing a repetitive motion (for example, folding lots of clothing), especially when this comes after a day of sitting in an uncomfortable chair or crouched on a floor. Then there’s just the plain old fact that I am so ridiculously tired after a day of hearing about trauma and pain and fear and anger from some of the sweetest kids on the planet, and I seriously just do not want to deal with laundry right now.

So, do I have $36 to spend on someone else doing my laundry? Nope.

Did I care?

Hell to the no.

Reader, I dropped off that laundry so joyfully I can’t even put it into words, and when I came back at the end of the day, there it was. Washed! Dried! Folded! And the things that are supposed to be hanging up? THEY WERE HUNG UP. I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW THEY DID THAT.

Look, I’m going to be honest here. It takes a definite amount of privilege to be able to write a post like this. I’m not going hungry because I did this, though I’ll probably be skipping a grocery trip next week. I’m not losing any sleep over this financial decision, and I know I’m extremely lucky to be able to do it. And I acknowledge all of that, and am so super thankful that I’m in the place that I’m in.

But mostly, I am just SUPER FUCKING THANKFUL that someone else did my laundry.

For real.