When I read posts or books like The Secret to Happiness, I don’t buy it. That’s right… I don’t buy it! The reason I’ve always doubted content like that is because I don’t feel like the author has the first clue what it’s like to struggle… like REALLY struggle!
I assume that the authors are privileged people who’ve lived idyllic lives. I assume that they always walk in sunshine and always have. Or at the very least that they have some innate sense of optimism so “dancing in the rain” comes naturally to them.
The truth is, for most of my life I didn’t know a single person I would consider truly happy. So, it makes sense that I would consider happiness to be unobtainable and those who write about it to be insincere.
I was never a happy go lucky child. My childhood was difficult and chaotic. The oldest of teen parents in the 70s isn’t a position that typically lends itself to stability. Before my own teen years, I was exposed to a lot of partying, violence, drugs and alcohol and my parent’s relationship was volatile at best. I was hyper-vigilant and fearful.
By the time I was 18 I had been sexually assaulted 3 times by 3 different men. I’d made a series of terrible life choices and even worse relationship choices. I moved out of my parents’ house between junior and senior year and dropped out of high school. I’d been homeless, living in a car and a shelter. There wasn’t much I hadn’t been through! Clearly this didn’t set me up for innate optimism and happiness!
I’m not saying this for the sake of garnering sympathy or to try to get you to believe that I’ve had it so much worse. I’m saying this in hopes that you’ll see some of your struggles here and feel encouraged. I didn’t come from a life of privilege, so I know how hard it is!
Growing up, I remember my dad always saying, “if I didn’t have bad luck, I’d have no luck.” And for the most part I subscribed to this thinking too. Happiness was for the lucky!
As you can imagine I didn’t really know anyone I would consider lucky enough to be happy. Don’t get me wrong I knew people who were happy on occasion when the circumstances were just right. But that doesn’t mean they had a general sense of happiness.
This is what I came to identify as obtainable happiness. I believed that if I set out to create happy circumstances, I would have a happy life. I would be a happy person.
A Turn of Luck
In my late 20’s something happened that seemed to indicate a change in luck and gave me hope for a better, happier future. I became a mom. Did I have still some work to do… sure. After all, I was a single mother with no college degree. I’d finished high school and gone off to college, but I’d run out of money and stamina before finishing. My father had died leaving my family reeling. And my job prospects weren’t looking great, so I was struggling to make ends meet. To be honest though, I was pretty content with my life and felt things were looking up! I’d been hospitalized at 17 and told after exploratory surgery that I could never have children. So simply having a baby was a miracle and dream come true! To me that was a sign that maybe my luck was turning!
Controlling the Circumstances
Having tasted happiness, I was determined to keep it. So, I devoted my hyper-vigilant perfectionism to creating the ideal circumstances for a happy life for myself and my child. I’d seen before that when people lived in happy idyllic circumstances, they were in fact happy though often it was fleeting. I set out to create a life that would create permanent happiness.
The Perfect Marriage
About a year after my baby was born, I married my best friend and soul mate. We had the ideal marriage. We fit together seamlessly. Complimented each other and brought out the best in one another. Together we were a force to be reckoned with! We could conquer the world!
The Perfect Family
Between the 2 of us we had full custody of 4 kids under 7. Two years later we had another. Oftentimes blended families are less than ideal but because of my friendship with my husband I already knew and had relationship with the kids. I even got along very well with his ex. Everything seemed to be going according to plan.
The Perfect Life
We lived in the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood. I was a stay at home mom, just as I’d always imagined, and my husband had a great job. We had financial security and family support. We loved our church community and enjoyed time with our friends.
Basically, I had the on paper perfect life. The one you’d see on Instagram that wouldn’t even need a filter! The one that would create permanent happiness. But here’s the thing, try as I might to maintain this perfection I couldn’t! Sometimes, I found, it rains on even the sunniest day!
The Real Deal
Here’s what was really happening while I was busily controlling every circumstance possible so that I could “stay happy”.
My Perfect Marriage
Two days after my husband and I got married he ended up in the emergency room. At first doctors thought he had pneumonia, but it just wouldn’t clear up. Within 3 months’ time he couldn’t walk across a room without his lips turning blue. After a barrage of tests, it was determined that the mass inside his lung right next to his heart was the size of an apple. His doctors had lost their optimism and wanted to surgically remove it to be certain it wasn’t cancer. Thank God it wasn’t but the mass had entangled itself around major arteries and couldn’t be entirely removed. This meant he would need high dose daily steroid treatments for the next year. He was weaning off these treatments for most of my pregnancy… so that was pleasant… NOT!
My Perfect Family
My husband ended up adopting my child from before… YAY! This process took a full year and was rife with challenges since the biological father seemed suddenly hesitant about not being in their life. Then after our youngest was born I suffered from terrible postpartum depression. I was also struggling to sleep since I had a jaw problem (it had to be reconstructed). I didn’t tell a single soul that I was suffering. For even some of my closest relatives this may be how they find out (sorry). I was incredibly ashamed, didn’t know where to turn and honestly couldn’t understand why it was happening. It took well over a year to even begin to shake it. By the time I talked to a doctor about my possible struggle with depression it had been so long that they didn’t even connect it to postpartum. I didn’t tell anyone for over 16 yrs. (That doesn’t make me brave… don’t make that mistake!)
A few years after our youngest was born we found out that the child my husband adopted had Autism.
Oh, and in case you weren’t buying my relationship with my husband’s ex up there and you’re expecting a retraction… not happening. There were definitely some challenges, she had her own demons to fight but overall, we worked to keep things as positive as possible for the kids. We’ve both always considered our 3 oldest children to be OURS. (It works for us.)
My Perfect Life
Well, my perfect life wasn’t so perfect. We ended up taking a huge pay cut after 9/11 and were underwater on our mortgage. Welcome to America in the 21st century! My husband had to take a job that required travel 4 days a week and we had to move to a new community because of sudden changes in the school district. Then our oldest started showing signs of struggle. It’s difficult to move in 7th grade and all our kids missed their dad. I was struggling with his travel as well and very lonely.
At the time we were dealing with estrangement from some of our friends, many of whom we went to church with. After our beloved pastor died new leadership took hold and the church began to look more and more culty. Plus, we had found out about some shady business dealings within the church, so we left.
How it All Felt
Basically, on the surface everything probably looked perfect and managing those circumstances so that I could simply look at the surface and remain happy was priority number one for me! I figured I look happy and it all looks great therefore it must be. And, I wasn’t just faking it. I really believed this is what happiness looked like.
I just focused on that top layer everyone else could see. The one I’d seen so many times that indicated happiness. Inside I felt angsty and sad. I was exhausted and distracted. I couldn’t focus on anything and I constantly felt lost. But hey… this is what happy is supposed to look like, so I must be happy… right?!?!
It All Unravels
At this point you’re probably thinking I must’ve had a breakdown of some sort. But…nope… that didn’t happen! Instead everything I knew unraveled in such a way as to put our whole family in crisis!
It all seemed normal enough… our oldest graduated from high school and moved off to college. That’s basically the last thing I remember of our lives before.
Everything I thought I knew about my family and life came crumbling down over the course of the next 8 years. Yes… you read that right… 8 YEARS! Our family went through some of the most difficult things you can imagine, and it went on for YEARS with no reprieve!
Our older children began to suffer from mental health issues in their high school and early college years (despite therapy). There have been frightening suicide attempts and even addictions and eating disorders. I can barely keep track of the number of times our children almost died during those 8 years. Meanwhile our younger children suffered from emotional and social issues. It turns out our youngest is differently abled too, though not on the spectrum. I started having physical health problems including an autoimmune condition and non-HPV cervical cancer. (Who even knew that was a thing???)
As you can imagine my marriage that seemed rock solid no longer did. Our families knew little about what we were dealing with out of respect for our late teen and young adult children’s privacy. Even here I’m being vague and summarizing out of consideration for that. My lifeline was my long-time therapist who I hired to help me cope with my grandmother’s future death. I knew I’d struggle to deal with it, so I started therapy to prepare… my grandma is still kickin BTW. Clearly, I had more pressing issues. Clearly, there was no planet on which I or anyone else believed I was happy. I desperately needed help and for some reason trying to manage and control the circumstances just wasn’t working!
You Can’t Control Others or Circumstances
These horrifically challenging circumstances ended up being the spotlight that showed me the path to happiness… or at least the beginning of it. No, I’m not about to tell you that all this horrible shit was a blessing in disguise or that God made it happen to teach me a lesson. No one can watch their kids suffer and believe that! I will say that I don’t know how long I would’ve gone on with surface happiness had this catastrophe not happened. But it did happen! Trying to control my children and these overwhelming circumstances nearly killed me and destroyed my marriage and other children!
After years and a few near breakdowns, I finally came to realize that I couldn’t control my adult children or the circumstances of their lives. Believe me, this was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to come to terms with. Because let’s face it, in situations like these you’d do anything to intervene! Try as I might I just couldn’t. Further, I couldn’t control how my husband saw or reacted to what was going on. And I also couldn’t control how long it would take him to come to the realization that he had to let it go too.
While no one could’ve convinced me of it sooner I came to realize that I had to relinquish control. It didn’t happen over night and it was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but I had to do it!
You Can Only Control Yourself
During this process I also began to understand that the only thing or person you can control is yourself. I’m going to be REALLY honest here and tell you that I didn’t like this at all! Turns out it’s pretty easy to distract yourself with trying to control others. And then you also have the ability to blame them when things go wrong or you’re unhappy! But your thoughts and feelings are your own and you can take charge of them.
That doesn’t mean you have 100% control 100% of the time. And it doesn’t mean that you never experience anything unpleasant. I’m still human, I still worry about my kids and the choices they might make. But I know that I have to keep the focus on myself and control what I can… me. I must realize that all of the time worrying won’t protect them or force them to make different choices. It will however rob my whole family, including them of my presence in the moment.
The Secret to Happiness… My Journey
The reality here is that sometimes this is much harder than others! And, that’s how it is with all things. So, I put habits and practices into place to help me. When I wrote The Secret to happiness, I was being 100% sincere and genuine. These are really the things I’ve done and changed to create and maintain happiness. I know, more than most, how challenging life can be. I don’t have an idyllic privileged life. What I do have though is a shift in attitude. I choose happy. I choose happy no matter what. Even if it sometimes coexists with sorrow, anxiety or frustration. I know at the core… I’m truly happy, no matter what the surface might look like to others!
So, yeah… I know what it’s like to struggle and I mean REALLY struggle! I also know what it’s like to create and maintain happiness no matter what life hands you! Because let’s face it… there are far worse things than lemons and those of us who know that could use some hope and a light shown on the path!
Share this post to encourage those struggling on their own happiness journey! Tell me in the comments… have you struggled to find happiness in your own life?