Wednesday, February 5, 2014

I know you mean well, but please stop telling me that I am a failure. #DayOfLight

I don’t have an excuse for my chronic mental health problems. No history of abuse, no traumatic events, no drug use. I eat healthy food, get daily exercise, attend church regularly, volunteer at my children’s school. I even get weekly adult time with my spouse.

And yet I fall into depression every few months.

I spent a decade of young adulthood trying to get a doctor to actually recognize that I had a problem- circa 1990, if you weren’t cutting yourself or displaying an eating disorder, you weren’t sick enough to get medical attention. I spent five more years trying to find an effective treatment. For about seven marvelous years Celexa helped me respond to life in a normal, healthy, non-self-destructive way. Then, as sometimes happens with mental illness, the medications stopped working. It was gradual. First I was just a little cranky. Then I was unaccountably weepy. Then I started wanting to bang my head against the wall like I used to in high school. Eventually I could not deny that my daily pill was useless and I was once again ill.
While I am looking for a new treatment, I follow all respected medical advice for dealing with mental illness. I do things I used to enjoy, like planting trees and keeping an organic garden. I’m trying to learn to play the guitar. I take deep cleansing breaths whenever the crazy creeps in, and get on my bike for half an hour every day whether I feel like it or not.

I also surround myself with positive people. But if it weren’t for doctors recommending it, I wouldn’t. These positive people keep giving me bad advice. They keep telling me that happiness is a choice. And anyone who has dealt with depression knows it’s not.

We wouldn’t want it to be.

To reduce a person’s inner experience to a single, up-or-down personal decision robs the sensation of happiness of its fundamental utility: that good things should make us feel good.

How can you know if you have found someone you want to spend your life with if they don’t make you feel happy? Why would you bother to seek more suitable employment, if a lack of happiness did not prompt you to it? Stay with the harpy or the schlub, don’t bother getting retrained- blaming your lack of willpower for the fact that you are not happy is easier and less frightening than making a life change.
 How do you even know when you are having fun if doing it doesn’t bring a feeling that you can identify as happiness? Following your bliss is less a life quest than an absurdist mantra if bliss is something you can turn on like a faucet. “Wickedness never was happiness,” says the scripture. But if a person could simply choose to be happy regardless of their moral state, then who would bother to do all the tediously upright and temporally unrewarding work of being a decent person? What is Damnation but a state of never ending unhappiness? Fear not, evil doers- choose to be happy in the face of your eternal torment!  You’ll get used to the heat.

Happiness motivates. It’s like the flip side of pain. Pain exists to tell us that something is wrong and that we should do something about it, quickly. Happiness exists to tell us when something is right. It is a crucial indicator of whether or not we are who and where we are supposed to be. Now I agree there is a significant element of will involved in being happy.  Two different people in the same basic circumstance can decide to react in completely different ways: when surrounded by darkness, you can curse it, or you can light a candle. 

But no number of candles will turn the night into day.

Everyone knows that a person with chronic pain is not necessarily lacking in some aspect of character. But whether or not a person whose brain can’t get the Happy thing going is morally deficient seems to still be in question.  That question is raised every time one of my friends shares what they think is a simple inspirational Facebook post proclaiming that “Happiness is a Choice.”
If happiness is strictly a matter of choice, it is my own fault if I am not happy- I am personally deficient for my lack of happy sensations. Whenever I sit down with a friend and list the things I am doing in an effort to be happy, they agree that I am making the right choices.

But unless they have experienced mental illness themselves, they just can’t wrap their heads around the lie that they are telling me. They chide me for my defensiveness, or chivvy me to “talk with my doctor” (as if I haven’t already). Some go so far as to insist that I can “just pull myself out of it!” (Thank God I already talked to my doctor, who is at least better informed than that.)

Rather than stick around for more Pollyanna pistol-whipping, I usually withdraw from my unwitting antagonist. My social circle keeps shrinking, which is counterproductive when trying to deal with a mental illness, but better than seeking support from people who are not equipped to give it.
From time to time I find people in my situation who are able to frame their friends’ behavior as ignorance rather than deception or douchebaggery. I admire their fortitude.

But it sometimes happens that their Happy friends decide to end their relationship, frustrated with this person who is willfully, obstinately Not Happy- and in spite of all the Happy person’s good advice! Ironically, this leaves the Happy person in a perilous position. Around a quarter of the population will experience mental illness at some point in their lives. So a person who has it all together today and thinks it is because they are just that skilled at choosing happiness is in for a rude awakening if they experience an episode of mental illness.

The facile employment of the “Happiness is a Choice” meme perverts happiness into a virtual cudgel, a tool to blame the victim. Those who find themselves sane and happy can isolate themselves from those who aren’t, reassuring themselves that their pleasant mental state is the result of their own virtue, and that those in misery deserve it. It is a psychological burqa: If only you would cover yourself, you would not be assaulted: If only you would choose to be happy, you would not be miserable. It allows the voluntarily veiled to blind themselves to the reality of the involuntarily vulnerable.

At least, until the vicissitudes of life catch up to them.

“Happiness is a Choice” reduces a complicated interaction of Brain, Body, Spirit, and Will to a light switch. Happiness is a pipe organ, not a plastic whistle. It’s not just on or off. If you mean “Life ain’t perfect, but I am counting my blessings,” then say so. It doesn’t take that much longer to type out. If you mean “I feel fantastic today and I want to take some credit for that,” then go for it. If you want to share it with a pretty picture, you’ll have to add your own, but that’s not so difficult.  And if you mean “I’m sick of listening to you whine! I don’t have those problems, so they can’t be real- shut it already!”- well, then, at least we would all be dealing straight with one another.

I know you want a tidy, happy ending to this story. I do, too. I’m trying a new treatment now, and it’s helping, sometimes. When it is working, if someone throws a little “happiness is a choice” nonsense my way, I can drop and roll and let it pass me by. But I choose not to.  Not allowing people to tell childish, pretty little lies is the best choice I can make to spread a little happiness. Or at least, a little understanding.


  1. I'm pretty sure that "Happiness is a Choice" only counts if the person doesn't need to work on gratitude and doesn't have a mental illness. Which you probably already knew. So I guess this is more of an "I agree."

  2. Great post! I can relate to it entirely. When I get the "Happiness is a Choice" mantra going in my head, I end up more depressed because I think I "should" be able to pull myself out of the well of depression; I end up thinking that I'm weak. It just isn't that simple. If it were, no one would be depressed--who would choose it?