“Everyone wanted me to feed them that story—darkness to light, weakness to strength, broken to whole. I wanted it, too.” – John Green, Turtles All The Way Down
Some people count calories, or brushstrokes, or steps; I count good and bad things that have happened to me. Throughout my life I have always tried to find patterns of good and bad things that have happened in my life.
This very well could be why I’ve never mastered the art of being happy. I think the first chapter in The Definitive Guide to Happiness says to not keep track of your luck.
While I can be fairly optimistic, I’m far from an optimist. And I’m certainly not one of those jovial fellows you see who always has a smile on his face. But I do take pride in having been able to smile during my darkest days.
And I mean that both literally and figuratively. During my darkest days I was very ill and bedridden in a completely dark room, but thanks to my family, and some exceptional friends, I was able to occasionally crack a smile. Although I’m not sure anyone saw it because it was so dark in the room.
Now I find myself in a similarly peculiar, albeit less miserable, situation. After a brief string of weeks getting around the house in my wheelchair, I’m now back to being bedridden. I can still tolerate some light — I usually open my drapes an hour before sunset. On good days, I can speak a few words, and on most days, I am still able to chew my meals. These are all things that, despite being stunted, bring me some happiness. That is to say that not being able to do them, as has been the case in the past, would make me even more unhappy than I am at the moment.
There’s definitely a glass half full/empty conundrum that I face every day — I am grateful for what I can do, but regardless of how hard I try to will myself to be happy, there’s no getting past my unhappiness.
The other day I was looking at recent photos taken of me and I couldn’t believe how sad I looked, even when trying my hardest to look happy, or somewhat cheerful. After looking at the photos I even took a couple selfies and tried to look as happy as I could. It was pretty much impossible. No matter how hard I tried there seemed to be a tint of sadness covering my face. Perhaps it’s partly my skewed interpretation — after all, I am admittedly sad and unhappy. So maybe, because I feel sad and unhappy, that’s how I see myself in the pictures. But I doubt that after everything I’ve been through, my face and demeanor is entirely void of the emotional blemishes stamped on my psyche.
I know it’s winter — people get depressed this time of year — but I know that my unhappiness transcends the seasonal pattern of depression. In fact, I love the winter months. And while I’ll admit it’s depressing to see all my friends and family through the looking glass of social media — going on winter adventures, buying Christmas trees, and shopping for gifts — it’s also nice to live vicariously through them.
One of the most frustrating parts about my current situation, however, is that I feel a weird sort of guilt about not being more grateful for the things I have. There are wonderful people in my life who make me happy. And I’ve managed to accomplish some amazing things this year that I’m very proud of, like writing for the LA Times and Washington Post. But because I am known for being a sick person who writes about being sick, there is an inevitable tinge of melancholy that comes with any sense of accomplishment I get these days. I would prefer to be known for accomplishing things as a healthy person. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I wrote about something meaningful, opposed to, say, the portable toilet ads I used to write. But my point is: While I certainly don’t expect myself to be fully content with my circumstances, I often wish I could be. I feel like I should have this overwhelming gratefulness just to be alive that, at the very least, supersedes all of my unpleasant feelings. And while I certainly am grateful to be alive, I’m also angry and sad that my life has been reduced to gingerly shuffling around a mattress all day.
Okay, you get the picture, I’m sure, but finding happiness in unhappy times is not essential, nor is it impossible. Sometimes, maybe even most times, depending on the circumstances, you just have to surrender to unhappiness and acknowledge the little moments of joy that get you through each day. It’s far unhealthier, in my opinion, to force or fake happiness during unhappy times than to just give in to your natural feelings of unhappiness. As I said, the last person I want to be is the guy who always has a smile on his face. That’s the guy whose neighbors suddenly disappear and then the police find bodies in his basement.
As I tell myself little bits of conventional wisdom each day, I also know that as long as I’m sick I will never be able to shake the feeling that I am unhappy and therefore ungrateful. I know it’s irrational and silly to think so, but it’s just how I feel. It’s hard to be inwardly grateful when I’m unhappy, and it’s even harder to be outwardly appreciative.
I have my needs met everyday. I never have to go without a caregiver or worry about how I’m going to get food. Yet some days I find it incredibly difficult to show my appreciation. Some days showing my gratitude for the people who support me can feel like an insurmountable task, almost as much as faking happiness. Sometimes the struggle to achieve these things feels like the same thing, the difference is I am always appreciative but rarely happy.
And perhaps that is part of the reason I feel so guilty and ungrateful — I have wonderful, selfless people taking exceptional care of me, but I often can’t even manage to smile at them. I know they understand, but still, I wish I could be happy around them all the time. For their sake and mine.
This reminds me of a dream I had when I was at my sickest point. It was a sunny day and light was streaming through the house as I got out of bed and walked around for the first time in years. There was a small group of friends and family watching from afar, each person flush with tears of joy.
The entire time I’ve been sick I’ve wanted to be that person — the person who brings tears of joy to dry eyes, the person who makes people believe in happy endings and the body’s astonishing ability to heal itself. I wanted to be that person so bad, perhaps even more than I wanted to merely do things that healthy people do. And to a certain extent I have become that person, or rather, I was that person and now I’m having a bit of an identity crisis. What happens when you are known for battling illness, then stop recovering?
I was everyone’s favorite recovery story, the Phoenix rising from the ashes, whatever you want to call me. I recovered to the point of getting out of bed in my wheelchair and standing up on my own. But now that’s a narrative I can only write in the past tense. Maybe I will write an even better narrative one day. Perhaps, after the current dip in my health has run its course, I will recover even more and walk on my own again. But for now, I’m back to just trying to stay afloat.
Like all happy endings, I know an inspiring recovery is not sustainable — there is always an ebb and flow — and that makes me sad because I want a recovery in which I keep getting better and know there’s a guarantee that I will keep inspiring people and bringing tears of joy to their eyes. But that’s not how recoveries work. Happy endings aren’t sustainable, no ending is because, well, it’s the end. I don’t know when my end will come, but this isn’t it, so I must keep moving forward.
Nonetheless it feels like the only way I can keep moving forward is either by trying to relish in short bursts of happiness — a friend visiting, a new book to read — or by just going numb to the world around me. The latter is easier because short bursts of happiness only serve to dull the unhappiness I feel in the moment and temporarily thwart off my long term despair. It’s much easier to just go numb, but as someone who lives to feel things, I can’t last long like that.
Given all that, my plan is to keep moving forward and hope I find more short bursts of happiness, strings of good things come my way, and the bad things stay away.
A few things before you go:
1. Thank you for reading! This is my first post in about a month. I’m glad you’ve stuck around.
2. I am fundraising to pay my medical bills so if you’d like to help out by buying a shirt or hoodie I would be very grateful!
3. If you would like to donate to support this blog I would be equally grateful!