For most of my life, I’ve never really felt happiness.
That’s not to say I’ve never been happy. I’ve had moments, days, weeks, months, and years where I’ve consistently felt happy.
A feeling can be fleeting, and to me, the feeling of being happy always seemed like a rapidly fleeting emotion. At best, it was a break from regular programming. I trusted it like I trusted a commercial trying to sell me something.
A few years ago, I started getting treatment for this. I went to a doctor to ask about medicine. I entered therapy. I went to a medicine-pushing psychiatrist who tried to convince me I was bipolar after diagnosing me within five minutes, even though none of my responses to her follow-up questions actually confirmed I was bipolar.
What that moment did was send me on a wild goose chase trying to see what I did have. The anti-depressant medicines didn’t work. At best, I felt numb, like nothing mattered. At worst, I felt like I wasn’t really myself, or couldn’t be myself. I kept pursuing answers to what condition I actually had, since other doctors had later confirmed it wasn’t bipolar. Each condition was met with a different mix of medicine. After awhile, I stopped believing in the doctors of the mental health community, seeing their solutions only as people pushing pills for a miracle answer to issues in the brain that they didn’t fully understand.
About two years after my search began, I found the root of my happiness.
The thing I’ve come to learn about happiness is that it doesn’t exist.
There’s no one emotion that dominates any of our lives. I believe there are, however, emotions that we focus on more than others.
I was bullied from a young age. In elementary school I had my permanent front tooth knocked out, and my knee sprained from classmates using a football game to tackle me on the playground. I grew to be bigger than everyone, but that only prevented physical bullying. The emotional bullying is much worse, tearing at the fabric of you.
When you spend most of your first 18 years in emotional pain, it’s hard to break the habit. It took me almost 18 more years to realize the damage.
The biggest damage? I was walking on eggshells.
I was essentially dead.
My personality was crowd-pleasing, always trying to say the right thing to get people to like me, and trying to avoid anything that could make me a target. It didn’t matter that I had learned the ability to cut someone down like I was wielding a samurai sword. It never mattered how good my life got, or how many people liked me. I was always afraid to be myself, and thus, didn’t exist.
I was watching a documentary recently about Kurt Cobain. In the early days of Nirvana, Cobain struggled and didn’t want to continue the band. He said that when he looked out at the crowd that came to see his shows, all he saw were the people who beat him up in high school.
I can relate to that. I dreamed of being a sports writer, and when I finally made it, with millions of page views and thousands of regular readers, all I could do was focus on the small portion who would follow me around with negativity. I couldn’t be happy about making it with my dream because I was just back in grade school again.
Kurt Cobain eventually killed himself, largely due to the pressure of performing in Nirvana. I got help when I started envisioning the same fate for myself.
To this day, I don’t think I’ll live a long life. My idols — the people whose words and takes on life that I identified with — pretty much all killed themselves early or overdosed on drugs at a young age. Some days it’s just too overwhelming to continue. Even now, I know what I’m capable of in life, but I don’t want to do it somedays.
I know I can be a great sportswriter.
I know that if I really wanted, I could go get a doctorate in psychology and work to change from within what I think is broken in this system.
I know that I could write a novel that captures the essence of mental health issues, in a way that the medical community doesn’t understand.
I know that I plan to do all of these things in life.
I know that even with that drive, there are still some days where I can’t do it, even thought I have to.
That’s a huge problem in today’s Capitalist hellscape. There’s a reason suicide rates continue to rise in America every year, despite increased availability of medication, decreased stigmas against getting help, and more affordable healthcare options. None of those solve a system where you can’t take a break, and where you need to work your ass off constantly just to survive.
Just look at the pandemic we’re in. Two years and we’ve yet to do a serious two-week lockdown to end everything. Why? Because our economy would collapse. The CDC, our independent health organization, is now even saying that you can go to work sick. We’re getting back to the way things used to be, where you could never take a break from work, and you were stigmatized for taking your paid days. Economy is always prioritized over health.
I was fortunate. I worked for myself, which allowed me to scale back my work for almost two years, focusing on my mental health. My thought was to invest time in my body and my mind in my mid-30s, leading to a long and much more successful life doing the things I loved doing, like writing about baseball.
Capitalism kills, but it’s not the only issue with mental health.
In my scaled back time, I went through a lot of therapy, plus self-reflection and deep dives into every moment of my photographic memory of my life. I realized what being bullied in some form over 12 years of grade school did to me. I had a disproportionate experience of sad moments versus happy moments. When a happy moment came along, I didn’t feel happiness because I knew it was fleeting. The sadness would win out in the end.
That can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It can lead to times when you’re mostly happy for a moment, day, week, month, or year but you’re always focused on the sad moments as the norm. It can lead to the habit of elevating the sad moments as the real, while dismissing the happy moments as an anomaly.
Positive thinking is a great step to positive mental health, and it’s been helpful. But there was one missing piece.
I didn’t love myself. I had so many examples in my life of people blatantly not loving me, and if I’m honest, I’ve yet to have a single relationship in my life where I’ve felt unconditional love that’s not always threatened to be taken away if I do the wrong thing.
Thus, a life walking on eggshells.
I don’t know when it happened, but it was at some point around 2019. I was over 300 pounds, with extreme migraines daily, and my life was falling apart. I was ready to give up, and figured my body was already on the way to an early exit. That’s when I made the most important change in my life: I stopped apologizing for being myself.
I started being a raw, unapologetic version of myself. I stopped trying to say and do things to impress people or win them over, and instead just said and did what I felt was right and true. I wasn’t afraid to make a mistake, but I wasn’t going to apologize for any of them.
I can’t say it was an easy change. When you are used to walking on eggshells your entire life, people get used to that being your actual self. When you emerge with new found confidence, and you no longer let people walk all over you, there’s pushback.
I lost some readers, deciding that I would say any fucking thing I wanted, and not yielding to the pushback that I had to abide by the rules of society on what is appropriate language. I’ll die on the hill that language should be open, and there are no words that shouldn’t be said. As someone who was shut up for most of his life, sometimes the only way you know how to talk is in a way that’s not acceptable to the gatekeepers trying to establish the norms.
There were close relationships that I had that dissipated, all because I changed who I was, and didn’t serve the needs of those people anymore as a quiet yes-man. Toxic people were since removed from my life, though not before they gaslit me for months about being a changed person and needing counseling to revert back to who I was — when counseling was what led to the change and confidence.
Once I started being myself, and not caring what others thought, it led to one of the most interesting changes: I started feeling happiness. And I started accepting it as real.
When you’re not doubting yourself in every waking moment, it becomes easier to focus on the happy moments as the norm. When you’re not giving other people the ability to make you feel bad about who you are, then you can avoid the time-wasting task of doubting yourself. I think it’s as simple as figuring out what caused this life-long reaction, and deciding you’re no longer going to react in the same way.
One of the biggest moments of clarity for me came when a former in-law tried to shame me for publicly discussing my mental health journey and issues — which I am not ashamed to do, because I know others have helped me with their story, and I know I can help others with mine. This person scolded me for telling people I had mental health problems, saying that was “not a good business model.”
That’s a microcosm of the issue I faced my whole life, and one that many others face. You’re doing what you think is right in the world, and someone else with a need to control disagrees with you and tries to shame you into doing things their way — threatening some kind of damage or punishment if you continue doing things your way.
In the past, that comment would have set me off. I would have attacked back, deflecting the pain away from someone else trying to bully me into being an acceptable image for the masses, rather than accepting and supporting me as me. I would have tried to make them feel similar pain by whataboutism showing them a way they aren’t doing things right. I would have slammed dunked on that person, telling them how these types of comments probably fucked up a lot of people around them looking for support. That wouldn’t have ended well, even if it might have been true. Instead, I told this person to invest in herself and her constant growth and adaptability, and to stop worrying what others think.
I think that’s the only way to truly experience happiness.
Trust yourself. Grow. Adapt. It’s your life. It’s your journey. Living it for someone else, or making decisions to gain approval from others will only lead to negative mental health.
Positive mental health comes from discovering and accepting your Self, and working your life to continue growing that Self, ideally in a way that can help others grow around you.
At least, that’s my takeaway as someone who hit rock bottom and bounced back out of the entire pit no longer feeling like Kurt Cobain.
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