When Happy Hurts: Learning To Let Myself Feel Joy After Depression
My body fell to the bottom of the cold pool as I exhaled the last bit of air from my lungs. With it, I released all of the remaining tension and stress from days prior. I had just let go of my life in the States in exchange for new adventures in Costa Rica. This was day one.
My eyes blinked open underneath the water and I watched my hair dance around my face in weightless grace. The sunlight reached it's rays like arms of embrace, welcoming me back to life. When my lungs beckoned for air, I pressed my feet firmly to the smooth floor and propelled myself back up to breach the boundary where water meets fresh mountain air. I inhaled deeply and with purpose. I surveyed the Central American landscape in front of me; Rolling green hills and ominous mountain tops peeking out from thick clusters of clouds. It was majestic and awe-inspiring. I smiled with gratitude. This is what happy feels like, I thought to myself.
But as quickly as the elation surged through my bones, an overwhelming sense of dread
swooped in to take its place. There was an invisible thief, lurking underneath the surface of my thoughts, waiting for euphoria to hit before plunging in to take it away. I felt an uneasiness in the pit of my stomach. I looked out at the vast mountain terrain feeling so small, and so undeserving of such beauty and enchantment. A switch had flipped within. The moment joy started to resurface within my withered soul, the thief was ready and waiting to make his move. It wanted to convince me that this happiness was undeserved, and soon would be lost.
A couple of weeks later, my husband and I made our way out to "Minas Del Aguacate" (it translates to "Avocado Mines") which was actually a large, natural water park nestled near an old, abandoned mine in the Alajuela Province. There were deep, dark caves, cascading waterfalls and clear, blue swimming holes for us to explore. We hiked a bit up the trail before taking a dip in the frigid mountain water. This particular pool was surrounded by chiseled rock and would catch the bottom of a small waterfall that also doubled as a slide. It took a lot of hyping, but I found myself facing my fears, jumping off the rocky cliffs and sliding down the waterfall within a short time.
The height was intimidating, but something inside kept urging me to take the risk and jump off the cliff. I checked the target area to make sure it was deep enough, and had watched several locals dive head first in the same body of water minutes prior, so I knew it was safe. I just had to face my fears as I had a few weeks prior, when I sold everything and boarded a plane to a foreign country with no idea what would happen. I'd made a practice of leaping into the unknown, and the reward was more than worth it. I was learning to live again. To appreciate every moment. To feel the vibrancy of life that depression likes to feed on. Life was finally full of color and ebullience and warm, healing light. I no longer felt as though I was simply surviving, wondering if anything could feel real or whole again. I was real, I was whole, I was living.
Every time my body hit the water I felt a sort of cleansing deep within, floating for a moment before thrusting myself back up for air. Costa Rica was giving me exactly what I was looking for. Every new day, every adventure, every new experience was waking my soul and giving me the priceless gift of genuine peace and happiness. But I didn't realize that, just like leaping into the unknown, happiness is also a practice. A practice that, if not exercised, can feel so foreign, making a despondent soul feel immensely uneasy.
As I positioned my body like a loose piece of paper atop the water's surface, allowing my limbs and organs to float with the ripples beneath, the peace that had washed over me became clouded by that familiar sinking feeling. The thief was back again, threatening to hold my happiness hostage.
Happiness wasn't in the cards for me. I didn't do anything to deserve such overwhelming joy. I had merely gotten lucky, and my luck would soon run out. I couldn't possibly embrace this moment because this moment was quickly fleeting. What was I doing here? Why did this moment hurt so much? Why couldn't I just be happy? Anxiety found me, once again.
The voices of my past would want me to think it is because I really don't deserve it. The remnants of my fundamentalist upbringing make me feel unworthy, undeserving, and ignoble. The teachings I was raised on would lead me to believe that happiness cannot be derived from anything but doing as I was told. The people from my past, who want so badly to see me fail so that I may come crawling back to them for guidance, would say that this will not last. That my happiness is temporary. That I should feel shame and guilt for moving on with my life. For loving for myself. For working so hard to care for and nourish myself. So much anxiety from an overcrowding of useless voices in my head.
I think almost every person on the planet has these types of voices inside, even if not put there by religious ideals. We all have people in our lives that want to see us living a different way, making different choices. People who want to control how we think, how we act and how we live. It might be a friend, or a parent, or spouse, or just society in general. We all have a little voice (or voices) inside that tell us we're doing it wrong. Some people can easily drown those voices out, not giving them any weight. Others might not find such a task so easy. Some of us spend years living our lives for these voices. We snuff out our own so that the others can be heard through us. We conform ourselves to fit a mold so we can make the ones who surround us feel happier and more comfortable, but we forget how to make ourselves happy in the process. Eventually we shell ourselves off from the world, because we've abandoned who we are to conform to the commandments of others, leading to an exceptionally unfulfilled life. We become depressed and anxious. We learn to live in this hazy state of melancholy as it becomes what's most familiar and comfortable.
Then one day, something wakes us up. Our bodies hit the bottom of a cold pool and we're shocked back to life. We experience elation and euphoria and joy and we find it so intensely overwhelming that our physical bodies start to shut down in an attempt to reject it. This feeling is so alien that we find a way to turn it into an enemy. Or rather, anxiety does. We haven't practiced happiness. We don't know how to handle the newness of bliss. We think it can only last so long before the thief swoops in to take it all away. We feel undeserving. We feel stupid. We feel like anything could fuck it all up at any moment. Instead of clinging to the moment, we want to run from it. But that's the last thing we should be doing.
Yes, happiness is fleeting. Life is not, and never will be, a constant flow of serotonin. You will experience moments of grief, sadness and devastation. You will experience suffering, and life's good moments will inevitably fade into bad ones. It is a fact of life we cannot change no matter how hard we try. And I've learned that avoiding such suffering can lead to an even more unfulfilling life as running head first into it. I've found the only way to make it through these rollercoaster moments in life is to find my inner peace. To nourish my soul. To say kind things to myself. To break away from the norm, of what I'm "supposed" to do, and find my own way. To drown out the voices of my parents, of society, of people who wanted to see me do everything differently, and continue amplifying the inner voice inside that holds so much power if I just give it a platform to speak up. As I open myself up to life, and adventure, and suffering, and happiness, and everything else that comes along with this crazy existence, as I disregard the arbitrary rules and judgements of others, as I stay focused on my journey and keep my eyes on the path ahead regardless of what anyone else thinks or says, I find my path to inner peace. I learn to practice feeling happiness. I learn to let myself find joy in the unexpected, which becomes easier to do with every nugget of bliss that I pick up along the way.
Happiness is not a thing to be earned. Every single person on this planet deserves to feel happy without guilt or shame or the fear of losing it. When your soul finds its peace, happiness comes easily. The more you allow yourself to feel that happiness, the easier it will be to accept it. Love yourself. Nourish your soul. Go where your heart can feel happy. And when you get there, remind yourself that you deserve every bit of it.
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