Sunday, April 17, 2011

Daily Story 32 - Happiness is a Difficult Choice

(Doing something a bit different today. This is in response to this video by Shay Carl, because while I understand completely where Shay's coming from, I feel like he needs to hear this, along with a lot of people in the world. So Shay, if you read this, I hope it helps you understand why so many people got pissed off at your last video. I'm not mad at you (well, maybe just a little :P), I just want you to see where we're coming from. Anyway, on with the show.)

Don't let it get you down. It's up to you to make your life as good as you can make it. You're the one who determines your own happiness. Don't let others influence your decisions.

I was in elementary school when I first started hearing this kind of advice. At that point in my life, I had no idea that I had an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a generalized anxiety disorder, and the adults in my life didn't know about it, either. In fact, I was only diagnosed with ADHD when I was in sixth or seventh grade, and I wasn't diagnosed with anxiety until my sophomore year in college, which is strange, because looking back on my life, it was painfully obvious to see the signs. I was quiet in class. I cried a lot. I didn't ever speak up for myself, even though there were some days that I just wanted to scream at my classmates until I lost my voice.

See, here's the gist of what happened in my childhood. I grew up in a small town and had about 23 other kids in my grade. A few of them were growing up in difficult family situations, and like a lot of kids do, they took their frustration and misery at their home life out on their classmates. For the most part, that meant me, the girl who preferred ska and Star Wars over anything the popular kids liked, the girl who still liked to bring stuffed animals into class, the girl who cried about everything instead of fighting back.

But here's the thing: I wasn't stupid. I was told from the beginning, when the bullying had only been occurring for a little while, that it wasn't my fault. I got the whole "it's them, not you" speech and I got the "if you ignore them, they'll leave you alone eventually" speech. And, of course, I thought that ignoring them would be easier than trying to stand up for myself, so that's what I did. I tried to ignore it, and after a while I got relatively good at it. The only problem was they still made me cry.

This is where things get complicated. I knew that the biggest of the bullies (we'll call him 'Taco' for now, though I'm pretty sure anyone who knew me growing up will know who he is right away) wasn't acting like a jerk just because he was an incurable douchebag (or, since I was incapable of saying cuss words until sometime in middle school, a big meanie-face). Hell, Taco had proved to me on several occasions that he could be really nice and considerate of my feelings. I can think of at least two times where he and I talked about how we were sad or frustrated with our lives, and there was one point in middle school where he invited me to be in his group for a class project, which meant a lot to me because I was terrible at asking to be in a group. And later on, when there was a death in his family, I honestly felt bad for him, even though most of the time I hated the way he treated me. So I knew that he was just acting like a jerk because he was struggling with his own life. I also knew that I was supposed to ignore it, not let it show that what he did bothered me, and not let his actions get to me, because he was just doing what most kids would do in his situation. So, what did I do? I stopped talking and tried to make myself learn not to cry so damn much. Because seriously, I cried about damn near everything. I never changed who I was, I never stopped liking the Aquabats or playing elaborate games with my stuffed animals, but I knew I would get teased about it if I mentioned it so I stopped talking. I stopped trying to interact with my classmates. I just withdrew into myself and fantasized about telling them off or proving that I was better than them. But they still made me cry.

So what was going on there? If I knew that I was supposed to just brush it off and not let it affect me, why was I crying and escaping to the school psychiatrist's office on an almost daily basis? Why was I still miserable even though I was trying my best to be happy?

I thought about this every time I heard someone saying that "you shouldn't let other people get you down." After all, I was doing my best to keep them from getting me down, but they were still succeeding. Was I just not doing a good enough job of it? Was there something wrong with me? Was I just a pathetic loser who couldn't deal with the real world? If ignoring bullies was the best way to make them stop, why were they still dumping on me? Why couldn't I do a better job of ignoring them? Everyone kept saying it wasn't a big deal, so why did it feel like such a big deal to me? Why couldn't I be happy?

Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their life. For someone to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, however, the anxiety has to be so extreme, so irrational, so crippling that it literally makes it impossible for you to live a normal life. To give an example, I just finished a year abroad in Germany. I lived in a dorm where sixteen people shared the same kitchen, and for most of that year I starved myself because the idea of being in the kitchen and having to face my dormmates while I cooked my food was horrendously terrifying to me. Now, you might wonder, how the hell is that kind of thing terrifying? That's not scary at all. Well, that's why I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

See, I'm not very good at small talk, and while I was in Germany, I had the added difficulty of having to do small talk in German. And when you share a kitchen with fifteen other people, odds are you'll be cooking a meal at the same time as someone else. This means you're in for a very awkward 10-20 minutes of silence unless you make some small talk while you wait for your food to cook. Now, when you're not very good at small talk to begin with, and you can't understand what the other person is saying or respond without sounding like a moron, you get to the point where you'd rather not have to participate in it at all. So, for me, going into the kitchen meant either spending the entire time trying to act like I was too busy cooking to talk (which is damn near impossible when you're just boiling water) or struggling through a few minutes of painfully awkward conversation. I didn't like that feeling, so I chose to avoid it altogether by only using the kitchen when it was empty. In other words, waiting until two in the morning to make myself some dinner, or surviving on candy and sandwiches bought from the store across the street.

Now, before you say anything, let me point out that I knew that I was being irrational. It's much smarter to suck it up and deal with some awkwardness than to starve yourself, so why was I choosing the latter? Well, that's the thing. I know that the former would have been the better solution, but I couldn't force myself to do it. To me, it wasn't worth that horrible feeling of dread in my stomach that came every time I thought about what could happen if I went into that kitchen. Not what would probably happen, but what could happen. See, my imagination likes to run off without me and come up with the most horrible scenarios that I can't get out of my head no matter how hard I try, and for whatever reason, these scenarios hold more power over my mind than plain and simple logic. I know that logic should be the winning power in this case, but when I'm standing at that kitchen door, sheer logic is nowhere near powerful enough to make me go through it. It's stupid. It's frustrating. It's confusing. But it's what happens, and it's incredibly difficult to change that.

Of course, that's not to say I haven't tried. In fact, I've been trying to overcome my anxiety for several years now, though before I was diagnosed with anxiety I thought of it as trying to overcome my shyness and become more outgoing. And the good news is, I've been succeeding. If I take where I am now and compare it to where I was in middle school, I can see how many things that used to take a lot of courage for me as a teenager are now things that I do without a second thought. For instance, I remember wearing one of my sister's t-shirts to school one day. The shirt had a picture of a monkey in a ninja outfit and the caption "ninja monkeys are meeting as we speak, plotting my demise" written on it, and when I wore it to school, I wore a zip-up sweatshirt over it and had to work up the nerve to unzip it and show it off to my friends (I couldn't even dream of showing my classmates). Nowadays, half my shirts use that same kind of humor and I don't even think about how other people might react to them (except for the one with the duck and the martini glass, that's one I'll never wear to work, but that's because I work with 2nd graders and the teachers probably wouldn't appreciate it). Not only that, but I don't have to spend twenty minutes working up the courage to speak up in class, or to ask a friend or acquaintance how their day was. I haven't started crying in class just because of something a classmate said to me. I've improved so much over the past eight years, but I still have a hell of a long way to go.

Having an anxiety disorder isn't a choice. It's not even close to being a choice. After all, what reason would I have to keep doing this to myself? It's obvious that I missed out on a lot by letting anxiety rule my life the way it has.

Except I've never 'let' it rule my life. Saying I 'let' it rule my life implies that I'm just not trying hard enough to overcome it, and that's where I get pissed off. I know that it doesn't make sense to be so anxious about the stupidest of things. I'm painfully aware of that, because people have been telling me it's stupid for years. Trust me, I can tell when I'm being irrational. And yet, it still happens, whether I want it to or not. Does that mean I'm just not trying hard enough? I don't think so. I've pushed myself to the limit trying to make myself be brave. The trouble is, for me, and many other people who have been diagnosed with a disorder, trying your hardest just isn't enough. And that's not our fault. We're fighting an uphill battle here. Our minds have faulty wiring that makes doing completely normal things ridiculously difficult. Think of it as being born without any thumbs. You can see that other people can do all these things with their thumbs and you know exactly how to do it yourself, but you're still stuck having to do things the hard way because your thumbs are missing. But nobody is going to look at you and say, "Stop letting your lack of thumbs keep you from holding things normally. You're just not trying hard enough," because it's pretty fucking obvious that you can't hold a pencil right if you don't have any goddamn thumbs.

Of course, while you can't increase the digits on your fingers, you can always increase your ability to overcome anxiety through logic, so one might argue that it's unfair to compare a physical disability with a mental disability. So, let me offer this alternative: telling a two-year-old to start speaking in complete sentences is not going to accomplish anything, and most people would see anyone who tells this to a two-year-old as a complete moron. The two-year-old is more than capable of learning how to speak in complete sentences, but it's going to take a few years for them to master that skill, and no reasonable person is going to condemn them for it.

Now, let me finish by saying I don't think it's right to go around being a pessimist just because you have a disorder. I think that "happiness is a choice" is a perfectly reasonable statement, but for someone like me, it's nowhere near as simple as it sounds. Yes, I have chosen to start therapy, take Adderall, and force myself to face difficult situations in order to overcome my anxiety, but it wasn't an easy choice. It took several years, a shitty roommate, and a course in basic psychology for me to look into the possibility of having an anxiety disorder, and it's taken a lot of therapy and self-exploration to get to the point where I can feel comfortable with who I am and not feel like I'm at fault for not being able to handle a situation the way most people would without so much as a second thought. I choose to work towards happiness, but no matter how much work I put into it, I can't always stop those feelings of intense fear and self-hate from overwhelming me at the most inopportune moments.

"A person will be just about as happy as they make up their minds to be," but the fact is, sometimes our minds don't do what we want them to, and to say we're not trying hard enough to be happy is to say we've failed as human beings, whether that's your intention or not. And let me tell you, after a certain point, when you're constantly being told that your misery and pain is something you're doing to yourself, even though you're trying your best to make yourself happy, you can't hear the words 'happiness is a choice' without wanting to punch whoever says them in the face. Happiness is a choice, but for people like me, it's one of the most difficult choices in the world.

(Edit: I think this comic sums it up perfectly: )

1 comment:

  1. Reading your detailed explanation of both your background and your work at overcoming a disability, I think you've left "incoherent ramblings" far behind - at least in writing :)

    "I've improved so much over the past eight years, but I still have a hell of a long way to go."

    I strongly expect that 8 yrs from now you'll look back and assess having made considerably more improvement.

    "I choose to work towards happiness, but no matter how much work I put into it, I can't always stop those feelings of intense fear and self-hate from overwhelming me at the most inopportune moments."

    You have a very realistic way of viewing life - a continuous challenge for all of us, just in different ways and to differing degrees. I am certain that, even the most self-assured person has occasions (maybe rare) when doubt and possibly even fear or self-dislike creeps into hir consciousness. For the rest of us with lesser amounts of self-assurance, the frequency and degree is greater. Maybe periodically reminding ourselves of what we've achieved is one way to lessen the fear & self-dislike, and gradually build on the self-assurance.

    I also agree with you that simply because a person "chooses happiness" does not mean that it will be easy; it's rarely so. However, it is an individual happiness journey with some of the paths more steep than others up that hill. And, keeping with the metaphor, I do not see everyone traveling up the same hill with the same paths (we *are* individuals). But maximizing one's lifetime Happiness is the purpose of the trip, life itself - whether or not each person realizes this to be the case.

    Thanks, Diana, for writing this.