Part I of a series of essays on the topic of happiness.
One Sunday morning, I sat in the adult study class at my Buddhist temple while my 4 year old and 7 year old children attended dharma school. My 2 year old was strapped onto my back thanks to a trusty and life-saving Ergo baby carrier. This was the only way I could attend the adult study. Toddlerzilla had to be locked up. Of course he squirmed and whined, and when he felt particularly naughty he shifted his weight to one side to annoy me, and kicked his legs against my body. His strategy was to wear me down, but my perseverance was stronger than his. My calloused feet had walked through hell and my pain threshold was high. I had that going for me.
I could manage to keep Toddlerzilla quiet a little longer with food, so we waited in line by the kitchen for doughnuts, cookies, coffee cake, and the usual Sunday church spread. I collected a small stockpile of bribery food and then found us seats near the exit for a quick escape, should it be necessary. While he ate and tried to steal my coffee, I read the essay we were studying that day as fast as I could, while also trying to listen to the reverend’s commentary and simultaneously holding my breath that Toddlerzilla wouldn’t be loud and disruptive, or maybe throw his punch onto the person in front of us. It’s always one part juggling, one part lion tamer, and one part clown in the circus of motherhood.
Like all things in life, sometimes you have to put up with the stress to be able to experience the things you enjoy. This was my favorite part of Sunday: reading poignant words about life and somehow always finding it resonate with my experiences. Consequently, I ignored the beads of sweat pooling on my brows as I wrangled Toddlerzilla. He grabbed for my pen, holding me hostage with threats of crying. I worried that I’d have to do the walk of shame out the door if it got bad. I gave him my pen, and he happily drew on his arms and legs, which was by far preferred to noise. The more scribbling the better. In fact, here’s a highlighter too while you’re at it. (It’s non-toxic, right?)
On this particular day we somehow lasted until the discussion portion, which occurs after everyone reads the essay together (the cookies must have been really good). The reverend spoke about happiness. He asked if anyone wanted to share their thoughts.
The room inevitably became quiet, and you could almost hear the gears churning in people’s heads as everyone waited for a brave volunteer to step forward.
I felt the urge to raise my hand. I had so much to share about trying to be happy despite the pile of crap I was buried under, but I held back. I ignored the tug inside of me to connect to the other people in that room, even though I wanted to tell them what I had been doing to survive.
More silence. I hesitated, teetering on the edge of my chair.
No. I probably wasn’t happy enough to even consider sharing. I slunk back into my chair and shushed myself. I mean, really. What did I know about happiness?
I was a 34 year old widow with three young children.
People would probably roll their eyes at me, the woman with Toddlerzilla and cookie crumbs and spilled coffee on her pants. I would sound childish trying to pass myself off as an expert. People would stare at me with pity, and their embarrassment for me would hang thick in the air, making me feel so ridiculous that I would stumble over my words and really master the role of the village idiot.
I diverted my eyes and decided to stay quiet, tucking the essay into my bag and probably left a trail of crumbs behind me as we left to go get my other children.
I’ve always suffered from imposter syndrome and not-good-enough syndrome. For example, as I write this, I am not entirely convinced that I’m a writer. I feel more like a person practicing her writing, kind of like how a child practices writing the alphabet for the first time. Perhaps it stems from being a female, and therefore subject to impossible societal standards of beauty. As a woman, since girlhood, I’ve never felt pretty enough. I’ve always disliked my body. My torso is too short. I could never wear a crop top. My stomach was never flat enough. The number on the scale will never be low enough. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time standing in front of a mirror, examining myself from different angles. I’ve experienced being at my thinnest and still seeing a reflection in the mirror that wasn’t good enough. My hair isn’t straight enough and damn it, my sister got the green eyes. I got the poop-colored eyes. I had to listen to many well-intentioned strangers compliment her gorgeous eyes while my brother and me stood off to the side, feeling practically invisible. To this day my sister will happily romp around in short-shorts while my similarly shaped thighs are the bane of my existence.
I know it is all a mirage in my head. But knowing and changing one’s attitude and behavior are two very different things.
Imposter syndrome bled into every aspect of my self-esteem. I didn’t think I was the worst, but I never felt enough. I wasn’t smart enough. I wasn’t interesting enough. I wasn’t anything enough. I felt average. I was even given an average name that wasn’t even remotely popular in the decade that I was born: Teresa. It was my mom’s middle name. I was so average that my parents couldn’t be bothered to think of anything more inspiring or original. Some may think average is pretty good. At least good enough. But for me, it was like a slow death. There was something more that I needed. I didn’t necessarily know what it was. I just knew this wasn’t enough.
I also never felt “old enough.” It feels silly to admit this, but I’ve always wanted to be older. You may be wondering why anybody in their right might would actually wish to be older. However, I’ve craved independence since practically my entrance into this world. I remember being 7 years old and wanting to move out. Traditionally age is correlated to freedom and wisdom and respect in our society, for no other reason other than time served on this planet. I started teaching at a young age, and for most of my career I’ve been treated like it’s not “my turn” to do anything yet, because I’m not old enough/experienced enough/been around enough. The “adults” always win. Don’t ask why. Because they said so.
When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait until college. When I was in college, I couldn’t wait until my career. I couldn’t wait for marriage and kids. I couldn’t wait to sign my first mortgage. I couldn’t wait until the day my clothing preferences were socially acceptable for my age (think: wanting Ann Taylor clothes as a teenager).
I’m half Palestinian, and in Arab culture you aren’t an adult until you get married. I remember an acquaintance who was 1.5 years older than me. She got married at 19. I watched her suddenly get treated as one of the adults while I was relegated to the kid table. Even once I had a college degree, a teaching career, and was financially independent and living on my own, I was still considered a child because I wasn’t married. I felt the burn of injustice boil in my blood. I tried to logic it all out with family members, but you can’t change cultural norms–at least not overnight.
I eventually married a Japanese-American man, which made me even more of a cultural pariah. My husband didn’t smoke cigarettes in the garage or enjoy playing backgammon with the guys. We didn’t speak Arabic or go to church with them. I never fit in. I was caught between two cultures, and when I chose to not marry an Arab, it felt like I had to take my one foot out of their doorway.
But there I was. Finally married, checking off what I thought was one of the biggest items on a woman’s to-do list. We bought a house, had a child, sold a house, bought another house, and had more children. What I discovered was that none of those milestones made me feel like I was really adulting, nor did it ever make me feel like I was enough. I still felt like the awkward seventeen year old me. It was like she could never escape the confines of my mind. I wondered when I would feel a noticeable difference. I alway assumed there was some kind of proverbial bridge I would get to cross.
And then one day, unexpectedly, my husband died. Our oldest hadn’t even graduated from kindergarten yet and I was still nursing our youngest. You aren’t supposed to be coordinating the cremation of your husband in between pumping breast milk for the baby. It is not natural. It isn’t fair. It felt like an invisible hand was shoving me into a reality I did not choose.
I had a feeling that I had finally crossed the bridge into adulthood, except I skipped the middle parts and jumped right into joining the ranks of all the 80-somethings. I spent time at the mortuary planning his funeral and learned how many death certificates one should buy. This must be adulting! I had experience my parents didn’t even have. I had finally one-upped my elders in adulting.
Except there is no prize for becoming an adult.
That’s when I realized there was no point to any of it. I wondered why I had been in such a hurry to race through life’s milestones. I was desperate to graduate from high school. I finished college in 3 years. I couldn’t waste time dating if marriage wasn’t a destination. When I got married, we decided to have a child immediately, planning it down to the day. Then it was kid #2 and kid #3 and planning for the future kid #4, the one that would never be. I lived my entire life with a sense of urgency, racing toward arbitrary destinations. There was always something else I needed to do. Nothing was good enough, just like I never felt good enough.
It took 34 years to realize that I had been chasing my tail. The barriers and the milestones were all arbitrary illusions in my mind. Society created them. I perpetuated them.
There was something bigger I had overlooked. It was always there, but I didn’t see it, which is strange because it is one of the most cliche things we all hear about.
I neglected my journey. The part of life when we’re actually doing our living. The day-to-day living. The bulk of our lives.
You know how when you get sick and your nose plugs up and you can’t breath? Suddenly you realize what a luxury breathing is, but you took it for granted. When you lose your unobstructed ability to inhale and exhale through your nostrils, you become very appreciative of the simple act of breathing. You had been doing it for 24/7 every day of your life, but only when there is a disruption do you miss it. That’s how I felt about my life. I had disregarded the value of each individual day and had been too focused on what I wanted next, racing toward fake finish lines. Now that the future I had expected and planned for was never going to happen, suddenly my individual days became infinitely valuable to me.
I wanted to give adulting back. I changed my mind. I would rather be young and naive. I would have given anything to go back to the way things were. I’d even promise to love my thighs and never complain about my husband’s clutter. I’d be utterly happy just breathing in the status quo. I wanted a re-do. A second chance.
But you don’t get to negotiate with Mother Nature. Dead is dead. There is no rewind button.
We become adults with a false conception in our minds about the realities of life and what will make us happy. Our first mistake is to think there is such an absolute. I grew up in nuclear, middle class family. We owned our home in the suburbs, had a family dog, and my sister and me participated in Girl Scouts. I went to school, earned good grades, and did what I thought I was supposed to do. I became a teacher, a responsible homeowner, a wife, and a mother to three darling children. I’m getting bored just writing this.
On paper, I deserved my happily ever after. At least that’s what I felt entitled to. Instead, I was exiled to this lonely, vile place, condemned to an existence as a widow and a single mother. I felt like I had a scarlet “W” seared onto my chest. A social outcast. A broken spirit.
Bad things are supposed to happen to other people. When they happen to us, it destroys our sense of self. Life as we know it will never be the same. It’s hard to conceptualize how you will continue to live amongst the broken pieces of your former self. Being happy again felt impossible.
My first reaction was to blame myself. I must have become complacent and it was my fault. I must have deserved it. I felt unworthy of love and destined to be miserable. I foolishly assumed that my “American Dream” would last forever. I allowed myself to get swallowed up by entitlement, blind and unarmed about what lurked beyond my first-world blinders. I didn’t prepare myself for a life that wouldn’t go as planned, a life where dreams were nothing more than vapors dissipating into the air.
I hated myself.
I hated myself so deeply that for once in my life I didn’t feel like an imposter. I had definitely mastered the role of Queen of Pathetic. It was my rightful crown to wear.
A funny thing happens to those of us fraught with despair. It gets lonely and draining in this bottomless pit. When it becomes very quiet, and if we listen carefully, we eventually realize that we are ready for the next stage of emotions.
This is when you are absolutely sick of yourself and can not tolerate another minute bathing in your own self-hatred. It happens when you’re so very tired of not feeling like enough in this world. When your misery has leached your last drop of energy and you have nothing else to lose.
When you’re ready, you can finally choose to wash it all off.
It will feel funny at first. But then you get start to get used to not feeling yucky all of the time.
You’ll start to see better again and regain clarity. I had been focused on the devastation, but there was something more happening that I had been overlooking. The tragedy in my life had somehow cracked open a doorway into my self-consciousness, and for the first time I understood that in an unpredictable life, the first step to happiness had to start in my mind. It had nothing to do with anyone else.