A is for Happy
Not far from where I live is a family much like mine. As far as I am aware the couple are happily married, the husband is a hospital consultant here in Durham, the children, now in their late teens seem well balanced, happy, and ambitious. Their mother, like me, mainly stayed at home to bring up the children although recently has had some success with a new, second start career. Two years ago, in the run up towards Christmas ago she walked out of the house, she left behind her purse, her keys and her phone along with an ambiguous note indicating that she was sorry to be such a burden and drain and then she disappeared.
Her husband came home early and finding the note rang the police and thus began a full scale missing person search. Helicopters were launched, friends searched likely places she might be hiding and trained policed officers sat with her family ready to prepare them for the worst.
She left the house at approximately 3 o’clock in the afternoon. At 10 o’clock in the evening a police officer radioed in to say that he had found the missing woman and, after some persuasion he managed to get her into the car and he brought her home.
I know this woman very well, I probably know her better than anybody else, better than her husband, better than her children. She is me.
I don’t know why I walked out. I didn’t particularly want to die, but I didn’t really want to be anymore. I walked along the old railway lines, thank you Mr Beeching. I have no idea where and as it was pitch black and late at night I was jolly lucky that I walked out alive at all. It was pure chance that the police officer found me, and I was indeed quite indignant when he did and was quite determined to walk home on my own. He was, fortunately, very persuasive.
I had no idea of the chaos I had caused, I had even less idea of the pain. I walked into our kitchen to see my three daughters, each supported by a police officer and each showing the kind of agony on their faces that I could not have imagined prior to that moment.
It was then that I realised it wasn’t just about me, my happiness had nothing to do with what happened in the outside world, it was about what happened in my heart. I resolved to be happy. It didn’t happen overnight and it did require, in my case, the help of drugs but I would not be passionate about changing lives if it were not for that ghastly horrible moment when I walked back into my kitchen.
Neil Pasricha identified Attitude, Awareness and Authenticity as the three As of Awesome. I confess that I have a few problems with the word authenticity. It has been bandied around a bit too much for my liking, so I have substituted the word Acceptance. For me, in this context they mean the same thing.
Pasricha maintains If you can master these three things then you can face anything that the world fancies chucking at you and still come out smiling. He, along with a wonderful French Buddhist monk, called Matthieu Ricard made the distinction between happiness and pleasure.
If I look back at me before what I call my long walk to freedom, I borrow that phrase very carefully, but for me that is precisely what it was, I experienced pleasure but I was not happy.
Pleasure is a reaction to external stimuli. The only control you have is your reaction and indeed for some people they don’t even have that. Suggest to an Ambulophobic that they go for a walk is not going to induce pleasure however glorious the weather and however stunning the surroundings.
Pleasure is contingent on other things, other people. An evening with friends in the pub might bring you pleasure, a day reading a good book by an open fire could have the same effect. But like a large slice of your favourite cake, eventually it becomes either boring or too much, it cannot go on for ever. You become tired of the noise in the pub, the heat of the fire becomes too intense and you have to move away.
The little control that you originally had over your reaction to the external sensations starts to wane and fade.
The day after my long walk I went into Durham Police station to say thank you to everyone who had been out looking for me. I was horrified and ashamed at the extent of the effort and expense. I was taken into a side room and kindly asked if I was really okay. I had quite a hard time persuading them that I was. I really was. I woke up that morning and decided I was going to fake it till I made it. I didn’t care how hard it was, how long it took. I was going to be happy.
I started a project and that project was me. I read books on happiness, on depression, on meditation on lifestyle choices. There was a small corner of Waterstones that was all mine and I swear that irritating cheese advert where they all have a dance around the office when somebody selects their brand was devised by somebody who used to work at Amazon when I was in full book buying mode.
I got up every day and played the glad game. Whatever life threw at me I was going to find something good in it. I was a right royal pain in the neck, can you imagine one day you are rooting around the village church wondering if you are going to find your best friend’s body buried behind a bramble bush and the next day she has turned into a latter day Pollyanna extolling the virtues of bracing walks, homemade yoghurt and the joys of having an extra hour to read because of the extensive waiting times in outpatients. I extend my heartfelt thanks to my friends and family for resisting the urge to shove me off a cliff.
I am marginally less openly evangelical now, but the point is it worked and it worked for a reason. It wasn’t just a quirk of fate or the fact that under all that misery I was a naturally chipper chap. It worked because science has proven that you can change the way you think and the way that your brain works.
Those three As of Awesome. Remember them?
I didn’t realise it at the time but I was giving those three As welly
I changed my attitude big time. I was determined to find good in everything. Toaster blew up. Hey that’s great, no more grabbing a quick slice of toast and honey I’ll have to find time to make a healthier breakfast. Overdraft the size of the national debt? Yipee let’s see what we can make for supper for an entire week just from what is in the cupboard. Serious health scare – thank you for the reminder that this is the only life I have and I need to slow down and make the most of it.
When I walked out my attitude sucked. I had a PhD in self-pity and martyrdom. It wasn’t that I thought I was a waste of space, I knew I was. I really could not see a single reason why I had been put on this earth. I was genuinely baffled. That was the first thing that had to change.
Instead of writing lists of things I was rubbish at I wrote lists of things I was good at. Instead of brushing away compliments I acknowledged them and thanked the giver. I started to keep a gratitude journal. Even today I write down 10 things every day for which I am grateful. This one covers X to X. Here are some examples, they range from every day…… to one off. It doesn’t matter what they are, it is, believe me, impossible to feel genuinely grateful and genuinely miserable at the same time. When things went wrong I took a deep breath before launching into a tirade about the disaster that was me and realised that there were precious few things that happened to me that really were worth crying over.
Next on the list was Awareness.
My father lives in California. A couple of years ago I rang him mid-morning his time. He was not a happy bunny. In fact he was in a filthy temper and in no mood to talk. “I can’t talk now” he muttered furiously down the phone, “I’m waiting for a delivery and I’ve had a stroke.” Those were his exact words and he put the phone down, presumably to give the delivery man hell for interrupting his stroke. Fortunately the story has a happy ending. I managed to get hold of my step mother and she bullied him into hospital where he made a full recovery.
However, what if I had not called? My father was too busy being busy to pay attention to what really mattered – his stroke. Granted his is an extreme example, but how often have you been busy being busy? Time wasted is not wasted if you are enjoying it.
I took time to be aware of myself, to reflect inward not outwards. If something went wrong, if somebody made me angry I didn’t focus on the situation or the person but on the feeling that they had generated and most of the time that feeling was not anger or sadness, I had just conditioned myself to react in that way.
I accepted who I was. I shoved a sock in the mouth of my inner critic and made an effort to love myself not just despite but because of what I perceived to be my faults but also to do the same to others.
I spent a whole day not criticising my husband. It was excruciatingly difficult. I don’t mean just not criticising him to his face but also even so called light hearted husband comparisons with my friends, silent criticism to myself and those little asides that you pretend are comments or observations but you both know are thinly veiled critiques.
I was appalled at how much time I spent worrying about what he was doing wrong. Instead I went back to the glad game and made a conscious effort to notice all the things about him and that he did that I loved and I was grateful for. I am lead to believe that was a turning point in our relationship!
So, that was almost three years ago. Has it worked?
I haven’t had electrodes stuck to my head, Unlike Matthieu Ricard haven’t had my gamma waves measured, I have no idea about the size of my pre-frontal cortex, although, and this is a fact not a criticism, I and my husband am both pretty sure my hippocampus is in considerably better condition than his (see previous post!).
However, I do have some evidence to suggest that it has worked:
- I haven’t felt even the remotest urge to disappear.
- I have no problems completing my gratitude journal every day.
- I am told by my nearest and dearest that I am a lot nicer and easier to live with these days.
But most of all, I am here, writing a blog not wandering around County Durham wondering why I existed in the first place.