I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the balance between misery and happiness and how the two are woven together. Especially in the wake of my second diagnosis and everything that’s happened over the last two months, I’ve had to really hone in on how I can best process grief, or anger, or pain, or sadness so as not to hold onto them. Because I know — I’ve seen firsthand, in myself and others — when we don’t express our unhappiness, get it out of our minds, share it with others, it festers in us and destroys what happy moments we do have. Unhappiness, when it’s held onto, becomes inarticulate and overwhelming, can change our memories, our experiences, and inflect our lives with sadness and fear. It makes the happy moments disappear; it makes the miserable ones more pronounced.
Very often it strikes me that the first six weeks after my diagnosis were this awful, out of body, living nightmare. My life had been suddenly cut short — and when you’re a planner like me, losing time that you counted on takes so much away from you. A week or so after my diagnosis, I was prescribed anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication which wouldn’t kick in for 4-6 weeks. I was on steroids for the first six weeks of treatment, and they would leave me irritated, angry, and miserable, ready to snap at any moment. I was on chemo again — a particular kind I’ve been on before and I know works, but one that also slams me with physical side effects and sends my brain into a tailspin. Nothing made sense; everything seemed horrible. I didn’t feel like myself. I woke up every morning after only a few hours of rough sleep and thought: “Okay, get up. This sucks, but get up.” By nighttime, I was exhausted and overwhelmed, angry, miserable, and frustrated with the world. It wouldn’t take much to push me over the edge then, and about two nights a week of those initial six I would have a total meltdown and panic out of sheer exhaustion and fear and anger — a break with reality those around me had to weather. Didn’t matter what it was about — everything made me upset.
Then I woke up. At some point in mid May, I got off steroids, my medication kicked in, and the reality of my cancer started to set in after a long six weeks of processing, letting out, and letting go of all that fear and anger and misery. I had a relatively good week when things weren’t perfect, but I felt more in control and more stable than I had in a long time. I finally felt like I was getting a sense of my life back. I knew there were still rough moments coming, but I also knew they wouldn’t kill me and I’d get through them and get over them, just like I got through the last six weeks. I knew I could move through and then let go of the sadness and pain that was to come.
And then my now ex-boyfiend and I broke up. And, though the nightmare was over, suddenly reality seemed much, much worse.
Just when I finished going through every emotion imaginable I had to experience most of them again. I was exhausted and confused and miserable. I had no idea what had become of my life or where it had gone — I wanted to press rewind and start over from January, do everything differently. I wanted my life back. I just wanted everything to settle down so I could catch my breath, have life be normal for a change.
But that’s not how it works. Life isn’t and has never been fair or easy. And so I did again what I always do in times of crisis: I looked the pain I felt in the face and refused to blink, ran at it head on. And the process of staring it down — like it always has been — was tiresome, rough, and painful. I experienced the grief that accompanies loss firsthand; sometimes it left me crying, sometimes yelling, sometimes silent. But I never ran from it or shoved it into a corner or responded in any way other than how my body and mind told me to. Because, as I mentioned earlier, I knew from past experience that if we don’t share or communicate or openly experience our fears and pain the way that’s best for us, they turn into something much worse. Something inarticulate. Something that expands and follows us months after the actual event has occurred. If we don’t take responsibility for our pain and articulate what hurts us, we can never let it go.
And as bad as the process of facing our pain feels, and as hard as it can be for everyone involved, it’s necessary. Especially when others are involved, we need to be brave enough to both share that pain with them and brace for when they share pain with us (or as a friend said to me over dinner last night, “Sometimes you just need to nut up and take it, and then let it go”). We need to go through our own experiences and very often be punching bags for others as they move through theirs (and sometimes we call this fighting — another ugly but necessary fact of life). And as awful as that feels and looks, as much as in the moment our reactions may be emotional and hurtful, that process moves us through that pain, all those fears, all that anger, and releases them into the wild. It does not kill us — in fact, it makes pain tolerable because it lets us identify, get over, and let go of what hurts. It makes us stronger, more capable, more self aware people. It clears our heads and makes room for better things. Most importantly, it clears the space for happiness.
I was on my way to visit Super Pony today when suddenly I realized I felt happy. I’ve been tracking this for awhile — noting when I feel happy and how long it lasts. For the most part, it’s been fleeting these last two weeks. I’ll be happy for an hour, and then sad again for much longer. But this time, it didn’t let go. I turned up at the barn, found out Super Pony had thrown a shoe and so couldn’t be ridden, did my barn work, played with Super Pony in his field, went to the grain store to buy more food, and headed home. And on the way home, I turned up my music and sang and danced along — something I know I only do when I’m happy. And I had done it on the way out too.
And this is AWESOME (my all caps should prove that alone). Because when I’m happy — which is most of the time, just not lately — I know I’m this fantastic, fun person. I’m energetic and full of life and excited to be along for the ride. And I love to share that energy with others or use it in ways that can help those around me feel the same.
This doesn’t mean I won’t be sad again — because I will. But I know what it does mean is that I’m on the right track. I can take a punch and get back up again. I can be comfortable expressing my own pain in ways that make sense to me and helping those around me express and understand theirs in ways that make sense to them. I can live and love freely, without hesitation or encumbrance. Some crises will derail that for awhile (see: getting diagnosed with terminal cancer), but as I’ve always known — I can ride out the bad times, let them go, and get ready for more good times. Because there will always be bad times; there will always be moments that seem unbearable or horribly frightening or miserable. And in fact, those bad times almost don’t matter. We have to learn to experience them and then let them go.
It’s the good times that do matter. And I have lots of good ones left.