On happiness and living a full life

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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

You know when you start complaining about something, and the person you're complaining to tries to put it in perspective by saying something about how you're lucky that you're not a starving child in Africa or missing a limb or a Syrian refugee and your problems aren't really that bad?

It's the WORST. Technically you know they're right, but since you're NOT a starving child in Africa and all you've got is your own unique set of problems to worry about, trying to focus on starving children doesn't solve anything. Problems are relative. A fact that doesn't make the ones you suffer any less painful to you.

Then there are those people who tell you to just smile, because your muscle memory will convince your brain that you are ACTUALLY happy instead of a girl in two-day-old pajamas with a three-week-old melancholic mood that subsides occasionally but settles right back in once she's alone with her thoughts. And she is going to fake smile about it OVER HER DEAD BODY.

There's a reason that people like to tell you that your problems aren't that bad, to put on a fake smile and snap out of it. It's because our culture suggests that we should ALWAYS be happy. And if we're not walking on sunshine 100% of the time, there must be something terribly wrong with us. A problem that must be FIXED! With a fake smile, a starving African child, a pill, a new washer-dryer set maybe?

But it's a lie. Life is a cycle of highs and lows, times of joy mixed with periods of sorrow and a whole lot of unremarkable time in between, where we're not exceedingly happy or down-and-out but neutral, living our day-to-day lives doing what it is that we do in our natural states-of-being, fluctuating between our wide range of human emotions that allow us to express ourselves and experience our lives to the fullest.

And I've come to realize that living life to the fullest requires us to get comfortable with periods of sorrow, of pain, of melancholy. Those emotions and states of being are part of the experience, making us appreciate the times of joy and the times that are utterly unremarkable, honing our minds to reflect and learn and grow in a way that you simply cannot when your heart is exploding rainbows. And our cultural need to be constantly happy and fulfilled is a problem, making us feel like there is something wrong with us that needs to be fixed when we hit one of life's low points, preventing us from working through it and growing because we're too busy searching for the right solution to repair ourselves.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, I am going to tell you a story reflecting on the past year. Frankly, it was the hardest I've had in my 31 years of life, and I say that knowing full well that my problems aren't really that bad, yada yada yada. This was a hard post to write, but one that felt important to share here with you. So often, we choose to internalize our struggles, opting to stay silent about the topics that are dominating our thoughts rather than sharing them out of fear of what others would think. That's what I did this past year. I buried my problems, stayed silent, maintained my Polly Positive image and suffered alone despite desperately needing someone who could relate.

Honestly, had I opened up and found this person, I would have hugged her, made her come over, kept her wine glass perpetually full and cried to her while we held hands and bonded. And it would have cured me, made me feel like what I was going through was hard, yes, but also normal. It would have been easier, somehow, to have felt less alone. So that's why I am sharing this post, so you can come back to it when you're having a hard time, pour yourself a glass of wine, and read it from the comfort of your couch in your days-old pajamas knowing that according to at least one other person on Earth, you are normal and not alone.

(In full disclosure, this post is going to get a little dark, but it will have an upswing at the end and have a few life lessons and 2018 resolutions sprinkled in that you might find worthwhile.) 

Why 2017 was a bad year

New year's day of 2017 started off hopeful, with Wes and I agreeing that it would be our 'Year of Yes.' We'd try new things! See new places! Make new friends! And in general, say yes to as much as we possible could fit into our schedules. In tune with that theme, we decided we'd try to see Hamilton THAT VERY EVENING. Boldly turning to Craigslist, we hoped to find a hungover couple who couldn't get it together and would sell us their tickets.

And find them we did, show up to the theater in our Sunday best we did, and discover we were scammed we did, too. (I KNOW. WHERE WAS MY BETTER JUDGEMENT? I WAS TRYING TO BE BOLD AND IGNORE THE RISKS!) Taking it in stride, we dusted off our pride, went to nice dinner, and laughed about how it could only go up from here.

Days later, my husband left his job after requesting flex time or remote work options from his company in order to be with his sick father in North Carolina and help his overwhelmed mother. Sorry, they said. The HR policy does not allow it. SCREW THEM, I said. WE'LL FIGURE IT OUT! YOUR FAMILY NEEDS YOU. WE CAN AFFORD IT.

He packed our car with his things and our dog that night, and drove 16 hours straight through the snow to his parents place for the uncertain timeframe that comes with a declining health profile. "Could be weeks," we said, "or this could last months."  I cried by myself on our couch, sad, lonely, and stressed. In one swift move, I became the breadwinner and my income plus our hard-won savings account that we prided ourselves on were going to have to tide us over for as long as it took, covering our mortgage and typical expenses along with back-and-forth flights to North Carolina as we tried to implement some structure and semblance of balance to an otherwise unpredictable situation.

As if on cue from the Universe sensing our mounting stress and 50% drop in income, my wallet was stolen off of my desk at my client site the next week. With $800 cash in it. (I KNOW. WHO CARRIES THAT MUCH CASH? IT WAS A GIFT, I WAS GOING TO BE ON THE ROAD FOR THREE WEEKS STRAIGHT AND DIDN'T HAVE TIME TO GO TO THE BANK.) [Insert face-palm emoji here.]

Wes flew home a few days later, to spend some quality time together and pick up a few more things. That weekend, I had brunch plans with some girlfriends and asked Wes to help clean our master bathroom, which has a Whirlpool tub that needed sanitizing. "Plug the tub," I said, "pour in a cup of bleach, run the water to fill it so it covers the spouts, and then run the bubbles for 20 minutes." He was on it, and my brunch was amazing! Until I walked out of the restaurant, checked my phone, and saw DOZENS of missed calls, frantic text messages and even a few emails from my husband, my sister, my cousin, my mom, etc.

Long story short, Wes had followed my instructions but realized he had some time to kill while the tub was filling with water. "Why not check the mail?" he thought to himself, going down two flights of stairs, exiting our home and promptly locking himself out. (To recap, bleach water is running and about to overflow the tub, mere feet from our vintage Moroccan rug and above our kitchen that we'd paid an arm and a leg to have painted baseboard-to-ceiling only a few months earlier. Not to mention that this was all directly over our kitchen table a.k.a. my makeshift desk.)

I rushed home, arriving shortly after the locksmith left, and walked upstairs to find water streaming from the chandelier all over the table and floor and my husband in an eerily calm panic, clipping my notebooks and work papers to various chairs and windows, air drying them in hopes of salvation. My computer was tipped on its side, drip-drying on the kitchen island.

One emergency plumber, $2,000 and a need for another fresh paint job later, Wes and I found ourselves sitting in a dry area of our kitchen in defeated silence, mentally tallying the unnecessary expenses and income forgone over the course of a couple of months. (People, it was THOUSANDS. MANY THOUSANDS.) "We need to get away," one of us said, staring into the soggy mess of our home. We booked a long weekend trip to Miami that night, a brief reprieve from the expensive swirl that had become our day-to-day lives.

Here we are in Miami, avoiding our problems!
We spent months fighting, fueled by Wes's back-and-forth trips, his denial and rage that I couldn’t fully grasp, his dad's nosediving and stabilizing health, and the unspoken understanding that the only end to the situation would be his father's death. One, two, three months went by, and we started to doubt why we'd gone down this road to begin with, that maybe he would get better, that maybe Wes leaving his job was hasty. Four, five months went by and we couldn't find a single thing to agree on. Our relationship was in a pressure cooker, with each of us trying desperately to do what is the right thing to do in a situation that we hoped to never find ourselves again.

One night, after a serious fight that ended in an agree-to-disagree truce, we sat down and talked about whether our marriage could survive if this continued. We were running out of steam, out of money, out of love. And we weren't sure it could. Wes came home, started working again, and his dad died two weeks later, over the 4th of July weekend. We got the call that he was in hospice and flew down in disbelief, then went through the motions of wake, funeral, sorting through belongings, and returning to real life with a dull sense of relief mixed with guilt.

Watching my husband lose his father, grieve him and make sense of the next steps in life without him was hard. It felt like my hands were tied behind my back, with nothing to say and no comfort to offer, feeling selfish for my limited ability to be there for him, feebly suggesting grief therapy and quietly giving him space to process it by himself while simultaneously fearing the intensity of his emotions because they made me imagine the place I would be if (when) I lose my own father and mother. And I've been creepily attached to them ever since. (Morbid, I know. I think my parents are getting sick of me insisting on weekly Sunday dinners.)

What one bad year taught me

While Wes has spent the past several months grieving, waking at four o'clock in the morning and doubling down on his work, I've spent it soul searching, thinking long and hard about what I want our life to look like going forward after a long year that we're ready to bring to a close. Here's where I landed on the important things in life:

  • From a family lens: as hard as marriage is, or as babies sound, this year has taught me over and over again that family is all there is at the end, and that it's a commitment and an investment that grows in value over time. Wes and I had our marriage tested and pushed to what seemed to be its limits this year, and have come out on the other side stronger and more prepared for the challenges we'll face together in the future. Being there for the birth of my nephew, and hearing from my sister and mom and friends (including many of readers of this blog) about their experiences in marriage and motherhood has strengthened my resolve that Wes and I can handle it when we're ready to take that step in life.
  • From a career lens: after years of convincing myself my 80% travel schedule was fine, I finally told my company I needed to be home regardless of what that meant for my career growth. And what an amazing thing it is to be home in the middle of the week! Airline and hotel status be damned, there is no travel perk that can compete for the fulfillment I get from using my Crock Pot and eating dinner with my husband at our kitchen table instead of a desk in my Marriott hotel room.  This set up will last until April 2018, career moves after that point to be continued…
  • From a health lens: almost immediately after Wes's father's funeral, I decided to do something about the physical toll the stress had taken on my body and saw an oriental wellness doctor who put me on a 90-day elimination diet that cut all sugar, alcohol, dairy, processed foods, etc. It reset my health in a way I cannot describe, breaking several bad habits I'd developed, implementing better habits for the long haul, and transforming my body, my skin, my hair, and even my moods.
  • From a money lens: having the ability to go down to one income and rely on our savings reinforced our belief in the importance of living beneath our means because it gave us the freedom for Wes to leave his job with no notice or planning on our part. It's inspired me to do another "no new things" challenge in 2018 to reset my priorities when it comes to money and things. (Post coming soon…)
  • From a writing lens: realizing that the most cathartic posts I wrote this year were also the ones that were the most personal, the most well-received, and the most widely shared has taught me that my writing, at its best, is a tool for processing my own experiences and sharing them here to build meaningful connections. This year has taught me that we need more people and places to turn to for perspective when we're going through those things in life we all experience but don't necessarily talk about openly, and there's no reason why this blog can't be one of those places.

Although it has been an incredibly challenging year, I wouldn't change it. And really, couldn't have changed it as much as I wanted to with something, anything to make it easier to bear. The lessons I've personally learned over this 12-month-long life dip have been incredibly valuable and will stay with me for the long haul, there for utility and comfort the next time I hit a phase in life that doesn't have a happiness cure-all.

The end. Thank you so much for reading, and for all of your support, thoughtful comments, kind emails, and continued engagement on this blog. It is such a pleasure for me to write, mostly because of all of the inspiration you provide through your readership. I hope you have a wonderful holiday season, and here's to a very happy (but with natural ups and downs, not forcefully happy since we've agreed that is terrible) 2018!


13 comments on "On happiness and living a full life"
  1. Great read! Love the "lenses" section and would really enjoy reading more about how to maintain health and relationships with having a travel-oriented career.

    1. Grady, thanks for reading! And will definitely add that topic to the list for 2018. Hope all is well and happy new year!

  2. Hi Colleen! I hope you and Wes will have a much better 2018 whatever it might bring. Being happy is a hard thing to maintain and the moments usually pass by so very fast, so I like to talk about being content. I also think if you are content enough in your everyday life, it's easier to go through hard times and come out stronger like you just did. It's also then easier to find the truly happy times.

    Enjoy your vacation in the sun!

    1. Mari, thank you for reading and happy new year! I appreciate this comment so much, and your best wishes. Your point about contentment is really good food for thought, because it puts the emphasis on appreciating what you have, who you are and where you are in your journey of life / growth, etc.

  3. Thank you for sharing, Colleen! I'm sorry that this year was so hard -- and it sounded SO hard. What heartbreak and hopelessness you must have experienced. And the isolation, the feeling that you're the only one going through such a tough time...I think that's the worst part of it all!

    I wonder if the constant, incessant pursuit and glorification of happiness is very much a generational thing. I think about my grandparents, my great-grandparents, etc, and I doubt that happiness was as much on their radar. My great-grandfather just passed this fall (at age 102!) and I would be surprised if happiness was ever a major consideration for him. He worked hard, was a dutiful family man, tried to contribute to his community and his small corner of the world, and had satisfaction in simplicity and independence. After reading your post and giving this some consideration I'm going to work on re-thinking my view of happiness. This has been a hard/weird year for me, too, and one way I survive a serious funk is to remember that I've been here before and can get out of it again, much like what you wrote in your closing paragraph. And then I think about how much stronger I will be after the fact -- and then I begrudge that thought and get grumpy again because WHAT IF I DON'T WANT TO BE STRONGER? -- and do my best to carry on. Classic British stiff upper lip and whatnot :)

    Again, thank you for sharing this. You're brave! And strong! Here's to a much improved year ahead.

    1. Erin, thank you so much for reading and for your thoughts on this topic. I appreciate your best wishes and on an unrelated note REALLY appreciated all your Hawaii advice - we kept pulling up your email for reference as we worked our way through Oahu - and tried to get reservations at Pig and the Lady but they were too popular for us! We will definitely be going back to stay at the Royal Hawaiian and eat there :) Ok back to your comment re: this post - so interesting about happiness focus being a generational thing, your grandpa sounds like my grandparents albeit with better longevity! (What were his tips for making it to 102?! I am obsessed with longevity and Tao Porchon Lynch, need to post on this for 2018...) The focus on simplicity and contribution probably naturally bred contentment an a sense of purpose / fulfillment. Sometimes I think our generation is missing that - we're knowledge workers, focused on results for companies and removed in many ways from the customer. You've got me thinking, will need to do some research on this.

      You made me LOL at the part about maybe not wanting to be stronger and carry on with a stiff upper lip - have so been there! I've cried to Wes and been totally irrational and not wanting to progress but to just wallow and feel bad for myself for awhile. And it's so true that remembering you've been there before helps keep it in perspective. For me, writing about it is strangely theraputic. Reflecting and writing this post (which took a few weeks, TBH), plus 10 days of beautiful Hawaii sans computer or to-do lists, has cured me entirely and I am possibly in the best mood ever. Happy new year to you and looking forward to connecting more in 2018!

  4. I'm so proud of you. And you're spot on in describing the ups and downs of happiness. I believe sadness or discomfort can be life's way of encouragement. A nudge to make a change or see a different side. I'm so happy you shared your story. Also, you know I'm always here to hug and listen.

    1. TWIN! Thank you for reading this and for your comment. And for being my sounding board so many times over the years. You are the one person I probably could have talked to about this and cured me, but strangely I felt like I didn't want to expose you to it because of all the joy and excitement of your engagement / wedding / honeymoon planning. Here is to more IN PERSON TIME with my geographically undesirable BFF. Let's plan a Sonoma reunion for summer 2018 and take advantage of the wine memberships we drunkenly assigned to you the last time around. Love, Pretty Twin

  5. Thank you for sharing your heart and being transparent with us! I love your gift to articulate struggles in such a way that is relatable and not just depressing/discouraging. Way to be so strong but you’re always welcome to call if you need someone to listen while you have a good cry. I don’t know how you got through this year but praying for you and Wes and your marriage and that 2018 is filled with more joy!

    1. Lynn, thank you so much for reading and for your comment. You have a gift for great perspective and advice and I should have called you because I know your words of wisdom always help. But you'll be happy to know that I still reference the "For men only" book you recommended way back when we were still in DC and confused about love. I also want to just tell you how much I appreciate your support of this little passion project blog of mine over the years - I have friends and family who think it's weird / lame / uncool but you have always recognized that it is important to me and shown up to support it many times over, which is so encouraging to me and extremely generous of you. Love, Colleen

  6. "Life is a cycle of highs and lows, times of joy mixed with periods of sorrow and a whole lot of unremarkable time in between, where we're not exceedingly happy or down-and-out but neutral, living our day-to-day lives doing what it is that we do in our natural states-of-being, fluctuating between our wide range of human emotions that allow us to express ourselves and experience our lives to the fullest." I love this whole post so much -- thank you for sharing all that you did -- but this sentence really resonated in my bones. You have a true gift -- in prose, and in distilling the real stuff. Big big squeeze!

    1. Erica, thank you SO MUCH for reading and for quoting my post in your comment - as a fellow quote lover, you know that touches my heart in a meaningful way. It means so much to me that you loved this post, and your compliment is one that I will reference when the self-doubt inevitably bubbles up and I feel like quitting. Also I am so excited to hang with you and the girls in Texas and also plan an NYC trip for us to hang / drink wine / read inspiring quotes together. (Will bring my 13 notebooks filled with the best ones I've found...)

  7. Colleen! I just want to come give you a hug after reading this! I was caught up in my own swirl of problems for the last part of 2017 and am just now reading my blogs. The idea of sitting in your discouragement/depression/guilt/problems is really hard for me, but I've had no choice but to do it many times this year myself. It brings a sort of clarity as to what is really important and for me, it's helped me to see that nothing (and I mean NOTHING) in my life is going to fit into the box of expectations I set out with as a young adult. Not my career, not my marriage, not my kids, not my ideas of "what should be happening at this stage of my life". I think if we can keep learning and growing through it, we'll find out exactly what we need, or maybe that we don't need what we thought we did. Also, I started a similar eating plan in November and WOW. Never thought I'd be up for it, but I can't argue with feeling a whole lot better! I'm wishing you an incredible 2018 full of joy and sorrow and mostly love. Hugs. ~Wendy (wandering_w)