Sunday, September 29, 2013

Mental Health and Happiness

I think, maybe, that I suffer from a mild, but nonetheless highly unpleasant form of anxiety.  It applies a bit to every part of my life--a need for absolute perfection at work, an awareness that I'm not as socially graceful as it seems a well-adjusted adult would need to be, a deep-seated fear that there are things I'm missing because overwhelming feelings of inadequacy paralyze me.  (All of that was obnoxiously vague, but perhaps that is what I need to say to maintain some sense of privacy in this internet confessional.  And why am I doing this online at all?  I feel like confessing will relieve some of the pressure building up, and strangely, writing is so much easier than speaking, and this blog feels strangely anonymous, like those who read it are a select audience of those few people who are genuinely interested in what I think).

Anxiety, as I experience it, is both physical and mental.  It feels like some kind of inflammation in my chest--a burning tightness, seeping up from my chest to my throat.  I'm fortunate in that what I experience is relatively mild compared to some--it's not unbearable pain, I don't feel like I'm unable to breathe or get enough oxygen--I just feel strained, and when I'm particularly tired or out of sorts, it overwhelms me so that I cannot focus on anything else.   Emotionally, I feel stuck, and I start to rethink all of my recent interactions and obsess over what was said and not said, and worry, worry, worry.  I find it incredibly hard to concentrate, and I often want to turn the lights out and fall asleep, hoping the feeling will have passed by morning; if nothing else, I find solace in knowing that for at least a few hours I will be blissfully unconscious.

Anxiety is particularly nefarious because it can cause feelings of dread regarding the anxiety itself, triggering anxiety over a perceived potential anxiety.  It can be consuming, and that is the terrifying part--that this nastiness will take over my life to the point where I can no longer function at the levels to which I am accustomed, and that any normalcy and healthiness in my life will start to wither away as I become a crazy person.  I recently saw Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine", and while the title character (SPOILERS!) became gradually revealed as someone whose all-encompassing selfishness destroyed everyone around her, she was also surprisingly sympathetic to me because I could identify with her episodes of anxiety.  While I haven't devolved into alcoholism or publicly talking to myself, I felt an uncomfortable familiarity with the way she seemed to retreat into herself when her stress levels increased due to awkward social situations, invasive questions, unwanted attention from her boss, even painful memories.

All this leads to some kind of main point, if there is one: I feel like I've been hearing a lot lately about how happiness is something we choose, and I feel deeply troubled by that.  I am sure that outlook plays a significant role in one's perception of happiness.  I can imagine becoming obsessed with what is still missing, whether it be that perfect beautiful house, great job, idealized spouse, etc.  But I also sense a stunning lack of empathy, a smug self-satisfaction, in the idea that one's own success with finding happiness means that those of us who struggle with it--who find it more elusive--are simply too self-absorbed or negative, too short-sighted, ungrateful, whiny, etc., etc.  Yes, I am a bit of all of those things.  But I want to be happy more than I want to be self-indulgent or melancholy, and while I absolutely experience meaningful moments of happiness, it doesn't come easily for me.  I certainly don't reject outright the ideas passed along in articles ubiquitous on Facebook like this one; if people find greater happiness because of reading something like that, than by all means, pass it along.  But if my own mild anxiety can be a barrier to me experiencing a fullness of happiness, I cannot imagine what kind of unhappiness those who severe mental illness might be facing, nor can I begin to fathom what kind of anguish people must feel whose circumstances are truly tragic or nightmarish.  It's comforting, I suppose, to imagine that happiness is something we can control, and that therefore people who have it, deserve it.  Perhaps there is some truth to that idea; there likely is.  But truth can also be maddeningly complex, and this case, in my opinion, is no exception.  I propose that good people, who try their utmost to live meaningful, productive lives, can be severely unhappy.  That sounds desperately pessimistic.  Maybe it is.  But perhaps there is also something deeply commendable and inspiring in how they are trying to live good lives, even without much in the way of reward.

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