From my current vantage point, it’s difficult to fathom that just under six months ago, I was at my most unhappy. Still reeling from my dog’s cancer diagnosis, I found myself ensnared in my own health scare, which included the untold horrors of a colonoscopy. In the midst of this, the man who just a handful of days ago proposed to me announced that our relationship was no longer working for him. I moved upstairs to the spare bedroom in the house we shared, where I would spend nearly three months in purgatory before moving into my own apartment with my children. I had committed the Cardinal Sin of Relationships: I had made my partner responsible for my happiness, and I was paying the ultimate price.
To say that I was wild with grief would be a massive understatement. I felt as though I was drowning in a madly swirling sea of sorrow – no lifeboat, choking and sputtering with roaring riptides of panic crashing over me, an undertow of despair sucking my energy and threatening to drag me under. I couldn’t turn to the one person who had been my port in the storm since the day we met. So I searched for something – anything – to anchor myself, to help me regain my equilibrium and sense of self. I found it in the #100HappyDays Challenge, a social experiment and daily microjournal of the things that make us happy.
On the other side of the challenge that inspired positive change and personal growth in my life, here’s what I’ve learned about finding your own happiness:
Own your emotions. Never let them own you.
I’ve always been the kind of person who picks themselves up after being knocked down. I had exquisite control over my emotions; the byproduct of my greatest fear in life – losing control. Except I had never really dealt with past griefs. I simply tamped down on them and internalized them. Locked deep inside, they had weighed me down ever since. As I turned 41 in the midst of my greatest emotional trial, I finally realized that fear and despair are twin gargoyles guarding the gateway to soul-deep happiness – you can’t pass through without facing them. For the first time in my life, I allowed myself to simply sit with my feelings. It wasn’t comfortable. It wasn’t pretty. It was ugly, raw, and real. In facing the maelstrom of my emotions, I released their hold on me; the first step on my journey to healing and happiness.
I grew a lot in the first few years of my relationship with Gabe. He saw me for who I was, and who I could be, and he challenged me to become my best self. When our relationship ended, I realized that to truly become my best self, I needed to reconnect with and challenge myself. That journey of self-discovery took me out of my comfort zone to places I’d never been. It took me to a women’s sweat lodge ceremony, where I stripped down and sweated it out, both literally and figuratively. It took me to restorative yoga, where I learned to quiet my mind and listen to my body. It took me to talk therapy, where I examined and resolved long-buried feelings. It took me to a reiki session, where I connected with my own energy, and made a connection that kindled a friendship. It even took me on a trip to Vegas, where I learned there’s nothing good friends and a lost weekend full of hedonism can’t cure.
Humans have a lot to learn about comfort – and the keys to happiness – from animals.
Words deceive. Lucky for us, animals don’t truly understand the spoken language of humans. But they are fluent in tone and body language, and can read us with far greater accuracy than we can one another. When someone we love is hurting, we feel helpless, so we attempt to soothe with words or solve with logic. But grief is beyond both words and logic. During the period I now jokingly refer to as The Lost Months, my two dogs stood as sentries and silent support. I held tight to them as I cried out an ocean of tears into the scruffs of their necks. I told them things I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone. The words themselves were inconsequential; it was only the out loud uttering of them that mattered. I didn’t have to hold back with them for fear of judgement or concern. At its scream-and-punch-the-crap-out-of-a-pillow worst, my grief made them whine in empathy laced with fear. But for the most part, my emotions didn’t affect them. They greeted me each day with the same maniacal level of love and enthusiasm they always had. They enjoyed being with me even when I couldn’t stand myself. Because their happiness wasn’t tied to me. My dogs taught me how to be happy, without words and by sterling example.
The first several days in my #100HappyDays challenge were difficult. I found that going to sleep and waking up in a bed I had never shared with Gabe but had with his mother when she was sick were the worst parts of my day, so I started there. At night, as I lay wakeful with worry and woe, I’d replay my day in my mind, looking for bright spots and moments of happiness, and deciding what the next day’s #100HappyDays post would capture. In the morning, as reality came crashing in again, I’d select a photo and write my post. It forced me to think happy thoughts in the most challenging moments of my day. After a while, I found myself looking forward to each day’s post. I thanked people who inspire and influence me. I remembered to take pleasure in the small stuff. I acknowledged the moments and experiences that transformed me. In the final stretch, I was too busy experiencing happy moments to document them daily, so I made my own posting rules and suspended time. I made myself responsible for my own happiness. It led me back to myself, and eventually, led Gabe back to me.
Happiness isn’t always a choice that is immediately available to us in our darkest times. But in the words of JK Rowling and her fictional wizard Dumbledore, “happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”