The Anxiety of Happiness

Today I’m remembering a therapy session I had with *Maria a few years back. I hadn’t been diagnosed with BPD or bipolar disorder at the time, although that’s not really what’s important here. I’m just remembering the strangest dilemma I had, and it’s one echoed by several people close to me who, through circumstance or self-development, have made real progress in enhancing their emotional well-being, but were finding that instead of feeling content and happy, their levels of anxiety and even panic were becoming more pronounced the better they got! Talk about a ‘can’t bloody win’ situation! But nonetheless, the feeling of overwhelm, dread and mistrust that came with feelings of increased contentment and happiness were very real.

Maria looked at me, perplexed, as I tried to explain it to her. As I often did, I fell back on my writing to help me out. I said, “Ok. It’s like this. All my life I’ve lived in this really dark forest and I’ve been galloping through it on my horse. The undergrowth is completely tangled and there are thorns everywhere, and I can’t see where I’m going because there is only darkness. 20131011-112950.jpgMe and my horse have fallen over so many times and my legs are constantly scratched from flying past the sharp thorns. Huge rocks spring out of nowhere and I’ve had to veer suddenly, risking death itself. It’s been hard living life at such speed, galloping in the dark and not knowing when the next accident, injury or obstacle will arise, or what form it will take. But you know what? I know this forest, I know it like the back of my hand. I know just how many ways this forest can fuck me over, and I know how to get out of a million tight scrapes. But all of a sudden, I’ve run into a clearing. I’m blinded by this burning bright light and it hurts my eyes. I start to see colours in my daze – what the fuck are those? Flowers. Green grass. Fruit. A stream. Sunlight. These I do not know. I run back into the forest at full speed, convinced I am being ambushed by some new devil I am about to encounter. I start to spend more time at the edge of the forest looking out into the clearing. It takes me a long time to lead my horse out there and let her drink from the stream and eat the grass; she’s always so eager and too trusting – she forgets all too quickly the times she’s led me into danger because of this.”

20131011-113445.jpgMaria looks at me, unblinking, realising afresh that I am as mad as a hatter (aren’t we all). But she works with it. She says, ‘Okay – it’s good that your spending time at the edge of the forest. You don’t need to go out there and do it all at once. Why don’t you go out and examine just a blade of grass, or one piece of fruit? How does it make you feel? Do you feel up to risking a taste? It might make you feel ill. But then it might you feel great.” We went on to talk through how all this is a metaphor for how I needed to practice mindfulness to negotiate the unknown landscape of happiness. Or any unknown landscape at all for that matter, because you don’t know what you don’t know, and of course you need to be mindful of the risks. But you will never know what incredible prizes await if you don’t try.

20131011-113436.jpgI have carried this story with me ever since, and it guides me in times of uncertainty. I’ve made up the next episode, which is where I discover a beautiful, flower-strewn path that leads out of the forest altogether and into a dazzling paradise, bigger than the forest. I discover other people who don’t want to trip me up or kidnap me or steal from me or kill me – how suspicious I am of them still! Of course there are times when it all gets too much and I just need to run back into the forest and be with what I know so well for a while. But it never takes me long to find my way back out these days.

*Name changed to protect identity

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