It was August 2004. I was 26 and laying on a futon in my new apartment in Pittsburgh, PA.
I didn’t have cable or Internet, so in the two weeks since I’d moved in I’d just been lying there watching whatever was on network television.
The Summer Olympics had just started in Athens, and as I watched yet another sport on the TV I thought, “wait a minute, this is stupid, you have to get up, move around, start making this place your own.” I gave myself a little pep talk and felt excitement and motivation I hadn’t felt in awhile. In that moment, I decided to be happy instead of bored.
And then everything changed.
My phone rang. I was so excited that I didn’t even pick up the phone because I saw it was an unknown caller. A minute or so later I saw I had a voicemail so I checked my messages. The call I’d missed was from a woman named Fiona at the hospital in San Francisco where my 22-year-old brother lay in a coma. “How soon can you get here?” she asked. I could tell from her voice, as I frantically paced the hallway of my new apartment, nothing would ever be the same.
I hung up the phone and immediately packed a black dress.
My brother died three days later, and a couple weeks after that, I returned to the apartment, and back to my futon.
I found that anytime those bubbles of excitement showed up I would get super anxious. I would feel my heart opening up with hope and possibility and immediately figure out a way to shut it down.
What’s going to happen this time?
As the years passed this feeling would come and go. Sometimes I was better at pushing it aside, but often I was just keeping myself in a carefully calibrated mediocrity.
During this period things certainly weren’t all bad. I checked off lots of life boxes: I got a Master’s degree, met a man, got married, and had my first child.
But when something was going well it was guaranteed that self-sabotage would start showing up. Extra glasses of wine that made me fight with my husband and lose patience with my son. Hours in front of the television and mindless eating.
I spent years not miserable enough to change but I couldn’t stay the same any longer.
My big realization came out in therapy. It was the simple fact that I could allow myself to feel multiple emotions at once: happy and sad, angry and surprised, excited and afraid. I had been fighting so hard (and sabotaging so hard) because I thought I was searching for pure happiness, for a moment far in the future, one that even without my grief was impossible to achieve.
I realized that fear could be part of happiness.
I began to acknowledge the ways I sabotaged my own happiness and use tools such as meditation and journaling to recognize the fear and move into joy despite the fear. I might not be able to control the sadness I still feel about my brother’s death, but I am no longer afraid that if I let in the happiness something bad will happen.
By taking better care of myself I have learned to unlink the happiness from the fear. I began pursuing long-held passions and eventually changed careers to focus on helping others create healthier lifestyles.
Fear might not ever go away but I could choose to not let it keep me from experiencing pure joy.
Do you have a fear of happiness? Do you ever worry when something good happens the other shoe is about to drop?
Maya Henry is the founder of Realistically Radiant. She helps women make healthy choices around food, time and energy that work for their real lives and make them feel radiant from the inside out. She can be found at www.mayhenry.com and on Facebook and Instagram.
Image courtesy of Tobi.