This has not been a good week. There has not been a good week – a really good week – for a little while, now.
Sometimes, I think I have an invisible shield that makes me impervious to happiness.
From the outside I have a perfect, even charmed life. I’ve got my two beautiful girls. I live in a nice Nether Edge house, with a nice husband who puts up with me, some friends, and a cushy part time job that lets me spend time with my babies.
I am often sad. At my core I am lonely. I am frequently overwhelmed. I am swept away, almost daily, by a sense of gnawing unfulfillment and crushing inadequacy. I am confused at my own discontent, and frustrated by it. Too often, I am angry, at nothing; at everything.
Everyday, I chase happiness.
I wake up and I try and I strive and I drive to get to the next place, the next goal, the next thing that will create happy. But it never quite comes – I can never quite get there. The irony in the pursuit of happiness is that the more doggedly you chase it the more elusive it becomes. The more you try to grip it, force it, the more it slides away. It remains tantalisingly just beyond my fingertips – I can almost, almost reach it… but somehow I can’t get it right, and I fail to meet my own expectations over and over and over again.
Even when I should be happy, I can’t feel it properly. I can’t be in the moment. It’s like something is blocking it, numbing it, muting it. Like there is a barrier – a grey veil between me and the world.
Some days, that barrier is just a light fog. Things are bright enough for me to see clearly. On those days I can taste happy on my mind’s tongue. Other days it is a dense black smoke, filling my lungs, stinging my eyes, choking, cloying and clogging. I can’t see my hand in front of my face. I can’t feel anything. And I can feel too much of it.
The cloud, the trying, the failing, the thin veneer of functionality, all has a name, these days. It’s called high-functioning depression.
On the outside it looks very much like a smile. A joke. Clean hair. Make-up. Plans. Days out. It looks like happy, fed, washed children. A hoovered carpet, a job.
But underneath, underneath it looks different. And the iceberg goes deep.
It looks like a pile of never-ended, never-sorted washing. Overflowing drawers. It looks like unopened post, unanswered emails. Fear of text messages. Excuses. Not turning up at the last minute. It looks like a haphazard diary, short-term, hand-to-mouth, because a micro scale is all you can cope with. It looks like late nights, because if you go to sleep, the next day – the one you can’t face – comes quicker. It looks like too much sleep, in search of oblivion, none of it replenishing. It looks like shitty romances, to anaesthetise the brain. Struggling to make yourself pick up the phone at work. Lung-seizing panic at the smallest of tasks or deadlines. Zoning out over tea, until the four-year-old asks why you’re staring. It looks like spending too much, because that pair of boots, that dress, that’s the thing that’s going to make you happy. That’s going to fix everything. It looks like an unused gym membership, an unread self-help book. It looks like paranoia, obsession over tiny details, mistakes or slights, and then it looks like overcompensation, over brightness. It looks like filling your days, so you don’t have time to think. It looks like tunnel vision, blinkers, deliberately closing your mind off from big news, big thoughts, the enormity of real life. It looks like drinking too much. Eating too much. Not being enough.
It looks like me.
Perhaps it looks like you too.
The thing is, that almost when I least expect it, the happiness does turn up. If I let it. If I’m not looking. If it sneaks up and takes me by surprise.
And it is never the unicorns or fireworks I’m always searching for, expecting or trying to engineer.
It is an impromptu bedtime disco. A hug. A baby’s belly laugh. A stranger’s validation. A recognition of ridiculousness. A well-turned sentence. A connection. A lolcat. It is moments of unforeseen, unpredictable, unexpected wonder and grace and joy – like rainbow woodlice crawling out from under slightly rotten logs.
I like to say that postnatal depression was my introduction to mental ill-health, but that isn’t true. I have lived with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder since I was a child. And the worst thing about it is that I can see it in my daughter. It’s all there – obsessive behaviour, fear of germs, hand washing, repetition, the importance of rituals. Worries – so many big worries for someone so very small.
And it terrifies me.
It terrifies me that I might have condemned her to live under my same cloud.
I don’t want a grey veil for her; I want technicolour.
Perhaps one of the reasons I try so hard – too hard – to squeeze happy out of our lives all the time is that I want so badly for her to know it, and recognise it. But I don’t want her to learn to manically chase it, and risk chasing it away like I do. I don’t want her to learn to run away or hide from the black cloud, either.
Because, I am learning, living with depression is not a matter of outracing, outwitting or outmaneuvering. What I want her to know – need her to know – is that more often than not it’s about resilience. It’s about endurance. It’s about patience.
If I met someone else living with depression, someone like me, if I could tell them just one thing, I wouldn’t try and tell them how to find happiness. I would tell them about the rainbow woodlice.
It doesn’t matter how thick or black the smoke. It doesn’t matter how huge the nuclear fallout of your life. It doesn’t matter if everything has crumbled to dust around you. The one thing that will always survive, will always come scuttling out of the rubble and dying embers, is the woodlice.
And some of them – some of them will have rainbows.
Sometimes they will swarm, and you will feel their tiny feet across your soul and their rainbows in your heart. Sometimes you realise you’ve not seen one in a long, long time. You can search for them, lift some rocks, poke the woodpile. Maybe you will find them by looking – but don’t look too hard. Grit your teeth, dig in your heels and just remember that they will come. They will come to you eventually.
They are inexplicable, incongruous, alien, absurd, but always, always inevitable. And they are weirdly, creepingly, crawlingly, astonishingly beautiful. They are the meaning of life.
You just have to hold on.
Just hold on and wait for them.