How do I move on from thinking life is miserable to actually enjoying the happiness I have found? I spent much of my teens sitting in my room with the company of power ballads like Heart’s Alone, progressing to the angsty grunge of the ’90s and then the lesbian cliche of Indigo Girls. These songs were comforting and confirmed my view that life is lonely and full of sadness. I battled my way out of the closet and found a way to express my female masculinity only to have my heart broken twice. See, I was right all along, I will die alone and unhappy.
In the 15 years since then I have met and married a beautiful woman who shows me the joy in the small stuff. I have studied and worked hard to get a job I love. I have lived in the same city for longer than I have ever lived anywhere in my life and as a result have some amazing true friends. But I still slip back to those miserable tunes, expecting the worst to happen and wearing sorrow like a comforting chunky cardigan. How do I shuck off this jacket of misery and feel the warmth of my life to its fullest?
Dear Brave Correspondent,
Recently, I have been travelling quite a bit, both physically and among friend groups. A thing I find very interesting is that I can understand a lot of what people say in many languages. In Spanish, French, German or Yiddish, and American Sign Language I can grasp much of people are saying in social situations or in commerce, especially if they speak somewhat slowly, but – I can’t produce very much at all. I can understand the questions but can’t answer; I know what I’m being offered but can’t negotiate or counterpropose. I find it very frustrating.
The reasons for this are multiple. Despite having various language instruction in my life, I have never really hunkered down to practice in any other language. I feel shy and hesitant about my poor, declarative efforts and reluctant about how I sound in my endless unadorned first person – like a toddler who can only demand. But perhaps most of all, I find it very difficult to have so little available to me.
I am very good at English. My ability to express myself is fluid and nuanced; I know a lot of words and I can shade any sentence with precisely the meaning I intend. I’ve practiced and practiced until I am a good enough user of the language that people will pay me money (if not, perhaps, very much money) to do it. Out of my comfort zone I feel clumsy and slow and shy and dull, none of which I enjoy.
Here’s what I think, Brave Correspondent: I think you might have become fluent in misery while you had basically nothing else to do but practice it, and now you are struggling to learn the vocabulary of happiness. You never did the beginning steps, as many of us queers have not, because when so many of us were teenagers there was no reason at all to practice those emotions, that language. We got very good at a dozen kinds of sorrow, a hundred shadings of discontent, without ever once needing to dip into the palettes of joy or satisfaction. “Not awful” was pretty much the best feeling of the entire year I was thirteen, and “somewhat less awful than usual” covered most of the year I was fourteen. I had no reason to experiment with the good stuff, so I protected my heart by not even trying.
But now, you need them. It seems that you have done a lot of excellent right and constructive actions, leading to a sweetheart, job, friends, a home. These are the things that generally add up to happiness. So it may be that you require the help of a professional to learn this new lexicon – someone who can patiently point to feelings and say “that’s called delight,” and “you might describe this as feeling nourished.” This person may also be able to help you identify and put to bed the mean children of your imagination, who want to point and jeer or murmur and insinuate that everything is definitely just about to collapse, and it will be all your fault.
(I am not reading your diary, Brave Correspondent. I just have to put those same mean children to bed without supper every day myself.)
It may also be that some visualizations or medication or other program will help, as administered by a professional. These are all very good and useful choices for some people, and I encourage you to explore them and see if there are professionals that have the right tone and touch to help. There’s no more shame in making use of professional services for the brainmeats than for your wristbones or gallbladder.
(Or at least, there shouldn’t be. Honestly. I always want to ask those fuckers who get all med-shaming on people who use meds for mental health whether they think doing yoga at sunrise will cure their appendix? No? How strange, it’s almost like you have a double standard for medical issues. ANYWAY.)
But it may also be that the frame of learning the language of happiness is enough for you to start figuring it out on your own. There is no need to be shy or hesitant about your happiness, Brave Correspondent, but you will probably need to learn that on your own. Go ahead and stumble around a little in it. For sure, no one is happy all the time and however much American society likes to pretend that it’s a goal to be a constantly burbling fountain of positivity, I think we all know that’s not real. But when happiness knocks at your brain’s door, I think you should invite it in and try to speak with it even if your diction is poor and your accent is all wrong. Try and keep trying. Remind yourself that you are being very brave.
Be aware that sometimes we figure out how not to feel too much by turning all of our emotional range off at the main, if you will. It makes everything quiet in the brain and allows us to Do The Things, but it’s sort of a total solution. You should be prepared for the possibility that once you start letting happiness enter your emotional landscape, other emotions may come too (hello anger and loneliness and disappointment and joy and all manner of other things!). This is totally okay and honestly pretty healthy, but also sometimes exhausting or bewildering. I mention it so you know, if it happens, that you’re not doing it wrong.
Maybe now, it’s time to change the station in your brain. Find something that suits the current mood (suggestions may be found below in a variety of genres) and play it until you know all the words, until you can lean into it, until it recalls a time and place of pleasure as much as whatever you angsted to over and over in your room for a million hours. Brains are basically made of magic and can be taught a lot of things, Brave Correspondent. So teach yours to revel in pleasure and love and the warm sun of your sweetheart’s attention, as slowly and patiently as you taught it to cower in fear that no such thing would ever be possible. Be kind with yourself; you’re learning. Accept your own choppy early efforts as steps to mastery. You can do it.
Love and courage,
Bear’s Highly Eclectic Playlist For Experimenting With Delight
It Don’t Mean A Thing (Ella Fitzgerald & Duke Ellington at Cote d’Azur is the best)
Golden, Jill Scott
Might As Well Dance, Patty Larkin
Moments Of You, Rockapella
Into The Wild, Linee
Beat The Drum, Great Big Sea
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Beyonce (from the Fighting Temptations Soundrack)
Sweet Mistakes, Ellis Paul
Time After Time, Tuck & Patti
Starry Eyed Surprise, Paul Oakenfold
This Is The New Year, A Great Big World (the Glee version is also fine, though)
I Just Wanna Fucking Dance, Alison Jiear
Can’t Stop The Rock, Apollo 440
Gd is a DJ, Pink
I Gotta Feelin’, Black Eyed Peas
Pon de Replay, Rihanna
Rakiyah’s Tabla, Jalilah (featuring Mokhtar Al Saïd)
I’m Diggin’ You, Me’shell Ndegéocello
Diva Dance, Eric Serra (from the Fifth Element Soundtrack)
Bramasole, Christophe Beck (from the Under The Tuscan Sun soundtrack)
Bonus Track, if you’re in love: