On Trying to Achieve Happy

Those of you who knew me before I turned 17 will remember me with at least one of the following words: Smart or Hard-Working. If you knew me really well, you might have described me as “passionate” if you were one of my friends or, “a pushy, know-it-all  b*tch” if you weren’t, although I’m sure quite a few of my friends will still think of me as the latter too and I won’t blame them if they do. I would like to think that no one really ever hated me, although being high school, I suppose that is definitely possible. I was never considered a complete “nerd”, I was never one of the popular kids and I never got invited to a party in high school.

Although, really, that is because I would never have gone to one and I suspect that everyone knew it. This made me rather socially awkward in most circumstances. I remember visiting a friend of my friend’s and him asking me if I wanted anything to drink to which I replied (I can still hear the derision in my voice— or was it panic?): “I don’t drink!”. He looked at me weird and said something along the lines of, “Really? You should probably drink more water, it’s good for you.” I’m sure Sam will remember this day quite clearly and laugh at me still. However, that situation just highlighted my social awkwardness even more, made me blush (you can’t see it but I can feel it), and made me even less likely to go out anywhere. But that was all fine and dandy. I was never the pretty one— rather, I was always the smart one. So I played that up. I won prizes at school, I went to leadership conferences, had half a dozen roles on volunteer boards and project organizations. I met and chatted freely with Prime Ministers (2 in fact), thought I understood youth– tried to get them to vote, to become involved. I learned how to shoot a gun, play a trumpet, did homework until 3am, worked so I had money to spend. We were never rich and that always weighed on me, it still does and maybe distorted my view of life a little more than it should have.  I would estimate that throughout my teens I got less than 4 hours of sleep a night. In my community, I was the shining example of everything your kid should live up to, and I blossomed under the love and guidance of teachers, aunts & uncles, and everyone adoring me constantly. Some of the wiser ones warned me about burning out and I scoffed. I’m superwoman, that will never happen to me. I smiled and appreciated their kinds words but never really internalized them. I was happy. I was fine in my skin. I knew that I would get a good scholarship, that I would help the world— find the cure for cancer or become a leader in the UN or something. My school and my career meant everything and as long as it was never too clear whether I was best or second best at school, I was fine.

At 17, after years of constant whining for (and working for)… I finally achieved the absolute pinnacle of my lifetime. I received one of three scholarships for Ontario to Pearson College in BC (www.pearsoncollege.ca). 80K scholarship for two years of study in British Columbia. I didn’t care what it meant except it meant a ticket out of my life and into something bigger, grander than I even knew. Pearson was, is, continues to be everything for me. I grew up there, I hated it there, I loved it there. I made amazing friends and mostly, it opened up to me the possibility and the idea that you needed to find something that “makes you happy” in life. And when you have never grown up with the idea that you can be perfectly happy in life, that you can actually do what you want to do. That is possibly the most radical idea ever heard of. I’m not joking. Now, all those blogs and self-help books about happiness don’t mention that it is a skill to be happy. That not everyone is told growing up that it is ok, and in fact, many cultures (incl. mine) will say you should be happy but in fact mean that you should sacrifice everything for your family and your career. “Do what you want to do!” will proclaim self-help books. “Find what you love and pursue it!” and the other side of the head is, “WORK. WORK. WORK.”

At this same time though, I stopped working quite so hard as I had throughout my life so far. I started scuba diving instead of studying. School became hard. The fact that I had never studied in my life became difficult for me to bear. My grades got worse, my self-confidence plummeted. I became worse and worse at dealing with day-to-day life and instead became of a day-dreamer. I saw friends being able to buckle down and study when needed but I just couldn’t do it. I don’t know. Fear of not being the best made me not try at all. And that is the worst problem with overachieving kids— we are told over and over how amazing we are, how many things we will accomplish, etc. etc. And its amazing for most people but for some of us, it becomes a sense of paralysis. The fear of never being good enough, of never living up to our own expectations. There is probably nothing worse than feeling like you are not achieving your full potential.

This has affected me intensely in the past 8 years since starting Pearson. My university career was an almost utter failure, made worse by the fact that no one believed how badly I was doing. And worst of all, when I tried to seek out help, it became more of a, well, you know this is wrong with you— why don’t you study more. Why don’t you plan more? It became clear to me that I was depressed but by the time I had realized that I needed help, university was almost over— meaning free health care is over, meaning no more access to free school psychologists. Before clearing up my own head, I was off to Rwanda on a crazy trip that made me stronger and weaker and ultimately made me understand that I needed to just be for a while. And then I was living on an island for a few months where I though I would be able to figure myself out but have yet to do this.

But I struggle everyday with this see-saw of something I characterize as depression. I know it and it hits me too often. And when it does, I lose myself entirely in blame games and name callings. I make endless lists that never get accomplished and keep busy at work— or pretend to at least— but I am absolutely overwhelmed and not sure what step to take. Sitting down, thinking logically, one step at a time. I get over it. I move on with my life, my projects, my cooking. There are things that overwhelm me now— my weight and health problems, my lack of a thesis and not doing as well in grad school as I would have liked, being far from my little home in Newfoundland, finances, not being able to go exercise everyday, not cooking every night, not writing in my journal every morning, planning my wedding from a distance, mentally preparing for being married, etc. etc. SO many things are overwhelming but life goes on. SO many things are absolutely wonderful. And that’s fine. But sometimes, I wish life would just stop for a moment so I could catch my breath, and just concentrate on being happy and healthy… and not always so worried about being who I was when I was 16. Because that’s the worst part about it really. Is that I have already been the person I’m trying so hard to become.

5 thoughts on “On Trying to Achieve Happy

  1. Thank you for sharing and being so open about your thoughts, struggles and challenges. One day at a time…that’s what I tell myself. You’ve got a lot on your plate, I hope you find your calm and peace.

    1. Thanks! This post was from a few years ago but I still occasionally find it hard to manage everything- long distance relationship, a fairly demanding job (that I love), living far away from family and friends. It’s been a great couple of years. I talk to a counselor when I feel overwhelmed. It’s good been great to admit when I’m feeling overburdened and being able to ask for help.

  2. Raïsa !

    Tu n’as pas d’idée combien ton billet m’a bouleversée. C’est parce que jamais, never ever je t’aurais imaginée aux prises avec ce terrible défi (certains l’appellent une maladie chronique) qui a pour nom “dépression”. Je crois qu’après avoir lu ton récit, je comprends mieux comment ta socialisation (et peut-être même aussi ton éducation scolaire…) ont pu contribuer à la détresse avec laquelle tu dois vivre – au moins de temps en temps. Que tu intitules ton billet “On trying to achieve Happy” m’a particulièrement touchée, parce que je réfléchis depuis un petit bout de temps aux questions “Qu’est-ce que le bonheur?” et “Comment vivre heureux?”. J’y réfléchis d’autant plus que j’ai des amies qui souffrent, elles aussi, de dépression et/ou de troubles anxieux et que je suis consciente que ce doit être une lutte de tout instant de garder la tête en dehors de l’eau, pour ainsi dire. Peut-être que notre époque (ou notre culture occidentale moderne) qui a mis “achievement” et “bonheur” tout en haut de la liste des valeurs est aussi responsable de ces difficultés éprouvées par de plus en plus de gens, aujourd’hui. Peut-être aussi faisons-nous fausse route si nous nous donnons comme but dans la vie la performance, la réussite – jusque dans la “réussite du bonheur”… ?

    Est-ce que je peux t’aider, d’une façon ou d’une autre? Je ne le sais pas… je n’en suis pas certaine du tout. Au-delà de ma conviction que bouger (marcher, courir ou s’entraîner d’une façon ou d’une autre) peut aider à déclencher, au niveau du cerveau, une production de sérotonine et que la méditation (dans sa forme de Mindnessful based cognitive therapy : http://www.mbct.com/About_Main.htm) peut prévenir des rechutes, j’ai envie de t’offrir deux pistes de réflexion qui expriment un peu ce à quoi je crois, sur le plan de la pensée, en matière de “bonheur”.

    La première est une phrase du philosophe français Alain :
    “Le bonheur n’est pas quelque chose qu’on poursuit*, mais quelque chose que l’on a”,
    (il faisant sans doute écho à l’expression anglaise ” the pursuit of happiness”, que la constitution américaine mentionne parmi “les droits inaliénables”.)

    La deuxième est du poète Jacques Prévert :

    J’ai reconnu mon bonheur
    au bruit qu’il a fait en partant…

    et chaque fois que j’y pense, j’ai un frisson – il me rappelle combien est précieux le moment présent et combien il faut le chérir.

    Finalement, une dernière piste :
    J’ai entendu dire dernièrement un philosophe allemand mettre en doute ce dogme voulant que le bonheur serait la chose la plus importante dans la vie. Je ne suis pas certaine de partager son point de vue (d’autant moins que je n’ai pas réussi à savoir par quoi il voulait remplacer ce but-là). Mais je continue à réfléchir.

    Mais surtout, surtout : sache que je pense à toi, très fort, et que je te trouve très courageuse – non seulement de faire face à cette épreuve et de ne pas lâcher, mais aussi d’en parler aussi ouvertement.

    Je t’embrasse
    M.

  3. Dear Raisa,

    I still remember sitting in the Jane and Jack Matthews room listening to you talk about depression after Pearson at the Life After Pearson seminar last year.. I was in the throws of depression at the time, and it took everything in me not to start sobbing listening to you. I have been up and down ever since I can remember – bouncing from counsellor to psychologist and then believing that I was fine and repeating the cycle.
    There is nothing that compares to the guilt, anxiety, worry, self-doubt (the list goes on), that comes with depression. I’ve felt it all, over and over again. That feeling of loss of control is unbelievable. I was diagnosed this summer with Post Traumatic Stress disorder which I have been living with my entire life it would seem, and while I’d like to say that was the turning point, it wasn’t. But I do my best every day, and try to swallow my pride and instead of punishing myself for depression, I have recently found it most helpful to accept this part of myself and to work with what I have, so to speak. That has involved finally succumbing to medication, something I have fought all my life because I saw it at giving in. I am learning that I would much rather take a pill than to put myself and others through hell..
    Thank you for sharing your story; reading it this morning, I saw myself in all of it, from childhood to university. You have always inspired me with your beautiful smile, more so because I know how much it takes to put that smile on your face every day. So keep smiling your amazing smile, and being your amazing self, and give yourself a hug for being the strong person that you are!
    Much love,
    Emma

  4. Hi Raisa – My friend – Our friend…

    I don’t think there is such a thing as ‘happiness’ per se. I watch our kids go through ups and downs everyday: They are ecstatic and then they are down in the dumps because they’re reacting to something that happened or that someone said. As I look upon them, I reflect upon myself and others, especially the students at Pearson. (we are still going to McL house meetings). I guess what I am trying to say, that being happy is elusive, it’s a process, it’s not an end.

    I’m not surprised to hear about your academics, not because I thought you were doing badly or anything, but I found myself in a similar situation while I was growing up. I wanted to get into enrichment, so I studied and did well… I got in… I relaxed and enjoyed myself and did okay. Then, I worked hard at the end of highschool, got into the university I wanted – studied hard and then partied for a year or two. Realising I was about to graduate, I focussed again on school and did well my last few years… But, when I went to apply to education my second and third year were against me and I went to UNB. I loved it there and graduated top of my class…. in honours. That opened doors for me for work and I excelled at age 30, in the classroom and then applied later for my Masters. I skated through that as well after I was nauseous with pregnancy.

    However, later on in life, when I got into real estate I realised that it was the end product of all that training… it was the way I was going to make a difference in peoples’ lives… and it took me til I was 41 to find it.

    Both my parents had varied careers and now, as I look back, I realise that they both bloomed late in life. They are both intelligent, highly skilled people, but they peaked in their 40’s as well… excelling in their final, chosen fields.

    What I am trying to say is that when you are 16, life is black and white – visions are clear – goals are short term – get to the end of term with good marks – attend that seminar and make your point. But, as you get older, and through your 20’s, your perspective will change with experience. Things that were just plain wrong before, now have shades of grey (understanding). You are not done growing – you are still evolving – and hopefully you’ll continue to evolve. I remember spending a year travelling around the world hoping that when I returned I would know the answers… instead it made me more confused.

    I’ve changed careers 3 times because I was searching for something. I sought out a masters because I felt it was expected of me. My work doesn’t require my level of education, but through my educational experiences I have garnered skills and abilities that make me more effective.

    So, keep going… keep experiencing. Yes, it would be easier to be less intelligent, less aware, less sensitive, less engaged… sometimes I think that dumb people are happier because they just are…. but, one day all your life experiences will add up to an answer. And, in the end, you will be exactly where you want to be and you’ll look back and think ‘aha, that was why that happened to me’.

    Hope this helps you,

    Jane

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