Where Are You on the Happiness Spectrum?

Where Are You on the Happiness Spectrum?

In re-reading yesterday’s post on the subject of victim thinking, I can see how it might have come across as offensive. That wasn’t my intention. The fact is, I’ve been blessed with an optimistic streak for which I can take no personal credit. I realize that it’s a gift from God, the angels, and/or the Universe. I did nothing to deserve it and I couldn’t get rid of it if I tried. Which means I, perhaps, had a head start in dealing with the supremely challenging emotions that come with surrendering a baby through adoption.

And it’s not like I didn’t struggle with my own bout of depression following the adoption. My depression manifested through anger. For the entire first year of my son’s life, I was pretty much angry at the world. I remember being reprimanded at work by a manager for something not work related and I told her off something fierce. And my apartment was a disaster. My sister, Corina, came out to visit from Phoenix and we spent her entire visit cleaning – boy was that eye-opening. Eventually through meetings with my social worker and my birthmom support group, I found my way back to equilibrium.

Now, as I mentioned in a prior post, I did a lot of work to be OK. But you can only do the work if you know that doing the work will help. What is one supposed to do if they’re stuck in the mire of sadness and have no idea that talking to someone or exercising or meditating or praying or hiking or making art or dancing or listening to music or playing with a pet or gardening or doing yoga or watching children at play or cooking will help them feel better?

Some people’s brains are wired completely the opposite of mine. Their natural default is sadness, pessimism, and depression. I’ve only recently started to get a sense of how truly awful that must be and feel a lot of empathy for them. I can’t understand it, personally, and neither can I imagine bearing that burden day in and day out.

I mean, little things that would set off a lot of people typically don’t bother me. Missing a plane, getting lost, running late for an appointment. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve learned not to care what other people think. However, I tend to think there’s more to it than that. Not to mention that I’ve watched friends – people I consider incredibly spiritually grounded – get incensed over something like spilling food on an expensive pair of slacks. This isn’t to say that I’m an angel and never lose my cool – trust me, I’m embarrassed to recall the way I’ve responded in certain situations when I’ve been angry (i.e., depressed) or stressed out. It’s just not my normal baseline to be irritable, angry, or sad. And those are the little things. Imagine when it comes to the big stuff.

Corina was two years younger than I. We grew up in the same house with the same parents. Presumably, when it comes to the nature/nurture side of things, our nurture experience was pretty similar. But she was a grudge-holder. She knew how to nurture negative feelings, hold onto them, and sometimes turn them into all-consuming soul fires. She was pretty sure that’s what caused the cervical cancer that eventually took her life. And even as she knew that it was anger that ultimately made her sick, she was unable to release it so that she could properly heal. She started to recover – was even on an upswing. We saw the tumors shrinking and knew she was getting better. But then she let the people with whom she’d been angry back into her life, without having developed a coping mechanism for dealing with the still-unresolved anger. And before she knew it, the anger was back, and the cancer raged on.

I am sad for my loss, so sorry that her life was cut short and that while she was here, her experience was so different from mine. I remember her telling me one time that her estranged husband – her daughter’s father – was probably going to disappoint her, so it was better to expect that and be right, than to hope for the best and be let down. She had impossibly high expectations, for herself and for everyone else, so she spent a lot of time being disappointed in people. And angry that they couldn’t give her what she thought she wanted or needed.

Even as I mourn my sister – it’s coming up on two years this February 12 – I know that her journey was her journey, just as mine belongs to me. We had different outlooks on life, different approaches, different coping mechanisms. I can wish all day and all night that Corina’s outcome would have been different, but it won’t change things. So I talk to her, I remember her joyfully, and I recommit to living my life well and happily. As I write this, I realize that anger seems to be the way my depression manifests – because I spent the majority of 2016 being angry at the world. I cursed at more drivers that year than I probably have throughout the entire rest of my driving life. And yet again, over this past year, I seem to have found my way back to my baseline of fairly happy and optimistic.

No doubt the same dichotomy that existed between my sister and me exists for birthmothers. We live at all points along the spectrum from happy to sad. Each of us occasionally waivers from our “normal” – but we all tend to come back to that place that is our natural state of being, of looking at the world.

How does one who is unhappy change things? That’s a complicated question I’m not in any way qualified to answer. People spend their entire lifetimes trying to decipher the scientific, medical, and spiritual answers to that question. I’m guessing it largely depends on the source of the unhappiness – if it’s a chemical issue, there’s one approach. If it’s physiological – brain wiring – there’s another approach. The thing that’s probably simplest to address is circumstantial sadness. Please note, I am not conflating simple with easy. Even for a typically congenial person, it doesn’t necessarily take much to get into a downward spiral. One negative thing happens, so you’re feeling bad about it, and then some other small trauma occurs. Then another. Even if you’re usually in a pretty good head space, you can get caught up with feeling like you’re on the merry-go-round to nowhere good.

I believe in the Law of Attraction – we get more of what we focus on. So if we’re heading down that path of sadness, anger, resistance, and victimhood, chances are good we’re focused on what we don’t want, rather than on what we do want. Please understand, I know this sounds easier than it may be to put into practice, but I swear to you that if you are in that negative space and you can find ONE THING to be grateful for, and focus all of your attention on that one thing, you can start to shift out of the negativity to at least a more neutral emotion. And chances are, no matter what your circumstances, you have many things for which to be grateful.

  • Did you sleep in a bed last night with a roof over your head?
  • Did you wake up this morning, able to breathe on your own?
  • Were you able to stand up and walk to your restroom with indoor plumbing on your own two feet?
  • Does the water from your tap run clean? Do you have easy access to clean drinking water?
  • Is there food in your refrigerator?
  • Is there one person in your life whom you love unconditionally – and one who loves you the same?
  • Do you have a pet or a plant you can talk to?
  • Do you have free/easy access to music?
  • Is the air inside and outside your home clean enough that you can breathe easily with no need of a face mask?
  • Do you have more than one pair of shoes?
  • Are you reading this on a phone, computer, or device you own?

You get the idea, right? Every time I stay in a hotel, I am reminded how blessed my husband and I are. There, in one room, we have more luxuries than most people in the world: carpeting, a nice bed, a closet with hangers, clean running water, hot shower, AC/heat, a fridge, a coffee maker, an iron, a TV, multiple pairs of shoes, several changes of clothes, toiletries…

Yet we can get in this place where we start to take life for granted, instead of being grateful for the small things. And if we are unable to muster gratitude for the little things, there’s absolutely no way to appreciate the big ones. Our culture teaches us that instead of celebrating the victories of others, we should envy them: if they win, it must mean we are somehow losing. For example, I heard the other day while in the Houston Hobby Airport that the person who recently won the $450 million MegaMillions jackpot was a 20-year-old kid from Florida. I mentioned this out loud to my friend, who was sitting across from me, adding, “Good for him!” I was sincerely happy that this kid is now set for life. The man sitting behind me immediately started to grumble, “What’s a 20-year-old gonna do with all that money? Spend it all and lose it. He’ll be sorry.”

I’ll bet if I asked that same man to name five things for which he’s grateful, he’d struggle to come up with them. Not because he doesn’t have anything to be grateful for – but because he’s become habituated to focusing on what he doesn’t have and what he doesn’t want. I’m no expert, but I think that before we can be happy, before we can even love, we have to learn to be grateful. It’s not just a cliché – an attitude of gratitude really can change everything.

Birthmothers – Victims or Victors?

Birthmothers – Victims or Victors?

My friend Therese Skelly, therapist turned business coach, once said something that has always stayed with me. “We live in a culture that celebrates brokenness.” It’s very true. We love victims: being victims, watching victims on TV, making victims into celebrities, commiserating with victims, blaming everyone but ourselves for the people and circumstances that show up in our lives. This is no less true in the world of adoption. For this post, I’m focused on birthmothers – and the different approaches and outcomes to a shared experience.

I recently met a woman named Kelly at a conference who was from a small town when she got pregnant before getting married. Though it was scandalous – and her father was furious – she chose to carry, keep, and parent her child. Her best friend was less fortunate, though. She got pregnant while in high school, and her parents gave her no choice: over her vocal and robust protestations, the baby was placed for adoption. Kelly told me her friend was never the same. Her personality changed, as did her physical demeanor, after losing her child.

Two women in similar circumstances – completely different outcomes. Sometimes birthmothers thrive – but sometimes the wound is so great it is nearly impossible to overcome. Does that make those birthmoms victims?

Another birthmother I know who has had a joyous reunion with her now 32-year-old son still gets anxious and depressed each year as his birthday and the anniversary of his placement come around. I think sometimes we hold on to our wounds because they become so familiar that we know no other way to be. Without them, we’d have to change our identity – become someone new. And we fear the pain of change more than the haunting pain we’ve grown accustomed to.

Occasionally, though, the wounds hold onto us. A birthmom friend of mine knew a woman who had placed her child for adoption at birth – and within months of the placement, she began to develop debilitating arthritis, so much so that eventually the entire right side of her body became crippled and nonfunctioning. Many years later, she and her daughter were reunited, and following the reunion, her body began to recover and the arthritis corrected itself.

It was late 1995, and my son was less than a year old. Although I was attending Spence-Chapin’s birthmom support group, I was still looking for other moms to relate to. So I went digging around online – wayyyyy prior to Google and search engines – and came across a birthmom chatroom. Without meaning to, I pissed off a lot of women in that group. They were all just so negative. Angry, sad, blaming, accusing, and more than anything, focusing all their attention on their victimization. Some, like Kelly’s friend, had been forced by their parents to choose adoption. Some had been in maternity homes. Others had boyfriends who’d promised marriage and then skipped out on them. Each had a reason for their intense emotions, but it didn’t seem like any of them had any desire to move past these emotions; they were hanging onto these negative feelings with every shred of energy they could muster. They had created their group to help feed and celebrate each others’ victim status. Instead of being supportive, the group was demoralizing and completely unhelpful.

So one day, I wrote a post in the chatroom that went something like this: “The sooner you can take ownership over your part in the adoption – even if it is only owning the fact that you had sex – the sooner you will be able to move past the anger, blame, and victimhood to feel the grief. And once you feel the grief, you might be able to forgive yourself and start healing.”

You would have thought I was Satan incarnate. Good golly – I have never seen such a rabid pack of angry jackals, screaming for my ouster from the chatroom. What right did I have to judge? How dare I suggest they move on from their very justified negative emotions?! One woman told me, “Your son is only 6 months old right now. Just you wait. Come back when he’s 5 and tell me how well-adjusted you are then. It only gets worse from here!” As it turns out, the older my son has gotten, the more emotionally resolved I’ve become about being his birthmom, and the stronger my relationship with him and his family has grown. And that was after starting from a pretty stable place. But in my experience, people who want to stay in victim mode tend to try to avoid those who prefer to move on with their lives.

Historically, some heinous crimes were committed against women who never intended to be birthmothers – babies stolen from poor mothers and given to “more worthy” families, the crimes sanctioned by police and local governments, social workers, and others in places of authority. If you saw or read Philomena, you’re familiar with the abysmal treatment some birthmoms received in maternity homes, particularly in Ireland.

Generally speaking, however, modern American birthmothers are not victims – any more than couples who get divorced or teens who don’t get into the college of their choice are victims. Of course, this is my blog and these are my opinions. Are there intense emotions surrounding each of these scenarios? No doubt! But it’s up to each individual to choose which emotions they want to focus on and how they want to handle their disappointments.

There’s no question that the feelings are real: grief, shame, abandonment, loneliness, regret, guilt. If we allow them to, such emotions can swallow us whole. If, however, we intend to live through the pain and come out on the other side, we’ve got to find a way to navigate those emotional waters and focus on something positive. Sometimes that means finding someone to listen who won’t indulge our victim language, thinking, and behavior. More to the point, it means developing a will to release fear and embrace change that is larger than our desire to hold onto our old familiar friend, pain.

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