You’re probably thinking that most babies are happy. They are known as bouncing bundles of joy for a reason. But, even in the world of clapping, laughing, smiling babies, mine is above average.
Next to his blue eyes, it is the trait family members and strangers comment on most.
“Look at that smile.”
“He’s just so happy.”
“Does he ever cry?”
When my cousin first came to meet my now 1-year-old son, the first thing she said was, “So I hear that all you do is look in his direction, and he smiles.”
It’s true. My son is a beaming, giggling delight. In the picture they took at the shoe store documenting his first pair of Keens, his smile is so big my heart nearly breaks open every time I look at it.
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It’s something we talk about all the time: my happy baby, my joyful son. One day, while my mother and I were watching him play on the floor, she looked at him and said, “He’s such a happy baby.” And then she followed up that thought with something new: “Do you think he’ll always be that way?”
As I stared downward, she said, “I don’t know why I said that.”
But I knew why she said it. The question was more than, “Do you think he’ll always be happy?” The real question was, “Do you think he’ll be like you?”
Of the things that I have failed at—tennis, calculus, waiting tables with enthusiasm in an island-themed chain restaurant—happiness is probably the most glaring. Happiness has always been a struggle for me. While I don’t always think of myself as unhappy, I have never been described as carefree, bubbly, or even enthusiastic. I’m irreverent, I’m funny, and I do get excited by things like spinach-artichoke dip, good sales, and new seasons of ABC Family shows, but “happy” would be far down the list of my attributes.
My first depressive episode occurred when I was 9. I’d broken both of my arms in a freak fall out of a neighbor’s tree house, and I spent the next few weeks being absolutely miserable. It was three days before school let out for summer, and I couldn’t do anything—including bathing myself or washing my hair. I was in pain, I was fairly immobile, and soap operas and computer games took up all of my days. I think misery would be expected in that kind of situation, but it’s the first time I crossed that threshold of “feelings or sadness or despair lasting longer than two weeks.”
I remember high school as a roller coaster of emotion, as I think it is for everyone. But something about me must have been different even then. A friend described me as “having a sad tumor.” “Even when you’re happy, it’s always something with you,” she said. “It’s like you can’t ever be just all the way happy.”
My freshman year of college, I became so unhappy that I started losing weight and my hair. A visit to an on-campus therapist led to a diagnosis of “situational depression.” When I transferred schools, things got better, so I assumed she was right.
At 22, just out of college and working my first “real” job, I got in touch with another therapist after some bad break-ups and a few weeks of daily crying jags. She told me that I “had to kiss a lot of frogs” and threw out the “situational depression” phrase again. A psychiatrist in her office prescribed Trazodone to help me sleep, but it brought me down so badly every afternoon (at 2 p.m. on the dot, I felt like someone threw a bucket of downers on me), I gave it up after a week or so.
She was the first person to suggest that I might have an anxiety disorder, too, and I felt relieved to hear that. If I had an anxiety problem, at least it meant that I wasn’t failing at life. (Failure can be a theme with me. I’m working on it.) I thought everyone else saw the world the way that I did but just handled it better. It was helpful to think that maybe I didn’t have the same capabilities when it came to processing external stressors.
A few months after that botched attempt at therapy, I found myself unable to leave my house and convinced that I would die if I walked out my front door. I called a friend at 4 a.m. in the middle of a full-blown panic attack demanding that she promise me I wasn’t going to die.
“Just say that I’m not going to die.”
“Why do you think you’re going to die?”
“I just know it. I know it’s going to happen. Tell me I’ll be OK.”
I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but I knew that I wasn’t well. I moved home. I started working out. I started to feel better.
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Despite feeling better—it’s fairly easy to feel better when your benchmark is conditional agoraphobia—two years later I still wasn’t what you would call happy. There was an undercurrent of anger in everything I did, and I didn’t even realize how pervasive it was until I started taking Lexapro and so much of the anger went away. It had been the white noise in my life, and I didn’t even realize it. But, in the space left by its absence, I felt calmer and somewhat more at ease.
From 25 to 32, I took a variety of medications for depression and anxiety with varying degrees of success. Most importantly, during that time, I learned how to recognize my symptoms, ask for help and generally manage my depression. I also got a diagnosis that finally made sense—dysthymia, a state of chronic depression.
“You probably weren’t diagnosed correctly because you’ve never had a major depressive episode,” my therapist said. Even then, in that safe space, I didn’t tell her about that month I was convinced I was going to die and wanted to go the mental hospital. I’m pretty sure that would have fallen into the “major depressive episode” category.
Now, while I hope that I don’t fulfill the “incapable of having fun” part of the dysthymia diagnosis (I am a blast at a bar), I had always known that there was something different about me, something that seemed to color my worldview more than other people’s. I once joked that “I didn’t trust happy people. It seemed like they weren’t thinking hard enough.” It was good to finally know what that something different was.
Then, at 32, I got pregnant. I stopped taking all of my meds for the baby and was lucky to be in the category of women who are flooded with happy hormones during pregnancy. I didn’t worry that my airplane would drop out of the sky, that cancer was growing somewhere in my body, or that I would never get my act together. My husband even referred to me as “relaxed.” I had something wonderful and amazing to look forward to, and I was genuinely delighted with life.
When I had the baby and the hormones went away though, it wasn’t nearly the same. I had not magically transformed during my months of pregnancy into a new serene mother/goddess figure free of insecurity and doubt. I started falling fast, and since I was lucky enough to know what to look for and to have people watching out for me, the moment I thought, “Arik and the baby would be better off without me,” I knew that I was sick again and called my doctor. She had me back on Wellbutrin within a day.
My depression is a disease, and I think of it as something that I must manage daily. It’s something I have to be vigilant about because I don’t want to fall too deep into the well. It’s life—some days are better than others, but now I recognize that feeling sad won’t mean that I’m sad forever. I don’t ever plan to stop taking medication, and I don’t like it when people ask. For me, the answer to “How long do you think you’ll need those?” is “Always.”
There is no “Seven Habits of Happy People” or “Fifteen Things Happy People Do Differently” that’s going to fix me or lead me to the light. I practice gratitude, I communicate, and I write. I cope, but medication and occasional talk therapy are constants in my life.
And I am grateful every day for the life that I have, but like all parents, I want something better for my child.
Every time my son beams at me, I swell with pride. But, at the back of my head, there’s also fear. Will there come a day when he stops smiling? When he’s sad, will he be able to bounce back? Will some part of me in him rob him of that joy?
I have anxiety about my child developing anxiety. I hope that’s self-defeating enough for you.
I want him to be better than me even though I know that loving myself just the way I am—sadness and all—would probably be the best lesson for him. If he is like me, I don’t want him to hate himself the way I have hated myself at times. I don’t want him to turn all of the anger against himself.
I remember when my own father warned me that I was just like him, and if I wasn’t careful, that meant I “would never be happy.” I don’t want my own son to think that if he’s like me happiness is an impossibility.
I may not be able to show him happiness all the time, but I can show him what good self-esteem looks like. I can show him how to accept himself. I can banish words like “fix” and “fail.”
And I think that’s one of the even stranger parts about parenting. There’s so much that I can’t seem to do for myself, but I can and would do it every day for him. It’s not always about throwing yourself in front of an oncoming car or going without new shoes for the college fund. I need to love myself for him. I need to stop beating myself up for him. I need to let go for him. He’s going to learn by what I do, and the gift I can give him, in the absence of what I hope is a clinical-depression-free life, is how to love yourself. It’s not enough to love him. I need to show him how to love himself because that’s the gift that will remain long after I’ve gone. He can carry my love with him, but his sense of self will carry him farther.
I’m not going to promise him a stress-free, money-filled, you-are-the-most-special-child-on-the-planet life complete with a pony, but I can promise him that it’s worth it to try. I can promise him that he’s worthy.
I hope that my happy baby grows into a happy man, but whichever way it goes, I’m doing my best to have enough love for the both of us.