Alisa Valdes

Writer. Producer. Human.

Why “Happiness” is a Debilitating Goal

Jun
08

If you’re a woman, you are probably familiar with the annoyance that is having a complete stranger, almost always male, occasionally terrifying, tell you to “smile” or “cheer up” when you’re doing something like walking down the street doing a mental comparative analysis of various brands of cat food. The dude isn’t really telling you to smile; he’s telling you he’s threatened by you unsmiling. He’s seeking to shame and control you as a means of regulating his unbearable inner world.

This happens to all of us, male and female, in a way, every day, through the incredible American cultural pressure towards happiness. “I just want you to be happy,” say our friends. “How are things, good?” ask our coworkers. Even if you’ve been up all night crying into your top sheet because life is extremely difficult right now and you were too depressed to get up for another box of tissues, you do what everyone does: You smile and say everything’s fine, then lock yourself in a public restroom stall to cry a little more.

Our society, focused primarily upon the peddling of things unnecessary to those who can’t afford them, uses happiness to sell stuff, through the dark prince of propaganda: advertising. We are inundated every minute of our waking life with images of shiny, happy people. Got irritable bowels? Just take this pill and you, too, will be joyfully riding a tandem bike in the woods with a super hot girl! Legs hairy as a yeti? Just use this depilatory and, presto, your kids will love you so much they’ll smilingly take their lunch boxes from you as they trot towards the school bus helmed, of course, by a smiling and not at all creepy driver.

This grinning delirium, we are told, is the goal. Of everything. Just get happy, and the rest will follow. We write McFerrin anthems to it, and when the singers of those anthems get too old to look happy (even if they’re still smiling, those pesky frown lines!) we find younger stars to Pharrell it all over the airwaves again. C’mon. Get happy! Americans are more fixated on this one-dimensional emotional ideal than any other culture. We pop antidepressants at a higher rate – much higher – than any other culture. We are desperate to be happy, and never stop to consider that it is the very expectation and requirement of happiness that is making us so unhappy to begin with.

There are many problems with mandating happiness.

One: Life is hard sometimes, and it’s okay to allow space for pain and sorrow. In my own family in the past month we’ve had a murder and a cancer diagnosis. That shit sucks ass. It is okay to be unhappy under unhappy circumstances. In fact, it is necessary, healthy and human.

Two: Sometimes, the only rational response to something is fury. There are many people walking around alive today because anger carried them through pain and abuse that would have otherwise destroyed them. Rage, properly directed, is the catalyst for every liberation movement in human history, and the basis for all comedy worth watching.

Three: To be peaceful is not always to be blissful. Sometimes, peace comes to us in the guise of poignancy, melancholy, despondence. Sometimes, our greatest accomplishment is simply getting through another day in full acceptance of all that is, and this can be a kind of disconsolate pleasure.

Four: The cultural insistence upon a Happiness Goal is not only unrealistic, it is highly invalidating and judgmental. Our discomfort with a full spectrum of human emotion leads us to heap shame upon ourselves and others, for feeling the things that everyone else is also feeling and hiding. This causes undue suffering and self-hatred, and lots of lying. This causes many of us, over time, to learn to doubt our own experience of ourselves, and life, which leads to an insecure sense of self in the world.

Those who read this blog regularly know that I am an awe-struck humanist defined by my unique spiritual smoothie of Buddhist and reasonably Christian fruits. I am at home with the mystery of it all, comforted by our relative insignificance among the vast unknowables of space-time. I am also, as an artist, drawn to all emotions, because without a full spectrum of feelings there is no creative endeavor worth a damn. Happiness is wonderful, when it arises. But so, too, is everything else. To feel is to be alive.

It’s okay to be whatever you are, wherever you are.

It’s okay to feel what you feel.

Just be.

 

How to Let Go of Everything You Thought Mattered

Jun
05
PREFACE: Last year, I got a nifty little certificate that declared I had graduated from a Dialectical Behavior Therapy program, meaning I was not longer meeting the diagnostic criteria for the mental illness that had sent me to the program in the first place. This did not mean I had been “cured” of Emotion Regulation Disorder (or, as the evil dwarves of the psychological underworld still like to call it, Borderline Personality Disorder), exactly. No, no. For ERD, there is no cure. There are, instead, therapies that teach people like me which of my everyday and, to me, benign behaviors are seen as Fucking Crazy Bullshit by Everyone Else. In DBT I learned new skills and behaviors that, when practiced with diligence for the rest of my damn life, will allow me, at best, to Fake Being Normal well enough to pass, most of the time. Each moment, it seems, is still a fight not to go slip-sliding back into that cold, dark hole where everything hurts. I’ve decided that the best use of this blog might be to talk about my post-DBT day-to-day life, the setbacks and successes. Hopefully these little stories will help those with ERD feel less alone, while shining light for normal people on what it is like to actually live inside the broken mind of someone with this severe mental illness.

If I’m lucky, I am, right now, at about the midway point in my lifespan. I am 48 years old, so probably I am more than halfway to the drop off. We do have longevity in my family, though, so, you know.

I spent the first half of my life as so many people do – figuring out how to GET stuff. An education, a career, a mate, pregnant, parenting skills, health, fitness, the right car, a nice handbag. Whatever. I was focused on finding and holding, on becoming the things I had always imagined I would be.

For the most part, I am happy to report I succeeded at all of it. I got almost everything I set out to get. A good education, a successful career, a husband, a child, a home. But then a funny thing happened, a thing for which no one had prepared me and about which I had never even stopped to think.

I lost it. All of it.

For the young, life is thought to be about getting and becoming. Live long enough, however, and you will learn that the real journey, the raw and incomprehensible reason for existence, is exactly the opposite of this. Life is not about getting and becoming; it is about losing and unraveling.

That great education? Was in two fields that are essentially now obsolete. The career? Also dead. And the mate? After a decade together he met someone better, left me for her. Our child? He’s growing up and won’t need me much anymore, and that is how it should be. The house? Lost it in the mortgage crisis, have another now, thanks to my mother’s generosity. Health? Comes and goes. Cars and handbags? Here and gone.

So, here I sit, a woman I never imagined I would be, when I was young. Single, unemployed, facing a soon-to-be empty nest.

So much loss.

You don’t consider, when you are in the frenzied act of accumulating your accomplishments, what, exactly, you will do once things change – and they will change, for all of us, in one way or another. At least I didn’t.  So when I finally realized that all of the markers to which I had gone to hang my identity out for the world see were no longer there, I was devastated. Depression hit and was not budging.

At least, not until I had a profound realization. I was not unique. I was not tragic. I was not unfortunate.

I was human.

And the human condition, should we all live long enough, is simply this: We are here to learn to let it go, all of it.

Life, by its very design and nature, is about loss. Everything that is, ceases to be. Everything that is, will become something else. We all lose everything, eventually. This can be a reason for terror and sorrow, or, looked at with compassion and non judgment, it can be the very thing that allows us to become open, tender, and curious about where we are right now. Not where or who we were; not where we’re going; not who we will become. What is, now.

Buddha taught that pain was inevitable but suffering was optional. So too, for loss. Peace comes not in accomplishing what you’ve always set out to achieve, but, counterintuitively, in releasing all attachment to everything.

Be open. Be a curious observer to your own life’s changes. Learn to let everything go. That is where peace lies.

 

Getting Over the Guy You Never Actually Had

Jun
03

PREFACE: Last year, I got a nifty little certificate that declared I had graduated from a Dialectical Behavior Therapy program, meaning I was not longer meeting the diagnostic criteria for the mental illness that had sent me to the program in the first place.

This did not mean I had been “cured” of Emotion Regulation Disorder (or, as the evil dwarves of the psychological underworld still like to call it, Borderline Personality Disorder), exactly. No, no. For ERD, there is no cure. There are, instead, therapies that teach people like me which of my everyday and, to me, benign behaviors are seen as Fucking Crazy Bullshit by Everyone Else.

In DBT I learned new skills and behaviors that, when practiced with diligence for the rest of my damn life, will allow me, at best, to Fake Being Normal well enough to pass, most of the time. Each moment, it seems, is still a fight not to go slip-sliding back into that cold, dark hole where everything fucking hurts.

I’ve decided that the best use of this blog might be to talk about my post-DBT day-to-day life, the setbacks and successes. Hopefully these little stories will help those with ERD feel less alone, while shining light for normal people on what it is like to actually live inside the broken mind of someone with this severe mental illness.

So, lately I’ve been getting over someone. I am always getting over someone. If I’m not getting over someone, I’m obsessively getting INTO someone else. There has always been a someone, since I was fourteen years old, and that someone has almost always taken up most of my energy and thoughts. That someone almost always falls very hard for me, because we with ERD can seem incredible, at first. Invariably, though, that someone will soon discover that loving One Of Us is like chewing sugar-coated razorblades, and they retreat. This is why one of the hallmarks for my disorder is tumultuous and unstable personal relationships. I piss everyone off. Friends, family, coworkers. I don’t realize I’m doing it, till it’s done. Usually I just think I’m standing up for myself, or educating them. Heh. Nope.

So, anyway. Lately, I’ve been getting over someone. He was a colleague and a friend, and we sometimes crossed the line into lovers. He is 18 years my junior and was clear from the start that any physical relationship we ever had would be “just for fun” and would never lead to more than that. “I will never be your boyfriend,” he said, very clearly. He is holding out for a woman “at the same stage I am, who fits my life and goals,” which means, basically, someone who isn’t one year into menopause and can have his children. Fair enough.

When I was emotionally regulated and reasonable, I could love without condition and accept what we had for what it was. I was open and caring without becoming attached. I was very Buddhist about all of it, letting him come and go as he pleased and never seeking to possess, knowing I was just a placeholder. But as time went on and we got to know each other better, and even threw the word Love back and forth, I became attached.

In my attachment, I did what many with ERD do, which is I created a fantasy world that did not look like reality. In that world, he would realize we were soul mates and meant to be. We would adopt babies and I would have cosmetic surgery and never grow old. He would stop looking for others.

That never happened.

What happened? He kept feeling exactly as he’d always felt, except less and less so as I obviously grew more clingy, needy and attached. One day, as we were working on a script at a bar, I grabbed his hand and asked him when he was going to just stop fucking around and be my real boyfriend. That was the beginning of the end. Things got more tense from there, and finally came to head with him telling me he didn’t love me, didn’t care about me, and had been with “many women since I started seeing you, all of them far more interesting than you.”

So, yeah. That was a wake up call. Now, I know it seems like he’s an abusive asshole. But people like me tend to push decent, honest people to the point of HAVING to say things like that, because unless it is spelled out, we just don’t get it. Even after he was super clear about this, I continued to roll around in my fantasy. He was perfect for me, and he’d come around. He’d realize it.

So, this is where I was when I finally realized I needed to STOP and DO DBT and FAKE BEING NORMAL until I stopped breaking my soul against the jagged rocks of his truth. I’ve spent the past week coming to grips with reality, using a skill DBT calls RADICAL ACCEPTANCE. People like me tend to ignore facts that hurt us, and create elaborate fantasies instead, then try to jam everyone into our stories. This has made me a very good novelist and screenwriter, but not so good at life.

My mind keeps wanting to go back to the comforting lie. Him, marrying me someday. Him, telling everyone how amazing I am. Him, looking me in the eyes and telling me he can’t live without me. None of that happened. None of that will EVER happen. I have had to mentally tell myself over and over and over to STOP fantasizing. I have made myself radically accept the truth – a thing that healthy people would have done automatically.

One of the saddest things about living in this elaborate fantasy has been that I have been emotionally and practically unavailable, for 7 months, to at least two very decent men with whom I might have actually had the sort of relationship I was pretending I’d one day have with the other dude.

Healthy people are able to accept that someone else likes them, thinks they’re beautiful and brilliant, and even likes having sex with them, but doesn’t think there is a future because of the 18 year age difference and desire for children. A healthy person doesn’t take this personally, but instead realizes that it is true, practical, and just the way things go. Someone with ERD, however, tends to derive much of their sense of self from other people, and therefore feels as though they will literally disappear and die if the object of their affections doesn’t want them. Knowing this, recognizing it’s happening, does not mean it doesn’t happen. It just means I get to start the difficult work of dealing with it.

A very important skill I’ve been using for the past two days is PUSHING AWAY. Now that I have RADICALLY ACCEPTED this dude will never be mine – and never was, even when he said he loved me – I must start to PUSH AWAY obsessive thoughts about him. Like? Imagining him with all those other, superior women, for instance. Or dreaming of losing 50 pounds and blowing his mind when I look better than every model or actress in New Mexico. Thoughts like that. Negative fantasies, positive fantasies, fantasies fantasies fantasies.

I’ve found that if, every time I start to indulge a thought of him or us, I instead turn my mind to running scales (I play saxophone) in my mind, visualizing playing the hardest of the scales (Eb minor? Hello?) then my biochemistry comes back to normal and the emotional pathways don’t get lit up all out of control. And it’s a good thing. When the pathways DO get lit up, I tend to do awful self destructive shit like compulsively text him, or call him, or try to figure out a way to get him “back” even though he was never mine.

When I stand back from it all, and write it out, and look at it, the conclusion is easy: From his point of view, I look like a lunatic. But I don’t have to. I can radically accept the truth, and push away the thoughts, and focus on doing things for me.

This is shit normal people do instinctively. We don’t. But I’m learning. Still.

Sigh.