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Happiness Is An Inside Job
A victim and martyr's tale
I was born the first of five children into a family that was afflicted with alcoholism, and my home was a virtual battle field. My happiness and sense of well being, like any child's, was totally dependent upon that of my parents, and whatever was happening around me, at any given moment. As is pretty much the norm where alcohol reigns supreme, our family was in constant conflict and we were all "casualties of war". Some of my most poignant memories were out-and-out battles, which began with my parents at the altar, escalating as time wore on. One of my earliest recollections, for example, was a dramatic scene that happened when I was four years old. My father came home one Christmas eve, in a drunken rage, and purposefully threw the Christmas tree, the Christmas turkey (uncooked), and then my mother out of the front door into the yard, to our abject horror. His reason was because he didn't like the way my mom had decorated the tree. This is only one of many unpublicized battles fought within the walls of our unhappy, unhealthy home, Ours was a volatile place where contention thrived, innocent by-standers were often wounded, and old "John Barleycorn" was the constant tormentor and resident enemy.
I have very few happy memories of my childhood, which is often the case in families that are ravaged by alcoholism. As the oldest child, the happiness of my family members, including and most especially my father, who was the drunk, somehow fell squarely upon my shoulders and was an ever-plaguing concern, again, not uncommon in an alcoholic home. My level of happiness, security and sense of well being (or lack there of) was very much dependent upon the other members of my family and their level of happiness (or lack of), which gave birth to a pattern of thought and behavior that was to dominate my life and cause me a lot of trouble over the years.
It is difficult to be happy in an active war zone where the intensity of any given attack is unpredictable, the occurrence of attacks all to predictably regular, and the defending army is unarmed, as a child invariably is. As a soldier in such a war, i was a valiant, committed little warrior, and totally dedicated to the welfare of my subsequent troops, consisting of both my parents and my four siblings. It was my mission to make and keep the peace, and make everyone happy, or die trying, at the expense of my own personal needs and comfort. My Mom, God rest her soul, was a died-in-the-wool, nose-to-the-toes co-dependent and martyr for the cause. As her first born, I became her protege' (although not by choice). Sacrifice was the name of the game, and I learned to play it well, for I had the very best of teachers.
By the age of twelve, I was a young "people pleaser" in training. When I was unsuccessful and didn't please everyone, which was nearly always the case, the repercussions were severe. This just strengthened my resolve. My skills were carefully honed, following me into adulthood and through life. This "skill", if you want to call it such, gave rise to a chronic victim who possessed an endless supply of stuffed anger and resentment, whose ability to be happy was dependent upon any and all people in her life. If I made someone happy, I was happy. If someone was not happy, I was not, and more than likely it was my fault. It, then, became my job/obsession to fix the situation, whatever it may be. My pursuit of happiness, thus, involved pleasing any and all with whom I came in contact, and more than a few that I did not. This proved to be an exhaustively impossible endeavor which invariably led to disastrous relationships in all arenas of my life.
To add to this sunny picture, I was a natural born nurturer, who had no self esteem of my own, again, thanks to good old "John Barleycorn's" destruction. What little self esteem I did have came solely from being needed. Hence, I perpetually surrounded myself with needy people. For instance, I worked in a hospital as a nurse's assistant, where my ailing patients and their families needed me. A little later, my choice of mates were men who needed mommies and maids. Neither of my marriages thrived or survived, and both very nearly did me in. The discovery of my unconscious source of self esteem was an eye-opening awareness that was first revealed to me in Co-Dependency Treatment in 1986, which I attended before "treatment" was even fashionable. The phrase "Happiness is an inside job" was one of my counselor's favorite slogans, and I heard it frequently throughout treatment, although it was Greek to me. It just did not compute!
As a result of all this, I had become a professional victim who was depressed, resentful, angry with God, myself, and all those fine folks I spent so much time and energy trying to please but never could. I was fearfully on a downward spiral that all but rendered me immobile. It was at this juncture in life that I found myself in an inpatient Co-Dependency treatment facility where my life and healing began. It has been an arduous journey of endless miles and tears to finally get the message that my happiness is my responsibility only and creating happiness for others, at the expense of my own, is not my sole purpose in life.
Out of the Darkness , Into the Light
I have to be honest, though, and say that it has only been in the past five years or so that the real meaning of the concept that I am responsible for my own happiness began to dawn on me and actually crystallize. It began when I found myself planted, by circumstances over which I had no control, in a remote little village in rural Pennsylvania, far from those I loved, where I knew not a single soul, to live alone for the first time in my entire life. I am still a little unclear how I ended up in such a predicament, but none-the-less, that is where I ended up. There was no one to please or be pleased by, but me, and in my own mind, I was undeserving of happiness, anyway. I found myself totally in the dark without a flashlight. My happiness was non-existent, my cup of self-esteem virtually empty. Perhaps, God knew that this was the only way for me to actually learn about me and how to make myself happy. Perhaps, this was the only way to find out who I am, independent of anyone else. It was a difficult five years, during which, I spent most of my time alone, just me and God, whom I wasn't convinced cared about me. There I was, in my little apartment, with the television, a telephone that didn't always work, and my computer to keep me company.
During the first two years, I wept many bitter tears and spent many seemingly hopeless hours soul searching and seeking God in a dry, desert land that was totally uncharted. I felt lost and abandoned, lonely, hurt, and displaced. I was definitely out of my comfort zone, and there were no "burning bushes" to be had and no sign of rescue in sight.
I neglected to mention that it was during this time of exile that the reality of "empty nest syndrome" hit me with all the force of a speeding locomotive. I was a single mom who had raised three sons alone, and they had all grown up and flown the coop. They had been my life. For the first time ever, it was just me. No siblings, no parents, no spouses or partners, no children to focus on, nurture or please. I was baffled beyond words. I had always been a very good little care taker, but did not have a living clue how to take care of myself. I was very adept at compromising myself to please the world, sacrificing both needs and feelings, but had no idea how to please me. If there was any happiness to be found, at this point in my life, it was up to me to find it! I felt like a bowling ball in a fish bowl, so very out of my element.
After a time of grief and mourning, however, a very subtle, gentle change began to occur. Oddly enough, it began with a small venture out into the world on a Saturday morning to a near by yard sale. There I stumbled upon some scrapbooking and craft supplies for sale at a price I couldn't pass up. My first major discovery, during this period of isolation, was that I was happiest when I was creating something. It started out with a couple of hand made greeting cards, sent to people I had thought I could not live without. I progressed to creating art to decorate my little home, then making literally hundreds of Christmas ornaments by hand that I designed and made out of fabric and felt. One day, I ran across a book about doll making. I had always wanted to make dolls, but with three active, mischievous sons to raise and support, had never had the energy or money to do so. This golden opportunity presented itself, and I began making dolls to find a craft and pasttime I really loved and could do well.
I ,also, read voraciously and wrote. I penned poetry, prayers, and short stories, pouring myself onto page after page. One day, as I was taking a break from the keyboard, standing on my little balcony, admiring the beauty of God's handiwork and listening to the sweet serenade of the birds, it dawned on me that I felt somewhat content, at peace and immersed in the beauty of the moment. This was a startling awareness that amazed me! I still felt lonely and isolated, but realized that something had inherently changed somewhere along the line, without my knowledge. I was no longer desperate and yearning for death! I had stumbled upon a bit of comfortability. Moments of peace and comfort had snuck in, in spite of the fact that I was all by myself. In a moment of clarity, I knew what they had meant in treatment. It was a huge "Ah Ha". Happiness was possible without anyone else besides God and I. What a revelation!
Those five years in that little village, in a little valley, in the middle of nowhere, were life changing. Today, it is still a pleasure to please people, but not at the expense of my soul. I can let others be unhappy without automatically taking responsibility for it or feeling compelled to fix it, although the temptation always lurks around any corner. It has become a choice. My meaning is no longer solely defined by the approval of others. It is not anyone's lot in life to please me or give me meaning or worth. That is my job, mine and God's alone. And voila! I am no longer a victim. It is such an incredible freedom.
Shortly thereafter, amazingly enough, the opportunity and means to return home presented itself, and, thus, here I am, with a world full of possibilities, a new pair of glasses, and a new appreciation for life, my family and my friends. I am grateful for the journey, as painful as it has been at times, and the many gifts that have been given me. I take nothing for granted, and each new day embrace the freedom that comes from the golden nugget I carry around in my heart that "Happiness is an inside job".
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