Every year at about this time, I have this conversation with at least one person.
Happy New Year!
Oh, happy New Year! [pause] Oh no, I shouldn’t have said that to you. I meant to say, try to have a happy year.
You know, I hope it’s not too bad. I hope your year has happy moments in it.
And then I buy another box of shortbread or whatever, and the other person in the conversation goes away and presumably thinks about how insensitive they were before managing to rectify it without being caught.
I hate that some people think they’re not allowed to say “happy” to a depressed person. I had a long and furious Facebook conversation with someone a few months ago about the symptoms of depression, and how they relate to sadness. Did you know that not everyone who has depression is also sad? Did you know that being sad is not a prerequisite for depression? And beyond that, did you know that being depressed — even if you do have sadness as a symptom — doesn’t always mean not being able to experience happiness?
This morning I went with my little family to the local pool. It was quiet and we had dog-paddle races and splashed and laughed. I had a hot shower and wrapped myself in a fluffy towel, then went to the shops and bought the finest loaf of bread and a massive, perfect avocado and then I poached the greatest egg in a new pot I bought for myself. I read a bit of a book and then my kitten sat on my shoulder and squeaked right into my middle ear. And I was very, very happy.
I was still depressed. Chronic depression is often a life-long condition. That means different things to different people, and you need only read my entire life’s history on the internet to know what it means for me. It means that when I bake a whole salmon in teriyaki sauce and eat it off the bone while the sun is out, I am happy and also depressed. It means that when I lie in bed and watch Big Fat Quiz of the Year and laugh until my jaw locks right up, I am happy and also depressed. I’m depressed because I feel the heaviness of my bones. But I am happy because I feel the lightness of my heart.
Sometimes, “happy” seems very far away. But that is true for most people. Just about everyone has a minute or a day or a year when they have had great sadness and may never be happy again. It doesn’t stop the happiness from existing. Locking it inside a tower doesn’t mean it disappears from human experience, just that it is harder to get to, for a while. Being depressed can hide the tower inside a tornado, but the tower is still there and the safe is still protecting the “happy”.
The thing about stepping lightly around “happy” is that you’re effectively trying to take it off my table. There goes Anna, resigned to a lifetime without happiness. Look how brave she’s being, wearing a hat with glitter on it and acting as though she knows how to experience happiness, even though she is depressed. Oh dear. Maybe she is having a dissociative fugue. Maybe she’s confusing herself with a neurotypical person.
If I couldn’t aspire to happiness, I would die. When I can’t grasp the concept of it for myself, I look to others to remind me of it. I watch a person talk to someone they love. I sit on a really good cushion. I watch late night television. I imitate happiness until I remember the steps. It’s hard work. I pay a woman a bunch of money to help me remember how to do this, to keep happiness in my peripheral vision.
Not understanding how happiness and depression can co-exist is totally understandable. My happiness is not your happiness is not someone else’s happiness. It’s just that the sensitivity is not in avoiding talking about happiness but in building someone up to believe they can experience their own. Tell me to have a Happy New Year, so I remember that I might do just that.