It was the summer of 2012 and I had just moved to a sleepy little Florida beachtown — a forced repatriation back to the U.S. through a prolonged series of unfortunate events after almost a decade of life in Europe. A most worst of times, indeed, with no best of times in sight.
I was also unknowingly suffering from an undiagnosed genetic thyroid ailment, so to add insult to injury, I watched myself gain first 10 pounds, then 20, then 30, over a course of that first year repatriated, on top of the 40 pounds I’d already gained, perfectly helpless to stop it.
Let’s not forget the PTSD that’s been my shadow since October 28, 2000 after I witnessed the murder of my dear friend in Los Angeles — PTSD that woke up big time when I was forced to move back to the country of its root, a place that still boasts lackadaisical gun laws and weekly mass shootings.
The sense of helplessness at my lot was as pervasive as the hopelessness, with me sinking into one of the worst depressions of my life. In spite of the perpetual sunshine and warmth I’d craved for most of my stay in Europe, my days were dark and bleak and there was nothing around to pull me from that oubliette of sadness.
Then, a friend helped me get a job as a private investigator that allowed me to work from home. Suddenly, my days had structure and I had a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Next, a perfect stranger suggested I should take kelp for my thyroid as well as start a regime of green juice. The kelp worked and I began to lose weight, and the nutrition provided by the green juices and smoothies actually began helping put my depression at bay. I started blogging on the Huffington Post, and my years-long dream for a larger writing platform was at long last granted. The final clincher was learning first through the incredible art show Hannibal and through the writings of Dr. Elaine Aron that roughly 20 percent of the population also have my highly sensitive personality, and even though for most of my life I’d been gaslighted and pathologized for my sensitivity it turned out that I’m not crazy like so many ex-people in my life had claimed.
A light at the end of my tunnel was finally visible, and I suddenly cared about living in that light instead of shadows. I began painting, collaging, and making strange little pieces of multimedia art as well as picking up my long-abandoned second novel and rewriting and rewriting some more until it was ready for publication in November 2015. I also started to get into a groove writing essays, and this blog marks my 26th post on HuffPost since September 2014, with many more to come.
I had an epiphany: I realized that for so many years I’d been looking outward for my own happiness. Like I expected my environment to provide me with the necessary tools for happiness, and when I’d never find them I’d go right back to being miserable. It’s as if we’re taught to look to others, to new places, to relationships, to things, in order to satisfy ourselves and feel happy. And maybe these things will temporarily provide a sense of elation and accomplishment at their acquisition. But it never lasts.
I suddenly understood that happiness is not something that happens to us, it happens from us. Happiness is a daily and active choice we make.
And if happiness is a choice, then so is unhappiness.
So, I decided to get up each day and choose to be happy. Choose to focus on the positive things, the things for which I’m grateful, the things that I might not have if my circumstances changed. Even if there are only a few of these bright lights, just one is enough to get through the day and not be miserable.
It’s been almost three years since I chose to be happy. Even though to date I still don’t like where I live, I miss having an in-person community, I wish our condo allowed pets, I’d love a job outside the home, why is there no public transportation?, and so many other annoyances not just of life in America, but life specific to my strange corner of Southeast Florida. And even though in the meantime my thyroid began malfunctioning again and I had to start daily medicine, the fact that I’ll be on these meds for the rest of my life — or that I have to be on a pharmaceutical at all — doesn’t anguish me in a way it would have before.
I find that it’s actually not as hard as I thought it would be to be happy. To choose daily gratitude. I can accept that my environment might be a crappy reality, but I don’t need to dwell on the crappiness.
And then I started to understand that love is just like happiness: eventually love also becomes a choice. When the romance fades, or when a friendship begins to sour, we make a choice as to whether we will continue loving that person in spite of the fact that the love isn’t the same as it was in the beginning. We have the potential to wake up each day and decide who we want to love, and how much work we’re willing to do to maintain that love (unless violence or abuse is part of the picture, in which case pack your bags and don’t look back).
Right around the time I was hypothesizing about love and happiness a story called The 36 Questions That Lead to Love by Arthur Aron was making the rounds and seemed to support my conclusions. And how funny that the spearheader of this revolution in love theory was in fact the husband of Dr. Elaine Aron, whose work on the highly sensitive personality I’ve already mentioned and which had made a huge impact on my life and mental health.
It was incredibly empowering to take control over these concepts of happiness and love I’d always assumed relied solely on external forces. In a lifetime of being unhappy, being constantly buffeted by negative experiences and pain, it’s a relief to find myself bubbling with joy even when my situations aren’t ideal.
This isn’t to say that I’ve gone from being maudlin to Pollyanna in one huge bound. Not at all. I still live with PTSD, and depression. It was also remarkable to learn that you can still suffer from depression even while actively making a choice to be happy and grateful. That said, there are still some days — especially after I’ve been triggered or during certain difficult times of the year — no matter how hard I try or how much I want it the option to choose happiness is too far out of reach. The difference now is that when those dark times envelop me, I no longer get lost in the despair. I know the way out: the way out will be me and my force of will, and my continual daily dose of gratitude, until the necessary tide turns.
Ultimately, we’re not passive recipients of love or happiness. In so many ways we’re taught to sit back and wait for love, wait for happiness, wait for satisfaction to find us when that’s not how it works at all. We ourselves are the active participants in the promotion or prevention of our own lives.
While I was percolating and integrating this marvelous series of realizations into my own life and relationships, synchronicitously the film Trainspotting was on repeat on cable. I hadn’t seen it since it first came out a decade before and saw that the answer had been with me all along, but I’d been ignoring it because it can be so much easier, take so much less effort, to actively wallow in pain.
The answer is and always was: Choose life.
And while we’re at it, let’s choose to make it a happy one. Let’s choose to fill it with love.
This article was originally featured on Huffington Post GPS For the Soul.