Delusions of Happiness
I don’t think I’m meant to be happy – at least not all of the time – not even close.
Like many, many adults with families and responsibilities, I am burdened with stress and pressure. I would describe myself as contemplative and unsure of myself. I wouldn’t describe myself as lost or directionless as it relates to what my future holds, but I would describe myself as unsure of my plan and praying for signs that I am on the right path.
I spend much of my time in a state of contemplative unsureness. It is an uneasy feeling. It lacks the comfort and confidence of happiness. It lacks the contentedness of pleasure. In fact, it is the exact opposite. The place I spend most of my time is in a state of discontent. And I think for me, that is how it is meant to be.
I am relatively new at experiencing emotions and letting them wash over me and take me along for the ride. As a drinker, I spent decades medicating away discomfort, stress, anger, fear or grief.
I remember traveling home to Denver after my grandfather’s funeral. The weekend spent with family in New Hampshire was full of hugs and tears and telling stories about Papou (Greek for grandfather) and lots of drinking. My cousins and I explored the ancient collection of bottles from distant lands Papou had on display in his basement. They had been there our entire lives, and now it was time to drink from them in honor of our fallen patriarch. We toasted Papou with every shot. With every shot, we killed a little more of the grief we felt from his loss.
I arrived at the Boston airport very early the morning after the funeral to find my flight had been canceled and I was moved to a later departure time. I was frustrated, tired and sad to be leaving my family, so I headed to the bar. The woman behind the counted denied my request for a beer with a disgusted look of disapproval as she served breakfast to the other travelers at the counter. Massachusetts law prohibited her from serving alcohol until the top of the next hour (was it 8am or 9am?), and I probably looked like the last thing I needed was to start drinking again. I had to live with my pain for half an hour until I could make it go away. And that’s exactly what I did. By the time the plane took off, I was numb and emotionless. It was far too heavy a weekend for me to feel joy, but I had drank myself into a state of ambivalence. I was ambivalent about travel delays. I was ambivalent about leaving my cousins and aunts and uncles and sister and parents behind. I was ambivalent about the death of Papou. Papou was a drinker. He’d understand.
In early sobriety, dealing with emotions was terrifying. Gone was my ability to drown fear, sadness, grief and anger. I had to learn to navigate my feelings. I am keenly aware of how pathetic that sounds. As a man, it makes me feel like a wussy writing like this. Admitting to emotions isn’t manly. Without my manly drink to make my feelings go away, they are my reality now, emasculating or not. I had to learn painful coping lessons.
As an American, my Declaration of Independence guarantees me the right to pursue happiness. It seems to me that Americans are fixated on that very pursuit. But happiness is elusive and mysterious. It comes and it goes as it pleases without explanation or apology. So, we spend a lifetime pursuing things that are more tangible and attainable hoping they will bring happiness along for the ride. We pursue money and power and bolstered egos. Then we brag and wield and flaunt all in the name of our right as Americans to pursue that which we hope will make us happy. What we don’t understand, often until it is too late, is there is no correlation between our pursuits and our happiness.
Just ask Tiger Woods. He had fame, power, the envy of millions, more money than he could spend in ten lifetimes and a beautiful wife to spend it with. He was not just a winner, but he dominated his competition and was well on his way to winning enough majors to make him the greatest golfer – maybe the greatest athlete – in history. All of that wasn’t enough. All the accolades and wealth and championships didn’t make him happy and prevent his self-destruction. I am obsessed with his story and the lessons it holds for all of us.
I am also obsessed with the lives of Robin Williams and Chris Farley – and their stories hit quite a bit closer to home. It is not that I think I am funny or entertaining like these two comedic masters. It is that I understand their battles with demons that are so diametrically opposed to the picture they painted on the outside. They were two of the very best at making people laugh while, behind the facade, they dealt with pain that was, ultimately, insurmountable. Their demons took these passionate and gifted treasures to our culture far too early because they weren’t able to find happiness or learn to find contentment amidst the discomfort. While Mr. Williams took his own life, Mr. Farley died from a drug overdose. The two causes of death are almost indistinguishable from one another in my mind. They were both in deep mental anguish, and they took the only steps they could conceive to find relief.
Robin Williams and Chris Farley are far from isolated examples of the elusiveness of happiness. In our culture, there are countless stories just as tragic as theirs. My obsession with their lives stems from the characteristics I believe we have in common. I could never hope to be a society-impacting comedic talent, but just like Robin and Chris, I thrive from using the gifts God has blessed me with to connect with people. For Robin and Chris, nothing felt quite like making people laugh. For me, when people share that my writing resonates, it touches me like nothing else. We also spend the rest of our waking hours – Robin, Chris, me and millions of others with brains that work in this manner – churning through a chaotic mess of thoughts and fears and plans and ideas and doubts. And for us – all of us with this type of brain – nothing quiets the madness like our drug of choice. For me, the same thing that drowned uncomfortable emotions also silenced the chaos in my mind – my beloved drink.
The correlation between creatives and addiction and depression and suicide and overdose is undeniable. You see, creative minds are in a constant and sometimes frenetic search for a connectedness with other humans. That is our happiness, and we pursue it relentlessly. We often hone our craft in hobbit-like isolation, but our goal is to reach a shared understanding with our fellow man. The artist paints and the writer writes and the comic twists the mundane into the hilarious not in search of power or money or fame, but in the desire to be understood and acknowledged for explaining a little piece of the world to those around us.
No one was better at connecting people and explaining the vast expanses of this world than Anthony Bourdain. Just over a week after his suicide, I have added him to the list of people with whom I am obsessed.
Just like Robin and Chris and so many others, Anthony died because he just wasn’t able to find a way to peacefully coexist with the chaos of his mind. Just like Robin and Chris and me, it is said that he worked crazy hours with a passionate relentlessness. Just like Robin and Chris and me, Anthony’s mind managed not just the task at hand, but dozens of future projects, ideas, opinions, fears and dreams. Just like Robin and Chris and me, Mr. Bourdain found comfort and relief from the chaos in his brain from the drink in his hand. Anthony Bourdain might not have been an alcoholic. I really don’t know and I don’t really think it matters. He beat addictions to cocaine and heroin in his younger life, and with continued alcohol consumption, he never really gave his brain a chance to heel. While some of our brain function returns to normal over extended sobriety, brain chaos management remains a lifetime burden for the likes of Robin Williams, Chris Farley, Anthony Bourdain, me and millions of others just like us. For some of the most influential, gifted and loving people among us, the burden is just too heavy to manage.
For some of us, the pursuit of happiness is a waste of time. What we really need to do to find satisfaction in life is to harness the array of naturally occurring emotions and use them to connect with other people. While I dream of someday publishing a book, any money I might possibly make from my writing will only be a useful byproduct of my desire to meet people at a place of heightened mutual understanding.
I am learning that the uncomfortable nature of my perpetual discontent is the price I have to pay to pursue the connections I desire. Sometimes I am happy. I find glimmers of joy on a daily basis. Mine is not a miserable existence. But the pursuit of happiness is a waste of my time. Happiness comes and it goes as it will. Medicating happiness carries devastating consequences. This was a hard and painful lesson, and one I hope to never repeat.
Money and power and fame can’t bring us happiness. Just ask Tiger Woods. Alcohol and drugs can’t bring us sustainable happiness, or even peace from chaos. Just ask Robin or Chris or Anthony or me.
For some of us, the key to happiness is to stop looking for it and understand it is as untamable as the ocean tides. For some of us, the key to peace and contentment is to get comfortable with uncomfortable discontent.
Some who read this won’t understand. I know it, and it doesn’t bother me. We are just wired differently. But for others, these words will resonate. For me, that connection is what makes life a precious blessing of discontent.
It resonates with me completely… as does much of your writing. I recently (on “Juneteenth” – a peculiar and bittersweet commemoration of the day in 1865 when slaves finally received their freedom) arrived at one year of sobriety. I reflect on how I am no longer a slave to trying to numb every wayward and not so wayward emotion that traverses through my mind, no longer a slave to the fears and anxieties, no longer a slave to neurotically stashing away the best medication I knew for 35+ years, no longer a slave to long expanses of time that I cannot account for. And yes, “brain chaos management remains a lifetime burden” for many of us, at least now I know how to deal with that, recognize it when it’s churning, and accept that it is a part of who I am. In that, I have nothing but profound peace, gratitude, and now and then a bit of actual joy. Who knew?? The things I sought in the drink were perpetually elusive until I gave it up. Sobriety gives so much more of the things that I merely chased for so long with the bottle.
Thanks for another honest, deep glimpse into the mysteries of addiction. Keep writing, my friend, your book will be priceless.
Thanks for the feedback, Elle. I LOVE, “The things I sought in the drink were perpetually elusive until I gave it up.” That sentiment is priceless!