Envying Happy

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Last weekend, my partner and I attended the Pride parade. We walked down the road, holding hands, my sons J and A gripping our hands tight. To all, we looked like a happy family. Many, seeing a gay couple out and proud, with kids at their sides, gave ‘oohs’, and ‘so cutes!’ as we walked by. (They were right, we are cute.)

One friend, though, messaged me later that day. “I saw you with your family at Pride and I couldn’t say hello. I was too sad.” He went on to explain that while he was genuinely happy for me, and that he knew I had worked hard to be where I am in life now, but that he envied the things I have, implying that happiness may elude him forever.

To this friend, one I care about a lot, I want to say ten things.

  1. I know how you feel! I spent so many years watching others be happy, and feeling like I could never be! I remember as a teenager, seeing straight guys get to actually date girls while I could never date guys. I remember seeing people who were fit during the time when I was obese and envying how ‘easy’ it came to them. When I was closeted, I remember seeing happy gay couples, just knowing that would never be me. When I was in debt, I saw those with financial freedom with absolute heartache. When I was single, I saw happy couples sometimes almost with derision, wondering constantly why I could never find that. I know how you feel!
  2. Things aren’t always as ideal as they seem. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with my life. But you saw us around, what, 10 am? The morning before that consisted of breakfast for four people, showers and getting ready, and packing bags, the kids both having separate fits because they couldn’t play longer, one kid sticking his hand inside a garbage can and subsequently putting it in his mouth, the barista being completely untrained and not understanding what a drip coffee was, and me forgetting the sunscreen. In fact, the reason we were walking like that, with the kids on either side, was to keep them from fighting. What I’m getting at is, yes, I’m happy, but it is a lot of work. (I mean, the child support payments alone). I’m just saying, the richest people still have problems, and the happiest couples sometimes fight the most.
  3. Ten years ago, I was depressed, obese, childless, in an unhappy marriage, and broken. I believed I could never be happy. My path ahead sixty hour work weeks, debt, empty church service, health problems, and more depression. My journey forward started by exercising, then coming out, then learning how to be an out gay man with children and debt. Even after that, I was single for 6 years. I turn 40 this year, and happiness was hard won.
  4. Even now, I’m happy, but I’m not. I have things I’m dissatisfied with. I set goals constantly. Bad things happen to me, I have bad days, and I get sad, angry, and scared quite often. I’ve learned to be kind to myself on tough days, and I’ve learned to accept that being dissatisfied is part of being human. I love parenting, but I don’t love everything about parenting. I love my job, but I don’t love everything about my job. I love being in a healthy relationship, but I don’t love everything about being in a relationship. I’m consistently striving for bigger and better. I am constantly working on my own happy.
  5. Happiness is fleeting. It comes in short bursts. It takes effort and consistency, just like fitness and financial freedom do. It means a lot of hard internal work. Healthy doesn’t happen without good nutrition, a whole lot of physical effort, and consistency. It doesn’t take personal trainers or the perfect genes, it just means super hard work. I did that work on my outsides (I still am!) and I did that work on my insides (I still am!)
  6. Everyone’s happy is different than everyone else’s. There is no perfect recipe for happiness. A boyfriend or husband, a better job, a million dollars, a home, a child… those all bring their own struggles and concerns. Happiness needs to be found in the present, and then it changes with us as we grow and alter and age. You don’t want my life, or my happy, you want your own. And that means figuring out what that is for you.
  7. Before I could be in a relationship, I had to learn how to be single. That meant learning how to be my own favorite person, my own best friend, my own motivator. I used to go to parties or events and feel pathetic for being solo; I got over it. I started to date myself: plays, movies, concerts, trips. I was honest with myself, I held myself accountable. I worked on goals (getting braces, paying off credit cards) and I was kind to myself when I made mistakes or had bad days. I still like my own company. I genuinely like myself and I’m my own favorite person. This was the best work I ever did.
  8. To be blunt and honest, the world is frequently a shitty place. We humans complain about most anything, from the weather to how long our coffee is taking to brew, but the world is full of real problems and struggles outside ourselves. Just scanning the periphery of my brain, the words human-trafficking, rape culture, school shootings, lava flows, and immigrants having their kids taken away pop up. You can’t scan the news without abject horror clouding your landscape. Happiness has to be a choice in spite of all of that, whether the pressure comes internally or externally. The only thing you have control over is you. And happiness can’t be found by ignoring the world, only by embracing the world with its flaws and being happy in spite of it, all while trying to make the world better around us.
  9. Depression is a real thing. And when someone is depressed, happy not only feels impossible, it feels like a real chore. It feels like ‘it’s impossible’ and ‘what’s the point’ all at once. Depression hurts, and it’s miserable, and it sinks into your soul. But it can be temporary. It takes work to climb out of it. I did, once, and I try to help others do so. And if you have depression, well, then, you can too. I’m here anytime you need to talk.
  10. Lastly, I wish you could see you the way others see you, the way I see you. No matter how sad you might feel, it doesn’t make you any less amazing. You make art, and you see the world with an artist’s eye. You have survived unbearable things, and you have gone on to inspire others. You have restarted your life, shed your past, and began again with a new name and a new beginning. When a friend was hurting, you gave of yourself to help this friend in a way that very well may have saved his life, and that meant a lengthy healing process for you afterward. What you did for him is super-human. You have an enormous heart, and endless potential. Take a moment to look outside in, and do so with love and understanding, because you are incredible.

Don’t envy my happy. Instead: Be happy! Be you! Find your happy! Start today! I’m here, and I’ll be watching. And next time you see me walking down the sidewalk, don’t be sad. Instead, come out and say hi. I’ll have a huge hug waiting for you.

Mentally obese

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Stress wraps its invisible fingers around our insides and begins to squeeze. We don’t notice it at first. It starts out subtly, slithering and silent. It coats our stomachs and wraps around our brains, until one day, we realize our food isn’t digesting properly, our heads ache more often, and we aren’t sleeping well.

Like any kind of weight, stress comes on a spectrum of mild to obese. Mild stress can result in small frustrations, avoidance in relationships, and poor habits and decision-making. Major stress can lead to mid-life crises, abrupt changes in life like divorce and quitting a job, and an inability to rest and relax. Crippling stress leads to constant illness, severe depression, and a perpetual state of dissatisfaction. And people who learn to live with stress begin to think of it as normal and natural.

It isn’t.

Stress is a natural condition for moments, for short durations, during a college final or a work deadline; it is not natural as a perpetual state of living. Being overwhelmed is directly equitable to being mentally overweight or obese.

Mental obesity can also show up in the form of boredom. Humans have a need to be challenged, to be mentally stimulated. A lack of these leads to itchiness, frustration, and dissatisfaction. Education and engagement are crucial to mental fitness and human interactions.

As a therapist, I frequently see clients who are over-burdened by their jobs, or bored with their lives. They struggle with finding any hope in their future, dwelling firmly in the fact that they aren’t happy with their lives or stations now. And when someone is dissatisfied in their jobs, when their talents aren’t being utilized, when they are unemployed, when they feel their boss is constantly breathing down their neck, when they are putting in 80 hours a week and can’t get ahead… when these things happen, humans have health problems and unhealthy eating and exercise habits, they have dissatisfying relationships, they struggle with depression, and they lack purpose and inner peace.

Humans also need to regularly achieve. They need lists to check things off of. The perfect remedy to being bored is to get up and do something; the perfect remedy to being overwhelmed is to choosing one task at a time and completing it.

Another form of mental obesity is extreme debt. We live beyond our means, make big purchases, and charge up credit cards, and then work too much in a constant state of stress while living from paycheck to paycheck and barely managing to pay off the interest payments.

Being mentally fit requires mental discipline, vocationally, financially, and academically.

Somewhere along the line, it was bred into me that there is only one way to be successful. I threw myself into high school, completing difficult homework assignments, sometimes loving the knowledge I was acquiring, and sometimes being so overwhelmed by it that I couldn’t retain the algebra equations and history dates and chemical compositions. In college, I worked full time and would take between 15 and 21 credit hours, and I saw that impossible learning regimen as necessary for adulthood, while sacrificing my emotional, physical, and spiritual health. As a young social worker with a masters degree, I grew accustomed to doing ten hours of therapy for low levels of pay, going home physically and mentally drained each night, and dreading work the next day. Over time, I lost sight of why I got into social into the first place, and began to feel like a cog in a machine that was being aged prematurely.

Around this time, I was receiving steady paychecks, and writing out regular bills, for health insurance, for cable and internet, for electricity and gasoline, for food, for car payments, for medical insurance, for automobile insurance, for cell phone, for tithing, for student loan debts, for college education funds for my sons, and, most overwhelmingly, for mortgage. I would sit down and budget each month and become overwhelmed by the massive amounts of responsibility. Later, after my divorce, this only mounted when child support payments were placed on the top. And I couldn’t even mentally factor in the amounts going toward income taxes, property taxes, state taxes, and federal withholdings. I remember that old pit in the center of my stomach.

I was so constantly overwhelmed by the stress of my job and the responsibilities of my financial debts that I had little opportunity to find things to achieve. I had forgotten the wonderful feeling of finishing a book, the interest I could throw into a research project, or the simple sensation of setting a goal, working on it, and ultimately achieving it. Accompanied by depression, a lack of purpose, and physical weight, the mental stress compounded, feeling like it would overwhelm me and shorten my lifespan.

My mental weight took me much longer to shed than the others. After losing my physical weight, coming out of the closet, grieving my past, discovering my spiritual health, and forming true friendships, I could start to examine my actual stress levels. It was a few more years of maxed out credit cards and working 60 hour weeks before I realized that I was stressed, overwhelmed, and consistently complaining about my financial responsibilities.

My mental health came through exhausting areas:

  1. Making regular time for myself to learn, read, research, and write.
  2. Taking a careful look at my financial situation and preparing a careful plan to relieve financial debt and plan for the future.
  3. Remembering what I love about my professional field, finding a way to make myself happy in my field, and finding a way to make enough money to support myself while doing what I love.

I began organizing my schedule differently. I quit my job and became self-employed, and I began diversifying my services. I advertised. I started with lower rates and then began to charge more. I did regular self-inventory to make sure I was happy along the way. I began limiting my expenses and putting my extra money toward debt. In a year, I was able to pay off one of the credit cards, then my car, then the other cards. I was able to establish a savings account. I began actively learning, and writing about what I learned. I began setting and achieving goals that would have felt impossible years before.

Now, I love what I do. I engage myself intellectually. I challenge and push myself. I take time off when needed, and I don’t let myself get bored. I recognize when I’m overwhelmed and I nurture myself into health again. I budget and plan things out financially. I recognize my needs, and I take care of myself. And, most importantly, I recognize that stress, exhaustion, and boredom are not my natural state; fulfillment, accomplishment, and satisfaction are.

 

(This concludes my writings on obesity. Previous blogs on emotional, physical, and spiritual obesity were previously submitted).

 

 

Unhappy People

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In my experience, you can usually recognize unhappy people quickly because they spend a lot of time telling you why they are unhappy.

Back when I was heavy (I lost 80 pounds several years back), I would spend a lot of time telling people why I was heavy and why I couldn’t get fit. I must have had dozens of conversations with people who were in better shape that sounded something like this.

Wow, you’ve gotten in really good shape. I’m totally envious.

You know, you could get in shape, too. It all comes down to diet and exercise.

Yeah, I know, but I wasn’t raised like that. I don’t have the time to catch up. And you’re so far ahead of me.

Lots of people lose weight and get fit. It takes work and dedication, but it is totally possible.

I understand that as a concept, but those people don’t have my life. I’m working 60 hours a week and I have Church callings, I have kids, plus I have a bad back. Maybe in the future. And eating healthy takes so much time and money. It’s just beyond me right now.

Well, the truth was, I could get fit (and I later did). It wasn’t that I didn’t have time, it’s that I didn’t manage my time well. It wasn’t that I had a bad back, in fact my back pain was much much worse when I was heavy. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the training, I just needed to train myself. It wasn’t that eating well took time and money, it is that I was lazy, uneducated, and unwise in my food choices, and I consumed far too many unhealthy things.

Yet I spent a lot of time telling people why I envied them, why I was unhappy. I wanted their attention and sympathy, even as I went to grab a family size bag of Peanut Butter MnMs, microwaved popcorn with butter, and a large Coke for lunch, and then hit the fast-food drive-thru on the way home. And ate it all and wanted more. While feeling sorry for myself.

I see the same types of habits with people who feel stuck by life, who are struggling with physical or emotional health issues, who have financial burdens, who are frustrated by a certain type of success that they want to achieve, or even who are in unhealthy relationships that last way too long.

People that we perceive as successful, that we honor and laud for their success, are those who don’t waste time whining about the status of their lives and instead get up to affect change.

Despite my recent accomplishments, I have fallen into a few old patterns lately, isolating myself a bit and feeling sorry for myself, even while lamenting a certain quality of friends or relationships. I’ve had my reasons and excuses this past year: a few professional ventures haven’t succeeded like I had hoped, a relationship I put a lot into didn’t pan out, and my best friend died. But these old patterns have held me down. I have had decades of practice at putting them in place, all those years spent as the quiet closeted Mormon kid who didn’t think he had a future.

I want to point out that there is an enormous difference between unhappy and sad. Every human needs time to be sad, to grieve and be heartbroken, to be a little numb and even to have a good cry from time to time. But being momentarily sad is vastly different than being unhappy long-term.

The truth is, I have every potential for happiness, fitness, financial freedom, healthy relationships, and success as anyone else. It all comes down to how I spend my time, what I spend my time on, who I spend my time with, and what I choose to make my priorities.

I’m making a new firm commitment with myself that I will stop wasting time being unhappy and will spend more time making decisions that lead me toward happiness. I only get to do this once, and 38 is beckoning ever closer.