“I think I had an unhappy childhood!” I announced to a therapist at the age of 58.
It’s amazing what my brain had done to hide that fact from me.
I’d developed a panic disorder at the age of 15. Terrified of the mental illness and sadness stalking my family, I’d self-medicated in high school, stashing a flask of vodka in my ever-present pocketbook. Over the next forty years, however, with the help of anti-anxiety medication, I managed to build a wonderful life for myself. I married a loving husband, had two beautiful sons, and enjoyed success in several different careers.
In the skies above Oklahoma three years ago, in the middle of a book tour, I read about Tibetan monks who meditated so effectively that neuroscientists were studying their brains. “I want the brain of a monk,” I decided. I vowed to meditate my way from panic to peace.
I attended a retreat with a monk who’d cured his own panic disorder through meditation. I studied with other wise Buddhist teachers, and spent a year learning how to sit still. With the help of Somatic Experiencing and EMDR, two powerful therapies, I learned how to self-regulate and discharge the frightening physical symptoms of anxiety that had plagued me for decades. I grew strong enough to understand that my panic had masked a lot of sadness. I explored the roots of that sadness, reprocessed disturbing memories, and became grounded, calm, and finally, astonishingly, happy.
But then I got scared. Could I really leave my panic behind? Was it selfish to be happy? Who was I if I erased years of unhappiness? What did it say about me if I left the people I’d loved behind, and moved on?
We live in a culture where people often seek happiness through nose jobs, lottery tickets and reality TV success. And yet sitting in a therapist’s office is sometimes considered self-indulgent.
But after years of suffering silently, feeling broken, defective and just plain weird, the therapy, reflection and meditation I’ve done late in life has taught me something I never realized as a child growing up in a confusing household:
It is not selfish to seek happiness.
For years, my panic made me much more self-absorbed than the therapy that made me whole. I was unable to fully understand the suffering of others until I understood the roots of my own.
My favorite meditation practice now is metta, or loving-kindness meditation. “May I be safe,” I whisper to myself. “May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live with ease.” Then I wish those same things for loved ones, strangers, and all living beings.
Suffering is, unfortunately, an inevitable part of life, I now realize.
But happiness is contagious.
And I’m trying to spread it wherever I can.