I’ve long said that I find it pretty easy to be happy as long as there’s nothing actively stressing me out. I used to just say “I find it pretty easy to be happy,” and then I became an adult and found out there’s usually something stressing me out. Still, tucking those moments of joy into my life comes fairly naturally to me. I got lucky in that way, with regards to my brain chemistry and whatnot.
The downside of this is that I don’t know how to handle being miserable. It’s a little like Superman when exposed to excessive red-sun radiation. A papercut can take him out. At least, that’s how it is when it’s portrayed like that. For example, my wife does not have this terrible burden of default-happiness. But it means that sometime when things go wrong she can handle it better than I can. She knows what it’s like to live with anxiety and work straight through a panic attack. A Rogue-style powerset that it’s easy to respect but hard to envy.
Which brings us to today. About 3 months ago, my mother in law broke her right arm. She is 74, diabetic, very overweight, and has tendonitis and back pain. She was barely mobile before this, but the stress and pain of the injury coupled with the loss of her dominant hand left her nearly helpless. Since I didn’t have a job, and since my wife had supported me for months while I wrote a novel and attempted to find myself, I took on the brunt of taking care of my mother in law.
It turns out taking care of an infirm elderly person is absolutely brutal. Especially when she can’t get out of bed without being hoisted, and her size means that is very, very difficult. She was not an easy patient, either. Finicky and sometimes demanding, frequently either giving up too soon or thinking she could do things she couldn’t do and getting herself into trouble. I was constantly sleep deprived and achy, covered in bodily fluids, and unable to focus on anything, control my schedule, or live my life.
The worst of it lasted about 8 weeks, and it was one of the most difficult and unpleasant periods of my life. It also turned me into someone I didn’t really like. I was impatient and snappy; I got angry at my mother in law for things that weren’t really her fault, but which made our lives miserable. At one point I took all of her blankets and pillows away I was so angry, and went back up to bed. I quickly felt bad about it, and came down ten minutes later. She looked at me, and very contritely said, “If I’m a good kitty, can I maybe have one pillow back?”
And now I have to live with the fact that I did that. And my wife didn’t even think I did anything wrong, because that’s how bad it all got. But I also had a weird guilt complex about the fact that this was my responsibility, and I tried to let my wife do as little as possible. At one point she confronted me about it, and said that what I was doing was killing me and wasn’t fair, and that she wanted her husband back. That night and the next day I relinquished, and she took over all the duties so I could finally get more than 3 hours in a row of sleep.
Things got better after that. The mother in law started to recover enough to take care of some of her own stuff, and life slowly improved. She still needed a bit of help, showering and dealing with her insulin and whatnot, but it was all very survivable. That started about 3 weeks ago, and things have pretty much gotten okay.
About three hours before this writing she fell and broke her other arm.
After they came and took her away to the hospital I did some screaming. I smashed some thing. I made a comment on Facebook implying that I wanted to kill myself, and it turns out there are a lot of people in my life who don’t want me to do that. So that’s good to know.
The mother in law is back, now, and it looks like this break might not be quite as bad as the last one. But the first one hasn’t fully recovered, so the overall situation could be pretty terrible. I’m looking at a period ahead that could be as hellish as the last.
And I’m wondering about it. I know that plenty of people deal with much worse situations all the time, but as we all know that helps a little but not very much. But it’s more thinking about my reaction. I think many people in the modern world feel that we are entitled to happiness. That it’s a basic human right. That it’s something we deserve. And it makes situations that violate the possibility of that happiness, either in the short-term or for longer, feel somehow offensive. They feel personal. Like a violation.
On one level having my mother in law break her previously unbroken arm just as her broken one was almost heals has the characteristics of a bad joke. It’s like something about of a Ben Stiller movie. So because it’s so narrative it’s easy to be angry at whoever wrote the screenplay.
But on the other hand, bad things happen. The kind of happiness we think of when we think of happiness is very modern, and it’s neither a necessary feature of human psychology nor of the natural universe. I was just starting to get some momentum on my actual life goals, and now I feel like all that has been kicked out from under me. But maybe it hasn’t. Maybe this is an opportunity. Maybe I should have actually done something last time I was in the middle of this crisis, rather than just spending the entire time bemoaning my rotten luck. Maybe this is my chance to try again. And maybe happiness isn’t something you deserve, but something you have to build, like a life-sized chupacabra made out of legos originally intended to built a model Death Star but screw you they’re legos I’ll build what I want to dammit.
I figure I’ll have a lot of time to think about all this over the next few weeks. After all, it’s not like I’ll be getting much sleep.