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Trauma, life, and the Happiness Myth: Addiction Therapy Unscripted

All therapists have clients who remain forever imprinted on their hearts, whose stories and energies move them into new dimensions and ways of thinking. These are the clients who create a sense of fulfillment, gratitude and humbleness for the work we do. They often teach us something new about ourselves or about the world we live in. These individuals come in unexpected ways, in unexpected personalities, but they always leave a significant impression. 

When I think about the client who taught me about happiness, I think about Megan. Within five minutes of our first session, she pointblank told me, I have no idea what genuine happiness actually feels like. 

As her life unfolded within my office, I saw she wasn’t kidding or exaggerating. Megan had been in the perils of depression for so long that she could not comprehend or internalize sensations beyond dread, despair, or numbness. As a child, she suffered severe, compounded trauma, and even the memories she had as a little girl were “sad.” By fourteen, she was addicted to crack and heroin. By fifteen, she was homeless and prostituting to support her drug habit.

Happiness, whatever it was, felt like some pipe dream, this elusive intangibility, and she firmly believed it was a feeling that only others experienced. 

When I met her, she was 23 years old, and on the proverbial brink of death. After four overdoses in two months, she came to the conclusion that, happy or not, she wanted to give this life thing a chance. 

We are all a bit desperate for happiness. We chase feeling good, and pleasure is the driving force shaping most of our decisions and life orientations. I remember asking Megan what she thought happiness was and how she would know if and when she did feel it.

I mean, I’ll be cool with everything- I’ll be excited with what’s happening in my life. I’ll be proud of myself. I’ll have a job and house and good boyfriend. It’ll all be okay.

Megan didn’t desire unrealistic things; she wanted what most of us want. But, to understand happiness and our quests for it, to understand its role in our individual lives, we must dismantle this notion that joy exists as an eternal state, that it’ll all be exciting and cool and okay. 

Society misinterprets happiness. It puts it on a high pedestal, wraps it in a pretty box with a tidy bow and makes it seem like it can be achieved so long as you have the right mindset or right job or right partner. Society never shows the quieter side of this emotion, never reveals it for its time-limited and ultimately fleeting status.

Without the ribbons and bows, without society’s favoritism or our drives and desperation for it, happiness is just an emotion.

This is where the recovering addict struggles. Clients like Megan, with complex histories of horrific trauma, often lack baseline data for what genuine happiness actually feels like. Upon discovering drugs, most experience an enlightened epiphany. 

Everything changed, she said. It’s like suddenly I felt happy. Euphoric, even. Everything was okay in the world, at least when I was high. I had never felt so good in my entire life. 

By nature, addiction maintains itself through rapid cycles of instant gratification via heightened sensations and experiences. With drugs, Megan felt a serenity and confidence and giddiness she had never felt before. And the drugs repeated those sensations, over and over again. Happiness was now artificial, but if one is desperate and needy enough for it, this will hardly matter. 

Genuine happiness, in a sense, would never compare to the highs and lows of her addiction roller coaster, and in the middle of our treatment, she broke down. She wanted to relapse. She wanted to return back to her old way of living. Most clients experience this.  Everything was starting to feel too hard, too real. If I’m going to be this miserable, I might as well be high. She was angry at sobriety, angry at life, even angry at me, as she said, What’s the point? I’m still not happy. 

Happy is not a state. It is an emotion. It comes and it goes. And, Megan had experienced some of its virtues during our work together. There was the time she cried from laughing so hard with her friends. There was the time she visited and gleefully played with her newborn baby cousin for the first time. There was the magical sensation of dipping her toes into the Pacific Ocean and eventually submerging herself into an invigorating swim. 

She had experienced happiness- many tiny and powerful forms of it- but, like so many of us, she discounted and dismissed these positive experiences. On the one hand, they felt small and insignificant. On the other hand, she didn’t like their unpredictability; she didn’t like how they often sprinkled in waves of other emotions, such as insecurity, anger, or sadness. She didn’t like how quickly her emotional state changed.

I suggested she stop labeling her emotions- to stop seeing them as good, bad, right, or wrong, and instead, shift judgment into acceptance, shift resistance into curiosity. Feelings are natural impulses cluing us into our environments and internal states. They exist with purpose, and we are designed to feel all of them at varying times and with varying intensities. Oftentimes, we can feel more than one of them simultaneously. This is normal. Happiness may be the well-liked and optimal emotion, but it is not the only one in our spectrum, and we need to be okay with that. 

Increasing happiness was not the primary goal for Megan. It was significantly more important for her to work on increasing her self-esteem and self-worth. She needed to learn and practice acceptance of emotions; she needed to implement coping in healthy ways; she needed to prove to herself that she could be flexible and resilient enough to handle difficult life situations. She needed to remove happiness from the pedestal, trusting that it would still be there for her when she needed to feel it. 

Megan worked hard. We cherished the little moments. We spent tremendous energy on embracing gratitude. We fostered a sense of purpose and direction for her life. She laughed, and she cried. She learned how to label her feelings, and she learned that she didn’t have to beat herself up for having any of them. 

On our last session, she told me that she had a new definition for happiness, and she summed it up as this; 

Mostly, it comes in waves. I smile a lot more, laugh a lot more, but not always. There’s still shit, and there always will be. I have to trust that I’m okay, no matter how I feel. I know if I can tolerate any emotion, I can tolerate anything. And even just thinking about that, well, that makes me happy. 

*While these are based on true experiences, all reasonable efforts have been made by this writer to protect utmost client and treatment confidentiality. Because of this, names, ages, features, and identifying details in this piece have been changed, omitted, and/or embellished.