This post was inspired by the inimitable David Rochester.
I’d like to quote fairly extensively from David’s post, for which I hope he will forgive me, because he has expressed it more articulately than I ever could:
It is very rare that I feel pleasure or contentment, and rare that I have positive feelings I can identify. This makes life very strange, and makes me feel I am lying a lot of the time, as I have to translate my actual experience into language that people understand and won’t take offense at. For example, it’s not acceptable to say: “Thank you for having me over. I’m sure I would have enjoyed it if I were capable of feeling enjoyment; I’m deducing that this is the kind of thing I would like, if I liked anything.”
Instead, of course, I say: “Thank you for having me over; I had a lovely time.”
…It’s not normal not to be able to enjoy yourself. Most people do it without thinking. They are satisfied with things they do, or they know they’re having fun, or they like people. “I had a good time doing that,” they say, and they mean something by it that I don’t mean.
…I have been joyless as long as I can remember. My mother remembers noticing it when I was a very young child, at the age when most children have some sense of carefree happiness. For most of my life, I have feared that in fact I lack something that other people have, and I can’t be happy or fulfilled.
At the moment, I’m looking into taking a course of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to try and help me foil my brain’s renewed attempts to sabotage my life. But I’m really rather terrified at the prospect of talking about Things. What if I get upset and start crying? I HATE crying. I have only cried in front of two people since I reached adulthood almost 20 years ago.
And what if I don’t have any Things to talk about? Thankfully, I wasn’t bullied as a child. My parents weren’t abusive or neglectful. I’ve had my heart broken, but who hasn’t, right? I’m physically healthy, I have a great job in a wonderful city and a number of kind friends. Nothing to gripe about whatsoever, basically.
I’m worried that the therapist may say something along the lines of “Remember a time and a place when you were really happy”. I can’t remember such a time or place. Seriously; all self-pitying nombrilism aside, I really cannot.
What happy moments do other people conjure up? Their wedding day? The birth of a child? Some idyllic childhood summer’s day playing with family or friends? Winning an important sports match or academic prize?
I’m not married – never even been close. No children either, and highly unlikely to have any at this rate. As a child I know I played games with other children and with my siblings, but mostly, given the choice, I snuck away and read a book somewhere quiet – either way, I don’t remember feeling happy or unhappy about it. In fact, the main incidents I remember from childhood games are a) getting stuck up a really big tree b) falling off an over-enthusiastically manned see-saw and c) nearly breaking my neck on a pair of new roller-skates. I participated in sports at school because, as boarders, we had no option. I was just above average at most sports, but never outstanding, and I didn’t care much. I won every academic prize at my school with no effort whatsoever, so the prizes meant nothing since I had neither earned or desired them. I simply expected them and duly accepted them at boring formal events where we had to wait in line without picking our noses, then step up on stage and be clapped while we were handed a nice, big book, the subject of which we were rarely, if ever, allowed to choose yet for which we were still expected to be grateful.
It has just occurred to me that in every single photograph of me as a child I am not smiling. In some of the later ones from school I am doing a passable impression of the kind of face one expects in a photo – looking at the camera, teeth showing – but always a little watchfully. I’m observing myself pretending to fit in.
Which is odd, because I was part of the ‘in’ group at school. I was never picked on – despite being a brain – I adapted quickly and learnt to exploit the reassuringly harmless comedic value of being eccentric in a classically British way. I made people laugh. And when occasionally someone ‘saw through me’ (when we were 14 a classmate once said that I made her feel uncomfortable but that she knew I didn’t mean it) I wondered what I was doing wrong and redoubled my efforts to put others at their ease.
I’m usually a pretty active person: my iPhoto collection proves that in the last 12 months I have been kayaking, scuba diving, running, swimming, out for dinner/brunch, to the cinema, to the pub, to art galleries and museums, to gigs and the theatre, I’ve even been to an AFL match. But I had to force myself to do all of those things, to fight the urge to come up with an excuse not to go.
Now, unlike David, once there I did enjoy those things – with the exception of the AFL match which was crowded, confusing and crushingly hot.
Why, then, is my default setting still ‘find/stay somewhere quiet by myself and read a book’?
All of which is a long-winded and tedious way of saying that, while I can vividly remember several instances of being miserably, achingly, sobbingly unhappy, I can’t actually recall a single moment of giddy happiness. I’m becoming increasingly unconvincing at faking it for others, too.
I’m going to go and have a cuppa now, and cogitate on this a little more. Then I’ll post something full of cheerful nonsense, promise.