A few years back, there was a patient named Susan (not her real name) who was attending my group therapy session one day. She had been in the hospital before, and I had treated her then as well. Half-way through the session she said, “Jim, when I was here before you said something that has been so helpful…. You said it was ok to have a bad day and not to be so depressed about being depressed. That was so freeing.”
That nugget of advice I gave Susan is one that truly resonates with me. I have had a lot of bad days over the past seven and a half years. Days when I’m depressed. Days when I’m afraid. Days when I’m anxious. Days when I’m grieving. Days I feel profoundly lonely. Days I dread the future. Days I feel ashamed and guilty. Days I’m in so much physical and psychological discomfort.
I have had really good reasons for those bad days. I am a bilateral stroke survivor, and one of the lasting effects of that event is that my autonomic nervous system is fried. Specifically, my sympathetic nervous system is stuck on the “on” setting. Among my symptoms I experience severe and chronic vertigo, chronic nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty concentrating, constant brain fog, severe anxiety that often has my whole body shaking…. I could go on and on. Most of the time, I live in misery. Sometimes it’s unadulterated anguish.
I deal with depression too. I’ve had to close my practice for the second time. Since my work had been a significant part of my identity, I frequently feel lost without it. Knowing my purpose and meaning comes and goes. I isolate from friends and family due to the overwhelming symptoms. I can’t drive more than a few miles safely. I’ve had periods of delirium. Anyway… I’ll stop now. I don’t want pity, and I’m not whining. I just want to give an accurate account of what I deal with on a daily basis.
Most of us hurt in one way or another. We have our anxieties. We get exhausted from life. We struggle with uncertainty. We have physical pain. We mourn for the losses we’ve experienced. We have regrets. We get lonely. We deal with injustices. We are tempted to just throw up our hands and give up at times.
The “happiness” culture we live in wearies me. We are surrounded by messages that try to tell us that only positivity is ok. We have a million prescription drugs intended to make us feel good. The church often sells the idea that even God primarily wants us to be happy and that, if we are not happy, there’s something wrong in our relationship with Him. Marketers capitalize on the happiness culture. Many ads I’ve seen on TV aren’t trying to sell a product…. They are trying to sell an experience. Essentially they say, “If you buy our product you will be happy and healthy.”
Our culture seems to have no place for grieving or sadness. No tolerance for negative moods and emotions. So hurting people walk through life often feeling there is no place for them. They might feign happiness and contentment, but privately they suffer. Inside they are a mess. And they grow weary from keeping up appearances.
I’ve had it with the happiness culture. The truth is, everyone *isn’t* happy. People aren’t pain free. Everyone is impacted by brokenness, but we’re not allowed to talk about that. I think when we finally give ourselves permission not to be happy, we encounter freedom to live out the whole of whom we are… not just the positive. Sometimes it’s through our pain and the pain of others that we find deep connections with others and even God. Sometimes our pain forces us into contexts where we can use our gifts and talents to bless the world. Pain can be a powerful impetus inside of us to make much needed changes. I don’t see pain as the enemy. I don’t see unhappiness as the enemy. An enemy that I *do* see is society’s pressure on us to live inauthentically… pressure not to be real.
Soon after my stroke, I noticed a pattern that was starting to develop. People would come visit me, and I would do my best to let them know how angry and cynical I had become because of what I had lost to the stroke. But time after time, as I was grieving my losses, people would tell me, “Your courage is so inspiring…. Your honesty is so refreshing, etc.” Here I was trying to be as negative as possible so people would know my outrage toward God and fate itself, and all the while God was redeeming that anger and outrage by using it to bless others (against my will, I might add). That just pissed me off more–that God had the nerve to use my misery to bring blessings to others.
I grow weary sometimes of people trying to turn my sadness into gladness, my depression into joy, and my anger into a smile. Here’s the thing. Sorrowful people who are having a bad day need others to support them and be present with them, not try to change them. In some of my dark times, my friend Andy used to come over to the house when I was by myself, and he and I would hardly speak. He would sit on the sofa with me and just be present with me. No platitudes, no pressure for me to feel better. Just presence. Those were some of the most meaningful times that I can remember. His presence and silence meant to me that he accepted me as I was and was willing to be with me without trying to change me.
So go ahead…. Have a bad day.