I was at a four-day writers’ conference this past weekend. It was supposed to be on a lake in northern Michigan, but due to COVID, it was on Zoom. That’s a lot of screen time, but it was worth it. I met a wonderful group of people in my memoir workshop; each session I attended was fantastic. We critiqued each others’ work, I received lots of feedback and encouragement, and the author who led the group imparted her valuable wisdom on writing and how to navigate the publishing realm.
At the final session, she gave us an assignment. She’ll never see it. We’ll never share it. It was just a parting gift for us to mull over and write about, another way to gain insight into ourselves, our writing abilities, our hopes, our dreams. She said, “Write about what you’re afraid of.”
Now, in the context of being a writer, many of us in the workshop had already discussed success as being something we may feel is impossible to attain, and that we may also fear. We could be afraid of being vulnerable in our writing, exposing too much of ourselves. We could fear failure: never getting published or finding our voices.
But after the workshop, as I pondered the question and stared at the blank page, I came up with one word that surprised me…
I am afraid of happiness. That’s what widowhood has done to me. Watching Rick slowly die and my happiness drain away changed me. I found someone to love, someone I wanted to spend my life with. And he died. And with his death, my whole life turned upside down and my happiness evaporated.
I sought grief counseling because the sadness was overwhelming. I needed to find a way to process the grief, but I was also seeking a way to find that road towards happiness again. A few months after Rick died, I remember telling my therapist that for a fleeting second one evening, I realized I was content. Normally, since his death, I had just been devastated, or sad, or felt nothing. But that one evening for a few minutes, maybe even an hour, I was focused on something that used to be meaningful to me (I don’t even remember what it was) and I realized I was not in emotional pain. My mind was quiet. I was actually content.
My therapist told me that there was a happiness scale. And that contentment was a milestone for me, because it was the beginning. It was the low end of the scale, but at least I had reached that point. It was the bottom rung of the steps towards happiness.
Happiness: A general sense of well-being, ranging from contentment to ecstasy.
Since that time, I have moved up the scale. I have felt all those emotions again, ranging from contentment to ecstasy. I’m happy to be back in what I term, “the land of the living.” My life is full and continues to get better.
And now, I’ve come full circle. I’ve met a man. I love everything about him and the feeling seems to be mutual. When we’re together, time stands still. If we’re not together, we’re texting. If I’m not with him, I’m thinking about him. We’re so different, yet compatible. I feel a connection with him I haven’t felt in a long, long time. But with this joy, also comes this fear. What if I feel that overwhelming, fantastic, butterflies-in-my-stomach love for him and he leaves me, or… he dies?
I think I’m afraid of trusting in this kind of happiness again, because at the other end of the spectrum is such devastation. I recently discovered that this is an actual phobia. Loosely defined, cherophobia is the fear of being happy, because if you’re too happy, something tragic may happen. I wonder how many widows identify with this?
So what to do? Live a solo life, a safe, yet contented life, and never again experience the thrill of being in love? Pick safety over potential ecstasy?
Nope. I’m diving in head first. I learned something else from Rick’s death. Life is short. Life is worth living. I may be afraid of happiness, but I’ve conquered other fears, and the funny thing is, that thing I fear doing the most usually turns out to be something great, something worth fighting for.
Take the writers’ conference this weekend. I was afraid of attending. As the date approached, I second-guessed my decision to register for it. These are writing professionals. I’ve never been published. This world is foreign to me. I’ll make a fool of myself. Yada yada yada. In the end, I realized how important this was to me. How long I’ve looked forward to entering the writing world and meeting others who have a passion for the written word, just like I do. So I tossed fear aside and entered the Zoom meeting.
On a break during the third day of the conference, I found myself sitting under my gazebo crying. Tears of joy. I loved every minute! I was in my element! I came away with insights into writing, and getting published. I was with peers who accepted me and even praised the essay I read for being filled with such “raw emotion” that they were too overwhelmed to speak. The four days flew by and I was lost in a world of talented writers who taught me more in a weekend than I’ve learned in years. I didn’t want the weekend to end. And I almost didn’t attend because I was afraid. If I’d missed it, I’d have missed the ecstasy I felt as a result of that intense experience.
A little more than 25 years ago, I went on a first date with a man. Is it TMI to tell you I was so nervous I vomited before I went to meet him? But I went anyway. If I’d chickened out on that first date, I would have missed the next 20+ years of happiness that I shared with Rick. Sure, I’d have missed the grief, but would I sacrifice the joy of having loved him to avoid the grief that resulted from his loss? Never.
Loving and losing Rick, learning to live without him, was painful. So yes, that experience has made me afraid of happiness and cautious about loving again. I can choose to overcome the fear and take a chance on new love, or stick with contentment and play it safe. But I realize now that, although I’ve been enjoying my life again, there has been something missing. Every time this man holds my hand, every time he kisses me, I get a glimmer of how it feels to be truly alive again. It’s worth the risk. I’m still here – in the land of the living – and I’ll be damned if I’ll let fear keep me from the chance to enjoy that special kind of happiness again.