Being Happy Can Be Dangerous

The moment I realized that being happy can be dangerous for your mental health was when I was ten years old. And after many other “moments” in my life when I was truly happy, moments which ended badly for me or others, I came to the conclusion that worrying something bad might happen was my best defense against something bad “really” happening. My epiphany didn’t happen overnight. The first alarm bell went off when I was four years old. That clanging sound I heard inside my head crystallized into an instinctive gut response whenever something I heard or something I saw felt out-of-whack.

Ever afterward my instinct has been to listen for the warning bell. If I hear the bell, then I seek out the cause, question people, focus on the problem and if convinced something bad is going to happen begin the process of worrying in earnest to prevent something truly bad from happening. The incident which started the ball rolling happened when I was four years old. I remember very little about life as a four-year-old. There are only wisps of memory of me and my little sister with the man I called Dad and my mother. I remember my little sister had been tied with a rope to the laundry line because she kept running into the street. I’d been assigned to watch her as she ran back and forth along the wire her chubby legs pumping.

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As she ran, she would come up short only able to go as far as the clothesline would allow. While she ran from one end of the clothesline to the other, I seesawed on the chicken wire fence separating me from my true love – the little boy next door. He copied what I was doing. Soon the fence was bowed in the middle. We talked for hours. I vaguely remember he did most of the talking, telling me all sorts of cool stuff.

Anyway, my father – the bank robber – the one that adopted me – told me what happened that day, a story, a story which would haunt me to this day and now in retrospect I realize determined my outlook on life for nearly sixty years. The story he told turned out to be catastrophic for everyone: for the man I called Dad, for my mother, my siblings and for me. I was in my early twenties when he told me the story, when he began to reminisce about life with mother and his children in the summer of 1960. He said the day he went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came home I surprised him with my strange reaction to his departure.

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Your thinking – what a cliché, a man goes out for cigarettes and never returns. Oh yeah, it’s a cliché, it’s a cliché because unfortunately for many families such things did and still do happen. Before he’d even left the house to pick up his “cigarettes,” he said I ran to him and clung to his leg and cried hysterically demanding he not go. He said he peeled my hands off his pant legs and left the house quickly, hearing my screams all the way to the car. He said he would never forget my hissy fit over nothing.

He’d told my mother he was just going down to the grocery store for a pack of cigarettes and asked her if she needed him to get some milk. No one suspected his true intentions. My little sister was too young to know what was going on. I should have been too young to know what was going on. And my mother was too busy and too pregnant to realize what was going on. He didn’t walk out with a suitcase or even a duffel bag. Maybe he’d stashed some supplies with friends, his jeans and jacket and Brylcreem, friends who intended to rob the next bank? But that bank was two states east of where we lived.

He told me he’d been wondering for a long time about my strange reaction to his innocent comment as if I could read his mind and knew exactly what he intended to do. After years in jail where he had plenty of opportunities to reflect on his past, he’d come to the conclusion I was the kind of kid who spent way too much time thinking and imagining and should have spent more time playing with other kids. Then he told me to go back to my husband and stop messing up my life.

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Ironic, huh? A man who abandoned his wife and children ordering me to go back to my husband. But, I did. I did because he’d called my husband and told him where to find me. I’m glad I did go back to my husband if only because of what happened during our brief reunion as a married couple. My youngest son might never have been born if I’d done what I’d wanted – divorce my husband and enroll in college.  Both of my sons are precious to me and I couldn’t imagine a world without them in it. Even with the current estrangement between us, I’m still proud of them and wish them all the best.  

As I recall, the man I called Dad didn’t apologize for deserting us, just mentioned the moment of his abandonment in an offhand way as if he’d been discussing the weather or baseball. His story about our past together was a brief glimpse into my life as a very young child. There are few pictures of me when I was a kid or pictures of any of us as babies. But even back then I was alert enough to sense a seismic shift threatening our lives. The threat became a reality when the man I called Dad disappeared and Mom had to raise her unborn baby, me and the clothesline runner all by herself. Bravo, you cockeyed optimist.

After a number of events which began happily and ended badly, I started to find ways to cope with the capricious nature of being a selfish human living among other selfish humans. But first several incidents drove the necessity for self-preservation home to me in acute, sometimes silly ways.

Image by K McVere LLC

When I was around nine, the television set was on. We only had one and it was always on during the day. It was on until bedtime, then we all had to go to bed at eight, even if some of us were older and should have been allowed to stay up until nine. That day, I saw beautiful ballerinas on our black-and-white screen. They were so beautiful in their costumes, so athletic, light and airy. For a few hours I no longer wanted to be a writer. No way. I wanted to be a ballerina. I began to imitate what I saw on the screen and danced about the living room leaping over the coffee table and leaping over the armrest of the couch, doing my best to pirouette and turn myself into a beautiful ballerina.

My attempt to leap off the couch was a disaster; my foot sunk into the narrow crevasse between the armrest and the couch pad. I had these pokey knobs on either side of my ankle and because I was so damned skinny, my match-stick leg and my narrow foot tore through the flimsy netting. It hurt and I started to scream for my mother. She came running into the room and saw what had happened and began to laugh. I was mortified. That was the last time I ever seriously considered being a ballerina.

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I’ll never forget the summer of my sixteenth year, an idyllic day at the lake with a good friend. We swam until dark and then went into the cabin to play chess. We began to rough house. We’d been sitting cross legged on either end of the big couch with the chess board between us. I can’t remember which one of us tried to kick the other off the couch. Our horsing around was playful. We sat with our backs up against the armrests and with our bare feet gently tried to nudge the other one off the couch, inch by inch. At times, we were laughing so hard we couldn’t get our breath. I’ll never forget that day. It was the happiest day I’d ever had. Everything was perfect even when I dove off the diving board earlier in the day and hit my face on the bottom of the lake.

And then.

I’m dropped off at my house and my mother tells us we’re moving, and I’ll be going to a different school and I’ll never see my friend again.

Flash forward several decades and I’m in my early thirties on my way to work and had taken the exit to get onto the road which would take me to my new job. I loved the work, even though I had to deal with upset and sometimes angry consumers. I loved the work because the people I worked with were professional and kind and often funny. I was also in love with one of the staff members who worked on the other side of the wall.

I was humming to a song on the car radio and feeling ecstatic about my new life in a new state. And then I hit the Mercedes. Unbeknownst to me the driver of the Mercedes had pulled out and changed her mind. I, thinking she’d found a chance to pull into traffic hit her bumper. She was upset. Of course. Her car was far more valuable than mine. We looked at the damage. There was a smudge of my crème colored paint on her shiny bumper. Eventually she decided the paperwork and fuss would only raise our insurance rates and sped off.

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A few years after my bumper incident with the Mercedes I married the man I thought I loved, and I moved into his house and took care of his children and believed I was the happiest woman in the whole world. I had finally found a stable man with a good job who had a brilliant mind and even loved to watch Star Trek too. My plan was to ignore his drinking and fix up his old house and be truly happy. I, of course, ignored my own drinking – but I’ve already addressed this subject in an earlier post. If you are concerned about a loved one or your own addictions, please find help, don’t wait until you’re forty years old like I did.

Anyway, after a year of wedded bliss my husband came home one night and said he wanted to move up into the mountains, up to Ruby Ridge maybe, or somewhere in the mountains where nobody would object to our arrangement. He kept going on and on about how he’d take me and the woman he’d been having an affair with and we would live happily ever after, all of us one big happy family. Somehow, he had the delusion that living with two wives would be legal and that both of us would be content to live together raising my children and his children. Doesn’t every woman dream of sharing her husband with another woman?

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Within a few days, I’d moved out of his house. I vowed to get my own house one day and promised myself that no man would ever take away my home from me again. Less than six months later, I bought a house. It looked like the house from hell. Its porch roof was in imminent danger of collapsing on anyone brave enough to knock on my front door. The only heat in the house was an old furnace which blew hot air into two rooms – the living room and the tiny kitchen; otherwise, all the other rooms in the house were freezing in winter and suffocating in summer. Oh, and I found out later every window needed to be replaced, like the porch roof, they were crumbling. None of that mattered to me; I now had a new mission. I would turn the ugly duckling into a swan.

These key moments in my life have solidified my childhood instinct – being happy can be the precursor to unexpected unwarranted and unwelcome unhappiness. And that is why for the last three years I’ve remained vigilant waxing between happiness and terror waiting for the signal when I’ll know my children and grandchildren, my job, my good friends, my new business, and my writing may all come to an end in a gigantic radioactive mushroom cloud. It is bitterly ironic to think that such a cloud is similar to the rumored shape of a certain man’s private parts as told to us from the lips of Stormy Daniels.

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Happy Halloween.

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