When Joy Feels Foreign …

In 2014, my mom died in a sudden and tragic accident. Following her death, something I’d never experienced before began to happen within my own head. For the first time in my life, I was not in control of what was happening in my own body, and it was terrifying. ‘Flight or fight’ kicked into full gear, and I suddenly felt myself living in a state of perpetual fear.

I believed that everything could go wrong, because everything had gone wrong.

It was paralyzing. I remember well-meaning loved ones telling me ‘not to worry’ when I expressed my unending concerns about quite literally everything happening in the world around me. This frustrated me to no end, because try as I might … I could not control it. ‘Worrying’ was as much a part of my life as breathing, and telling me to stop doing so was akin to suggest I find an alternative to oxygen.

The days were long, and the nights were sleepless. When I woke up in the mornings, I remember staring at my reflection as I brushed my teeth and not being able to recognize the person looking back.

Where was the bubbly, upbeat, silly girl I’d always been? Would I ever be happy-go-lucky again? Would I ever reunite with my long lost friend … Joy?

The loss of joy is annihilating. If this is something you are going through, I am so, so, sorry.

I want to take a moment and acknowledge the immense privilege I’ve been granted that allows me to tell this story. I was surrounded by so much support – financial and otherwise – that released some of the heaviest burdens that can complicate healing. I was able to access quality mental health services when I needed them most. I have never dealt with major systemic oppression or discrimination that could prevent me from living out my fullest potential. I am incredibly lucky. Undeservedly so.

For those reasons and more, I am beyond grateful that I found the light at the end of the tunnel. With endless support, I found my way out of the darkness that defined my life for over a year.

Those early days when I first began to feel like myself again, felt like the first few mornings of spring. But in spite of that, one surprising realization stood out to me … ‘Joy’ felt weird. 

It had been a very long time since I’d been acquainted with that emotion. That’s not to say that throughout that whole time I was never happy. In fact, I was happy a lot of the time! In spite of the worries that ruled my life, I still found a great deal of happiness on a very regular basis.

But, happiness and joy are two different things. And while happiness was familiar to me, joy felt completely foreign.

For me, happiness  occurs when life is stable and good. In happiness, I have an appreciation for the world around me. It’s nice. It’s important. Happiness is what I strive for on a day-to-day basis.

Joy, however, is something more.

This Is Joy.

Joy is what happens in those out-of-this-world moments when you get the best news ever and you want to shout it from the roof tops. Joy is what happens when you find yourself laughing hysterically with an old friend, and tears spring from your eyes for no apparent reason at all. Joy is what happens when the love of your life grasps your hand in the dark on a summer night, and you look up at the stars together and realize how incredibly blessed you truly are. Joy is a full-body experience of gratitude and bliss.

And when I experienced it for the first time after my mom’s death, I rejected it.

Happiness, I could handle. After all, everyone said she would want me to be happy. But it took me a very long time to become comfortable with joy.

There was the guilt. How could I experience something so powerfully positive, when I missed her so badly. Shouldn’t I spend my time honouring her death? Shouldn’t I be working towards a greater legacy for her memory? How selfish of me. 

There was the confusion. How could my experiences with anxiety be real (and ongoing) if it was occurring simultaneously with joy? Had I been exaggerating my struggle? Or perhaps, was the joy the falsehood? What the heck was going on?

There was the unfamiliarity. What even was this feeling? Had I felt it before my mom’s death? Why was it so unsettling? Rejection seemed the only answer.

What Helped Me?

I remember being at my grandparents house with all of my family shortly after I realized I was struggling with joy. Someone said something funny … I can’t remember what exactly, but it made me laugh. I laughed hard, and I laughed loud. All of a sudden, my aunt who’d been in the other room peeked her head around the corner and said in total shock that my laugh had sounded exactly like my mom’s.

joy2

My Mama – Joyful!

It was then that I realized, the best way I could possibly honour my mom’s memory was to emulate what she was best known for – joy. My mom found a way to laugh in nearly every situation. Rejecting that was not only doing myself a disservice, but was dishonouring the legacy she’d left.

Shortly after that visit, I was unpacking coffee mugs in my new apartment with Mac when I placed a mug in our cupboard. It had been given to me as a grad gift from my aunt and uncle, and was emblazoned with “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

joy

That hymn was a favourite of both mine and my mom. In fact, we even sang it at her funeral. I remember the lump in my throat as I belted out the words from the pew with my family, knowing so strongly that in spite of our pain, there was gladness in each day.

For some reason, in the months following the funeral, I’d forgotten that message. Finding that coffee mug that day was the reminder I needed that joy is not only good, we are also called to seek it out.

Lastly, I realized that like with any old friend that you reconnect with, I had to spend time with joy in order for it to feel familiar again. This meant no more rejecting it, and embracing it every single chance I could. I took note of the things that brought me joy (including: ice cream, reading at the beach, snuggling on the couch while watching a movie, potato chips, good wine, Dawson’s Creek & Gilmore Girls marathons, time with friends, etc.), and I made a concerted effort to practice joy in at least one small way every single day.

It took time, but eventually my relationship with joy was rekindled. The more familiar I became with joy,  the more familiar I became with myself. In time, I’ve grown to know myself better, and once again I now know exactly who I am when I see myself reflected back in the mirror.

However, the person I see is not the person I once was.  I am stronger, and wiser, and more compassionate. I am more aware and in-tune with pain. I am a million times more vulnerable than I’ve ever been before. I’m more sensitive, and probably a heck of a lot more likely to cry when something goes wrong. And I appreciate joy in a way that I never could have before.

The greatest lesson I’ve learned through all of this is simple. There is one thing that makes everything worth it. That thing is joy.

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