From time to time I, Joy, receive a compliment that sounds exactly like this: “Your parents sure knew what they were doing when they named you.”
Or this: “You sure live up to your name.”
While I am flattered by such a comment, I am not compelled by a sense of obligation. Because my name is Joy, I do not have to be happy. In fact, sometimes, I am not. Sometimes being Joy means being sad or angry. Like last week, for instance, when my name could have been Distraught. That day I was distraught for the best part of an afternoon – until I learned that our insurance company was wrong (as I had suspected). We did not owe them thousands of dollars for four months worth of wrongfully paid healthcare expenses related to Stross’ daily living needs. Thank, God. We did not.
Once they verified the clerical error, I was relieved. Then, almost as immediately, I became extremely tired. Nineteen years worth of tired, in fact. For no matter how well my life might move along for stretches at a time, I know that I can be thrown into instant emotional upheaval over something as seemingly benign as a clerical error – even when I am 98% certain the error is not ours. A 2% portion of doubt can cause a unique version of terror (“Is this the moment we become financially bankrupt?”), even renewed grief. That will always be true. As the mother of a child born with life-shaping disabilities, I am familiar with sorrow and acquainted with grief.
In the instance I shared above, renewed grief looked like this: After the insurance representative apologized for the error, I began to cry. I cried awkward phone tears – the kind that choke your normal speaking voice and have the potential to scare the person who cannot see you. So I forced myself to speak. I didn’t want her to think I was crazy.
“I just want to thank you,” I said. “We will have a new insurance company in a few days, and our family will miss your company.” Sob. Choke. “You have taken good care of us. Especially our son. Thank you for that.” Choke. More tears. More forced words. “And I just want you to know we will miss you.”
It was her turn. She began gently and quietly.
“Oh. Thank you so much. That is very kind of you to say. We will miss you, too. … You know, I don’t even think I got your name before they passed your call to me.”
Now I had to forcefully push out words while trying to hold back a sob ... and a laugh.
“It’s … Joy.”
The irony of my name made me laugh. I could laugh. So could she – at meeting such a miserable Joy. Momentarily miserable, at least.
Let me be perfectly clear: My son’s life is not misery; I am not miserable because of him. Sometimes life brings things that make specific moments miserable. I learned how that can be so, courtesy of Stross, and I thank him for that.
But tonight I am thankful for a new type of understanding. Tonight I am aware that I am not happy. Not really. That also does not mean I am sad. Or depressed. I am just not happy – not content. And it has nothing to do with my children or my husband. It has everything to do with me.
Clarity about my unhappiness began September 7 when I was in Waverly to lead a media relations workshop for rural emergency first responders. The evening before the meeting, I enjoyed supper with some good friends who live there – reconnecting, through them, with periods in my life when I lived with a sense of purpose. Then, before returning home after the workshop the next day, I visited the Wartburg College campus to pick up a dessert and a cup of coffee for the road.
I didn’t go straight to the coffee house, however. I began walking campus. I let my feet take me places that looked new and yet were familiar. I felt the wonder of knowing exactly where I was, even when places looked different. Once I even tried to get lost, but I couldn’t. I knew exactly where I was going even when wandering aimlessly. And I loved the assurance of it.
Please understand. My assurance wasn’t about the physical location of my body as it moved through a familiar place. It came from another dimension. Moving through that familiar place helped me connect to a version of myself who knew exactly who she was and what she believed possible.
I found Happy Joy again. I had not realized I had left her behind.
Happy Joy has actually been with me for at least four decades – long past my days as a coed on that college campus. Of course, I remember her during our engagement, our wedding, our honeymoon, newlywed life, a first job, a second job that began to look like a career, a move back to Iowa, a job that was the start of a career, Stross’ birth (yes, Stross’ birth), and even during Stross’ early years.
Happy Joy even hung in there through some radical career changes for both Mark and me that resulted in a move to a town we likely would have never chosen to live in had a career opportunity for Mark not found him in an uncommon way. Happy Joy loved seeing Mark uncommonly happy, and she loved the challenge of finding a way to stay happy herself. She definitely loved giving birth to her second child, another son who brought her the opportunity to experience what other women did when they gave birth.
Now this is where I need to stop trying to explain where Happy Joy went; because, as I said earlier, she has been with me all along. What I have come to understand most recently, however, is this: Her happiness has not been a priority and that has adversely affected her – me – and our family. It might even be harming her and her future.
Because I know people who have wrestled with depression, I know avoiding depression is impossible. Fortunately, I am not depressed. But, as I said, I am not happy. Not really.
There is good news in this. Coming to the realization that I am not happy has helped me identify what gets me there: a sense of purpose, an opportunity to be an agent of change – positive change – that affects someone else’s life in a way they had not thought possible. Happy Joy shows up when I am being the truest version of myself, and in doing so, I cause something to happen that only I could make possible.
I can list examples of what that has looked like in the past. But I don’t want to here. My personal inventory is simply that: personal. Will I share it with you one day? You bet, but it will have to wait until I finish connecting all my dots. I might need to wander a few more familiar pathways and allow myself to reconnect to a few more times and places where I can remember what it has meant to be me.
But the best news is this: I have invited Happy Joy to join me on this journey. And I have given her a new name: Hope.