What Brings Joy?

It might seem an odd topic to discuss for me – an aficionado of the miserable and depressed – to discuss the concept of joy, but however difficult it might be to believe, it’s still something I keep in my heart, deep and buried though it might be.

You see, I believe that there are two fundamental types of depression: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic depression is born from genetics, environmental triggers, and long-term mental instability. It can’t be helped, and it can’t be fixed. These people will always know depression in some form, no matter how much counseling and medication they take.

Extrinsic depression, on the other hand, is driven entirely by outside factors. A normally confident, happy person can succumb to this kind of depression under the right circumstances, and until that environment is altered or removed, they will remain depressed.

One is not more serious than the other; one is not more ‘real’. Both carry the deadening ramifications of losing yourself to despair, including self-harm and attempts to end your own life. Both are a terrifying tunnel of darkness, seemingly endless and filled with terrible demons hungering for the tattered shreds of your soul.

And equally, both can be abated – if only temporarily – through joy.

When I have a moment of calm, a moment of happiness, a moment of realizing that right then, right then and there, there is nothing wrong; nothing to worry about, and nothing to fear; when I allow myself to forget the pain and the dark for even a minute; when I do a thing that reawakens the childlike sense of freedom I used to know, I’m reminded that there is good in the world, hope, and a chance to grow.

I will always return to the cycle of depression, because I have a mental illness, a genuinely unadaptable chemical imbalance in my brain. I know I will always, in the end, feel the frigid claw of despair once more. And for the longest time, I thought, this would inevitably give way to the cycle of hope, of wanting to live and laugh and love, as surely as I knew the sun would rise the next day.

But now, I start to question this. What happens when the intrinsic and the extrinsic become one? What happens when someone already prone to despair starts to believe that the world around them is also crushing them insufferably? What if my depression isn’t entirely in my head?

And this begs the question … what truly gives me joy?

It’s a difficult question to answer, and likely has multiple facets. What brings me joy at work is different than what brings me joy at home, and what brings me joy with my son may be different than with a close friend. And certainly, what brings me joy may not bring others joy. And this was a very difficult concept for me to come to terms with.

I used to think that what made me happiest, what brought me the most joy in the world, was helping people. And whilst I still dearly hold this to be true, I think there’s a qualification that I’ve come to learn I have in this matter, if only subconsciously. I want to help people who I believe deserve that help. I know that sounds like a dreadful thing to say, but hear me out – I don’t believe that some people deserve things and others don’t; I don’t believe that any one person is better than another.

For me, this idea of ‘deserving’ help comes rather from the idea that some people are willing to admit that they need help because of something they’ve done, while others simply aren’t. I try to think that I’m a very forgiving person, but even I can only extend so far.

Take caring for a sick person, for example. My son frequently forgets to dress warm enough for the winter, and as a result often comes down with a flu or cold at some point during the cold months. During his time in bed, though, I’ll still tend to him and help him – not because he’s sick, but because he realizes that he’s sick by his own doing. In my mind, he ‘deserves’ that care.

To counter that example, take the idea of someone coming to you for help at work. I try to be as accommodating and helpful as I can, but I have certain expectations around it. Someone at work recently asked to involve me in a project which I was well-suited to help with. However, as I began to look into it, I realized that even the most basic foundation of the project – something this other person could (and should) have done – was absent. In a case like this, I feel less inclined to help.

So when I help people at work – both internally and externally – the satisfaction I get from it – the joy – is from knowing I’ve helped someone better their life, not just in the moment of help but for the long-term as well. The whole ‘give a man a fish’ thing, I guess.

At home, it’s still the same; I get some measure of satisfaction of helping my family, but similarly when it seems that they deserve that help. I realize this must sound terribly self-serving, but hear me out. When someone asks for help, you’re likely to provide it, no? Yet if someone expects that help, don’t you suddenly feel much less inclined?

The expectation of help is something that hurts me deeply. I try to be a very giving person, but when people begin to take that for granted, I close off, shut down, and lower my gaze. And for years, I used to think that this made me a bad person. For years, I thought that it was selfish of me to only provide support when I felt like it, rather than when it was truly needed. Because sometimes, even when someone you love takes you for granted, you do things for them anyway, even if it tears you apart inside. You do it because you love them.

But at what point does helping others become living for others? At what point is it time to look inward to what brings you joy as an individual, separate and apart from all others? When do you know whether your depression is because you lack the ability to feel joy, or lack the place to feel joy?

Only recently have I started to second-guess myself on this. Only recently have I come to the realization that there are things I would like to do, things I would like to try, that truly only benefit myself. That would intrinsically bring me joy, without the need of reliance on another person, who might take me for granted.

And only recently have I started to feel comfortable enough even thinking these thoughts to decide that doing things for myself doesn’t make me a bad person. It doesn’t make me selfish. I still enjoy, and want, to help others. It still brings me satisfaction.

But I’ve denied myself the personal things in life for so long, for so many years, that I don’t even know how to start. I don’t know what to try, or how to go about it. I don’t know how to balance this with the responsibilities of family and work.

But I do know this: as sure as the people around me deserve my help … I deserve my own happiness. And however small a step I might make toward it each day, I won’t be afraid to make it. I cannot be bound to a life determined only by the needs of others. I need to make a path forward that is mine, whole and unique. No more do I want to follow in another’s footsteps.

This doesn’t mean abandoning the people I love. It doesn’t mean forgetting about the people who made it possible for me to be here today. It doesn’t mean any great upheaval in my thoughts or behaviors. What it means is simply that I will no longer see myself as an extension to others, but as a whole individual of my own, free to do what I need to find joy.

And just perhaps … that freedom is the joy.

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