I Have a Pathological Fear of Being Happy
This is a thing.
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My husband and I are lying together on the couch. The air is cool and damp. The room is dim, illuminated only by the street lights shearing through the blinds. My husband snores deeply, content, beside me. I stare at the ceiling, awake and slightly angry, while the sweat and other fluids grow cold and sticky on my skin. It's not my husband's fault that I am, once again, dissatisfied. I stopped myself from having an orgasm. I always do.
The next day, while at the park, the younger of my daughters runs to me, arms outstretched, giggling in a way that really does sound like bells. Her full dark curls frame her chubby cheeks, as she jumps into my arms and gives me a smacking kiss. For a moment, I forget myself. Joy overwhelms me. But I catch it. I push it down, turn it off, dissociate from the moment—whatever I need to do so that I can feel like my family and I are safe again.
I am terrified of being happy. It goes beyond the fear of losing happiness, which many trauma survivors experience, and it's not an existential fumbling after that which is fleeting. I believe that if I allow myself to be happy, something bad will happen. I know it's irrational, but I can't think myself out of my feelings. My clinical diagnosis is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but cherophobia—the fear of happiness—is not a category symptom of PTSD, or even a clinical diagnosis. It is, however, recognized to sometimes occur in survivors of trauma. Kira Mauseth, a trauma specialist and professor of clinical psychology at Seattle University, estimates that one quarter to one third of trauma patients experience some degree of happiness aversion.
I'm a domestic violence survivor. My ex-fiancé abused me physically, sexually, verbally, and emotionally. He was cruelest to me when I was kind to him or vulnerable with him. As Mauseth describes, the abuse rocked my view of everything, including the foundations of human ethics. I lost the ability to gauge goodness. Now, happiness and danger feel inextricably confused.
Mauseth believes that a fear of happiness is directly related to a person's worldview. For many of us growing up in Western society, we are raised to hold the "belief in a just world"—essentially, the idea that bad things happen to bad people and good things to good people. "If you are raised in an environment where that was your experience," Mauseth says, "[trauma] shakes up that world. Fear of being happy is a reflection of the shakeup of that worldview."
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Living with this fear comes with consequences and inevitable judgment. We're all supposed to want happiness. If we don't want happiness, then we are deemed toxic. I've lost count of how many friends and even family have "detoxed" me because of my negativity. They've cited everything from my perceived unwillingness to change, to accusations that I am faking my depression for attention. What my friends and family don't understand is that, in the past, I have paid so steeply for the privilege of happiness that now the pursuit of happiness feels like the pursuit of tragedy.
Susan E. Collins, a clinical psychologist and researcher at the University of Washington Harm Reduction Treatment Center, believes mindfulness therapy may hold the key to combating a pathological fear of happiness. It's a practice derived from Buddhism which espouses noticing, acknowledging, and breathing through one's negative emotions. Collins says about mindfulness, "You don't have to think about your thoughts as being irrational. We have anxieties; that's just human, but it doesn't have to control your behavior. In mindfulness you can just watch [your anxious thoughts], and also watch them kind of dissipate. If you watch them for long enough, you can watch them ebb and flow."
Most days, I can't feel my happiness. Where it should be, there is a numbness. That's the trauma. When the feeling of happiness manages to hack its way through the glacier of my PTSD, I force it away. That's the cherophobia, I imagine. Being able to distinguish the feeling of my fear of being happy from the other symptoms of PTSD has helped me to manage it, since they're not necessarily treated in the exact same way. These days, I am working on disentangling the two conditions, and facing them each for what they are individually.
It's the end of the day. I am, once again, late to put the girls to bed. Even though it's well past their bedtime, they're shrieking and chasing each other in circles. Their energy seems endless, and I feel defeated. I'm supposed to be putting my two-year-old's diaper on after her bath, but instead I lie on the floor. I am so tired, I feel like I could fall asleep right there. My eyes close, just for a moment. When I open them, my youngest daughter is grinning over me, her face just centimeters from mine. Then my other kid runs over.
"Mom, are you okay?" she shouts, as though across a stadium. They each grab one of my hands and begin pulling my arms, grunting with exaggerated effort as they struggle to lift me. I laugh and push myself up. Even when these goofy miniature people are the ones driving me crazy, they're always around to lift me back up.
Of course, the happiness is quickly followed by fear. Will I lose them? Will one of them be hurt or killed or kidnapped if I allow myself to really love them? I have the thought, as usual, but this time, I don't react to it. I don't push it away, or pretend not to think it, but I also don't force away my happiness. Instead, I allow the fear and the joy to coexist. No reactions, no judgments.
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