Side Trips and Dead-Ends on the Road to Well-Being

RoadTripEach decade of life seems to carry its own epiphany. During that decade between 10 and 20, for example, I discovered that boys really did make a positive contribution to the universe. Between 20 and 30, I learned that, just like my parents always said, money does not grow on trees. From 30 to 40, I learned the joys—and the agonies— of parenting.

The biggest changes of all started when I was 40. That’s when I learned that my mother had not ruined my life and my husband could not fix my life.

Before that, I was pretty angry at times for all the nurturing and unconditional love I believed I had not received from my mom. Up until that point, I blamed mom for just about all the ways my life was imperfect.

I see it differently today, of course. It is always difficult to share family secrets and I have struggled with whether or not to share mine in this book. Quite frankly, I am tired of pretending that my personal struggle as a child had no effect on me. Decades later and years of counseling have proven that I had to learn how to get Over many “Its” so that I could live above my circumstances and beyond myself.

You see, Mom suffered from bi-polar disorder and several other mental illnesses. In those days, when it was diagnosed at all, it was called manic depression. Also in those days, there was virtually no effective treatment for a mental disorder that made life a living hell for the people who suffered from it and for the people who loved them and tried to live with them.

Sometimes Mom was too depressed to get out of bed, much less do the hundreds of things mothers are expected to do to keep a household running. Other times, her manic states drove her to rage or other irrational behavior that children have no way of understanding or protecting themselves from.

In other words, my childhood wasn’t perfect.

For a long time, I thought yours must have been perfect. I spent a lot of years angry about how unfair that was. Since then, I’ve learned that very few of us grew up in an episode of “Father Knows Best” or “The Brady Bunch.”

I was in my 40s before I realized that my mother did the best she could. I forgave her and my father for my imperfect childhood. Finally, I even realized that I could be forgiven for blaming them for circumstances they certainly would have changed if they could have.

Becoming a mother myself, and realizing how hard it is to get it right was a big part of my healing journey. I started to recognize that I was doing the best I could and that, even without the degree of health issues my mother had faced, I was far from a perfect mother. In fact, at times I was pretty much a wreck because I still hadn’t managed to get over my own far-from-perfect childhood.

Because of the circumstances I grew up in, I spent many years doubting whether true well-being was even possible in this life. And even if well-being was a possibility for others, I was skeptical that it would be given to me. Maybe, I reasoned, I was just destined to have a messy, unraveling, and sometimes painful life.

I’ve also spent much of my life looking for well-being in the wrong places. I thought that if I had the right husband, right house, right job, right church, right friends, and right investments, I would feel satisfied inside. Then all the external trappings of my life fell apart and I realized that all of those things were really only side trips and dead ends on the road to well-being.

Life has taught me that true contentment is an inside job. Ironically, a true sense of well-being began not when my circumstances were at their best, but when it seemed that the bottom was falling out of my life. My husband was between jobs. We had to move out of a house I really loved. I needed to go back to work when my children were very young.  Our financial future looked very cloudy.

And yet, even during those uncertain times, I experienced amazing peace as a gift from God — because I had quit expecting my happiness to come from people and things.

In his book Flourish, Martin Seligman identifies five key components of a vibrant life: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. All of these are vital ingredients to help us flourish as individuals—and all of them are spiritual attributes available to every one of us.

Sometimes I still pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming and won’t wake up again to the sadness and turmoil I experienced before. But no, my well-being is real, and it is a gift from God, who taught me how to live above my circumstances and beyond myself. Since the world didn’t give it to me, the world can’t take it away.

What about you?

  • What people or circumstances have you blamed for your less-than-perfect life?
  • Journal about some of the dead ends and side trips you’ve traveled in your search for well-being.

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