Am I Happy, or am I Sad?

I’ve been on the road a ton lately, visiting newsrooms, giving presentations, and hearing a lot of similar feedback. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been told that I’m cheerful, that I have an infectious smile and energy, and — the best compliment of all — that I manage to make mandatory training fun.

This feedback is lovely to hear, and reinforces my desire to bring enthusiasm and joy to every talk that I deliver. Eventually, though, it leaves me feeling conflicted.

There always comes a point where the adrenaline from the day catches up with me. I return to my hotel, exhausted and pensive after hours of teaching. Inevitably, I wind up thinking about how different my life looks from what I expected. In the solitude of my hotel room in whatever city I happen to be in, the exhilaration of presenting dissolves into sadness. How could I be the same person who, just hours before, received kudos for her positive energy?

This is maybe my favorite photo of 2017, unquestionably the worst year of my life.

Authenticity is hugely important to me, and I worry about whether my cheerfulness is genuine. It feels like my enthusiasm and positivity are real — I legitimately care about and believe in the work I’m doing and the journalists I’m meeting — but I can’t help but wonder how those actions are possible when parts of me are still hurting so much.

A month or so after Jamie died, I came across an essay by podcast producer Rachel Ward, whose husband, Steve, died a similarly early and sudden death. Rachel wrote the essay two years after her partner passed away, a milestone I’ll hit in two months, and her perspective seemed completely unfathomable to me at the time. She not only wrote with clarity about how Steve died, she also wrote about his death with humor. (The title of her essay is “I’m Sorry I Didn’t Respond to Your Email, My Husband Coughed to Death Two Years Ago.”) In comparison, I was lost in a dark tunnel of hopelessness, and couldn’t find solace or humor in much of anything.

There’s a lot about Rachel’s essay that I admired, but one section especially stuck with me. “When you experience a loss like this, you get to see a really wild new amount of life,” she wrote. “Suddenly the range of the type of sad you can feel, to the type of happy you can feel, is busted open. The spectrum from happy to sad isn’t a foot wide anymore — it’s as far as your arms can stretch and then to the edges of the room and then up the block and over into the next neighborhood.”

I loved this sentiment. Even amid the depressing fog of grief, I could see how hopeful her words were. I couldn’t imagine ever shaking the sadness I felt over Jamie’s unexpected death, but I was able to envision that my deep sorrow could someday give way for equally powerful surges of happiness.

There’s no way I could have done weeks of traveling and presenting last year. I was too devastated by loss, sidelined by grief, and weighed down by anger and disillusionment. I could burst into uncontrollable tears at any given moment.

Now I can do weeks of traveling and presenting — and I can do it well. All of the hard emotional work I’ve done in the past has set me up for the professional work I’m able to do today. Every tear-filled therapy session helps me recognize the progress I’m making. My introverted alone time creates space for the extroverted person I am in front of a room. Each uncomfortable solo trip I’ve taken as a widow prepares me for traveling alone as a consultant. And all of the hours that I spent leaning on friends have nourished me enough that I can give hours of my time and energy to others.

Instinctively, I knew that I needed to face the bleak and seemingly endless depths of grief in order to find light again. Even if I couldn’t imagine what that light would look like or when it would enter into my life, I understood a simple truth: I had to allow myself to feel worse before I could feel better.

In two months, it will be two years since Jamie died. I’m now able to write and talk about his death with openness and honesty and, yep, even some humor. Sometimes, though, despite all the hard work I’ve put in, I can’t fully accept the progress that I’ve made. Sometimes I get completely caught off guard by people who say I’m cheerful or have a bright smile. Sometimes I feel guilty about the fact that I am able to experience happiness and joy.

In a way, this conundrum is fitting. Jamie was one of the happiest people I knew. His laughter, enthusiasm and overall joie de vivre were infectious. Friends regularly reminisce about his incredibly joyful spirit. Jamie also carried deep sadness. He battled with depression and often worried whether he was accomplishing enough in life. But I never questioned if Jamie was being authentic. His happiness and sadness both ran deep, and made him the wonderfully complex person he was.

That dichotomy is one of the reasons I loved Jamie so much. My challenge now is to accept and love that dichotomy within myself.

By honoring our emotions and allowing ourselves to feel sadness, we make room for happiness. Those of us who experience major sorrow — a traumatic experience, a devastating loss, a period of extreme hardship — are lucky in some way. Eventually, we make it out on the other side, scars and all, with hearts and minds that have grown. We are alive, and we’re capable of feeling a range of emotions that we never thought possible.

This essay was first published on December 5, 2018, in my weekly newsletter, My Sweet Dumb Brain.