“Has there been a time lately when you’ve felt completely happy?”
My therapist, Lisa, sits in a pink chair. I’ve adjusted the blinds and I can see her blue eyes behind her glasses. I look away, examine the floor, and feel my face frowning as I sift through the last few weeks. I’ve felt grateful, I’ve felt connected, but completely happy? Completely?
“No. If I look back far enough, maybe. It feels like all my happy memories are tied to something bad.”
After we work at it a while I can tap into a few memories that are happy, and I seem to be able to briefly hold in mind experiences where I was teaching or racing and very fully present. I can stay with them briefly.
“And what does your body feel like?”
That’s the tricky part, and it’s an uncomfortable realization. I can comb back through an entire lifetime, relating in vivid detail how I felt in moments of critical wounding. I know what muscles fired, how I was breathing and what it felt like in my gut. Those memories hit me. Like a fucking brick to the head.
“I can feel the texture of my student’s mat under my feet. I am smiling. It’s warm and sunny in the room.”
“But what does your body feel like?”
I don’t know. I can remember sensations in my extremities and what I noticed around me. I can remember my thoughts and emotions. Inside? I don’t remember what happiness feels like.
We try again. What about a memory where I felt very secure with someone? There was a friend a while ago—the only man I’ve felt attracted to and safe with since I left my abuser. We’d spent a whole day together talking and laughing, and I felt normal. Happy even. I can close my eyes and feel the way he held me saying goodbye that day. My sense memory vividly invokes the sensation of my head against his shoulder, his back under my hands, the pace of his breathing. I remember wondering if I’d held on too long, but he was still holding me, breathing deeply–I could stay. The carpet of his living room floor was soft under my feet. What did I feel in my body? I don’t know. I can remember what he smelled like.
I have the body awareness to articulate for my physical therapist exactly which cervical vertebrae feel cemented together. I can stand on one hand. How can it be that I don’t know what happy feels like?
It is my assignment to find out. I feel happy several times but don’t notice–I’m busy talking with friends of playing with a baby. I’m engaged, and I don’t see until later that I missed my chance. But then, there it is: I can run again.
I only get twenty minutes and I have to go slow. My closest friend goes with me. I’m occupied chattering with him and then there are these girls running the trail ahead of us. They’re slow. I’m supposed to be running slow–I should stay behind them. I try to hold myself back, but I notice the gap between them and us shrinking. When I can hear their conversation I can’t stand it anymore. I let myself pull ahead and around them, and I felt a surge of something familiar as I lead us up a hill. It’s joy and power, it’s what I feel when I’m running. Hey! I’m happy! I’m happy and I’m noticing! Okay, what does it feel like?
I’m not sure. I feel my feet hitting the gravel, my arms swinging at my sides. I feel my quads driving, my abdominal muscles taut, my breath regular–in three steps, out two. I feel my braided hair swinging, the breeze against my skin, I’m damp with sweat and hot. I’m curious; what does happy feel like? What’s going on inside me?
At first it feels like nothing, the absence of pain. I am running, it feels right and joyful–that is all. But then I catch something hot and effervescent at the level of my heart, at once familiar and nebulous. I’m not even sure if I’m feeling a physical sensation or conceiving metaphor for my emotional state. There it is again, though, a sense of rising heat from inside me. We’re coming to a hill. I grin and spring toward it, feeling happy.