My husband Dave understands this. When his spirits sink he goes for a run or plays his guitar or reads stories from the Bible in which the stakes were more dire. I tend to write. Or seek water: either a bracing swim or a long, hot bath. I'll go outside for a long walk. Read a novel.
None of my spirit-saving options were available as I lay on my hospital bed, a little loopy (not nearly loopy enough, in my opinion) with my newly stabilized fracture propped on a stack of pillows. I had to cast around for something new.
Granted, some happiness flowed toward me from outside sources. Since I was eight hours from home and an hour from my summer home, I loved the fact that I had any visitor at all. Mine was Emma, the young woman who hired me to teach the Healing Through Writing workshop at the hospital's rehab program, who crossed the lot with a co-worker to say hello (see Emma? You never know when you'll suddenly emerge in a leading role in someone else's life). All the family and friends who played "whisper down the lane" and then called me while I was in the hospital—then reminded me later that they'd done so—all that was precious.
But let's face it. Happiness can't be applied from the outside, no matter how thick someone tries to slather it on. For that reason, strategies that connected with some inner desire worked the best. What I needed the most was hope—and the offer of it pulled me through my days, time and again, no matter how false.
Like the fact that I had an orthopedic surgeon whose sports medicine history suggested I might once again play ice hockey (okay, got me there, I'd never played hockey—but that my ankle would withstand its rigors, should I want to, connected with me). That the nurses promised my surgery would be soon, and that the post-op pain would be more manageable (to which reality said Ha! and Ha, again!, yet the promise of which helped me believe). That the spinal would be great because of fewer side effects (even though it shut down my urinary tract completely, which apparently is not uncommon—some dozen unsuccessful trips to the commode kept me up all night and in significant bladder discomfort and ankle pain; I finally had to be catheterized).
For me, though, my first inklings of happiness grew not from a flower I'd planted but from a wind-blown weed: I coveted something of my neighbor's.
Now, the big reveal. I found a goldmine of hospital happiness in this product, which cost Dave all of 87 cents:
Which meant more: that Dave wrapped up his business back home the morning after the accident and drove straight up to a hospital located just shy of the Canadian border, or that he stopped on the way at my request and arrived bearing the gift of Cherry ChapStick?
I'd like to say it's a toss up. But I suspect it's the ChapStick.
All day the curtain had been drawn between me and my new roommate, who was recovering from a hysterectomy. Local to the area, she had entertained a revolving door of well-wishers. Their attentions were not the focus of my jealousy. Through a crack in the curtain, I noticed that she kept applying ChapStick. I was in a situation in which there was so little I could do to achieve my own happiness—but I, too, could do that.
I'm sure I'll forever associate the flavor of cherry with this ankle break. Six weeks out I carry it still, in my pocket, ready to comfort me with its fragrant, waxy warmth.
Ironic, isn't it? Turns out happiness can result from outside application, especially when slathered on thick. The happiness wasn't the application itself, though, but my relationship to it.
At a time when I felt acutely my own powerlessness, applying ChapStick was one pleasurable thing I could do for myself. It may have done nothing for my ankle, but as for its ability to improve my spirits, I was able to attach to it the one thing necessary to make it work: hope.
Readers: When you faced tough circumstances, what helped you raise your own spirits?