Friday, May 9, 2014

Starving for Happiness

(This is a modified version of a post I originally published on my Invictus Pilgrim blog in January 2011 when I was visiting my oldest daughter and her family in California.)

Saturday was a good day. I woke up early and went for a run in shorts and shirtsleeves – a welcome change from wearing an entire laundry hamper of clothes in the near-zero temperatures that have been prevailing in Utah the last while. It felt so good to be out of Utah, away from the problems and issues that I had temporarily left behind, feeling the promise of change and a better future that my temporary surroundings, in a way, represented. I felt a sense of freedom, of budding happiness, and I savored this as I ran in the refreshing cool air.

Later that morning, I took my granddaughter for a walk, then we drove to the ocean and had a late lunch at a quaint place overlooking the water, then went for a walk along the beach where I played with my granddaughter. It was fun, fulfilling, and life-affirming – one of those times that one is conscious of happiness and the fact that such moments are fleeting, leaving one wanting to savor them while at the same time attempting to push away the anxiety caused by the fact that one knows that the experience will soon end.

As we drove back to my daughter’s house, I thought about what I had just experienced and wondered about the feelings I have just described. Why the anxiety? The answer came quickly to my mind: because of past experience, I felt that I might perhaps never again feel such happiness. Why? Because such experiences of feeling happiness and recognizing it as such contemporaneous with the experience – these moments had, in my experience, been rare.

As I contemplated this, I thought about our children that we adopted from Russia, about issues they had experienced with food. They had been so food-deprived while in the orphanage that when offered food, they greedily partook. I will never forget the first time I fed my son a bottle while on a visit to the orphanage. His eyes literally rolled back in his head from the pleasure and relief of being nourished.

It was not until we got the children home, in each case, that we came to see psychological phenomena that resulted from this food deprivation. One phenomenon was easy to see and understand, i.e., the tendency to want to gorge themselves because they didn’t know when, or if, they would again be offered food. Another phenomenon, however, was less easily discernible, but we came to clearly see and understand it over time: the anxiety the children felt when eating. For even though eating brought them intense pleasure, they all the while worried, even while experiencing such pleasure, that it would be short-lived and perhaps never experienced again. We came to refer to these dual phenomena as the “starvation complex.”

We observed for some time the after-effects of what the children had experienced in the orphanage. It took a long time for their subconscious mind to accept that there would be another meal, even many meals; that in fact they would be able to eat just about any time they wanted to. It took a long time for them to be able to enjoy a meal without worrying about when the next meal might come. As their minds finally realized that there would be other meals, however, their subconscious allowed them to enjoy without anxiety the meal they were then eating.

Similarly, even while enjoying that time on Saturday afternoon that I spent with my family, I all the while felt anxious. I felt anxiety because I was being “fed”, but didn’t know when, or if, I would be “fed” again. I am working on enjoying the moment and on telling myself that there will be other moments of happiness in the future; but I know that, ultimately, it will only be through consistent experiencing of such moments that my subconscious mind will let go of its anxiety.    

Why do I have this “starvation complex”? Because, frankly, so much of my life has been filled with a dull sense of unhappiness, part of which I now understand was attributable to my efforts to deny who I am (a gay man) and to live the life I chose at the outset of my adult life, i.e., a Mormon “über-heterosexual,” committed to destroying everything that I was – and ultimately am – in the name of “true happiness” in this life and eternal salvation in the world to come.

I have now embarked on a process that, in a way, is similar to that through which my children passed after we removed them from their orphanages and brought them home. I have left the old way of life and am trying to learn, through experience, that there will be other opportunities to “eat” in the future. I am trying to convince myself not only that I can experience happiness, but that I will experience such happiness in the future, thus allowing me to freely and totally live in and enjoy the moments of happiness when they come.


  1. So having written this three years ago, have you reached the point where you can experience those happy moments without the accompanying anxiety?

  2. Yes, I now live in a state of happiness. :)

  3. Thank you for this insightful post. I, too, numbed myself for years, trying to convince myself I was happy. Since leaving the Church a few months ago, I have been much happier-- but I am also often afraid it will slip away. Although my experience is different, your post helped me understand better why I feel that anxiety.

    Thank you so much for sharing.

  4. Thank you for sharing, Jamie Lyn.