Wide Awake: Opening the Door
Deciding to be happy despite your thoughts

March is the month I should have died. It was 11 years ago when my SUV was hit from behind and it rolled and rolled then landed upside down. That accident changed who I am, and despite the time that has passed, I remember it each year when spring arrives.

At first, the change wasn’t a good thing. It took months for me to have an interest in leaving the house. I felt content when we were all at home with the front door tightly closed. The thought of laughing or feeling happy seemed wrong. The accident had taught me that in an instant – an out-of-nowhere instant – you could lose everything. Your husband and your family could be devastated; their lives changed forever. And you could be dead. So if that could happen, why be happy?

Many of my friends had difficulty understanding what I was experiencing. Most people think once you’ve had a near-death experience, the fragility of life makes you want to live it to the fullest. That didn’t happen to me. I wanted to grab everyone I loved, close my eyes and hold on tight.

Eventually I had a revelation. It was a Sunday and we had planned to take the girls to the zoo but we couldn’t go, because I was in a lot of pain. (I had a lot of neck pain after the accident, but it’s funny, that isn’t what I think of when I remember how the accident affected me.) My oldest daughter Klein, who was 8, said to me, “That’s OK. We don’t have to go to the zoo today.” And she meant it. She wasn’t upset that I was keeping them from the zoo. She sat with me on the couch all day, and she was happy to do that.

It was a stunning realization: I was keeping my children from living life fully, from having fun and feeling joy. If I had spent the day in pain on the couch, why couldn’t I spend the day in pain at the zoo? The difference would be that my kids would get to see lions and elephants, and I would get to watch them run through the zoo. I’d also get to breathe the air and feel the sun, and I knew those were good things too.

So I started opening the front door more, because I didn’t want my daughters to miss what was on the other side. And in bringing the outside world to them, I brought it back to me. I had to fight that fear of what might happen, what could happen. I chose to be happy, so my kids could be happy.

You can imagine what happened when I made that choice. As the years went by, my thoughts naturally focused on the positive, and eventually the fears were pushed aside. Every now and then – even 11 years later – that dread sometimes comes back, and I have to consciously choose happiness again.

Twice this past year, I’ve read a parent’s Facebook post about their college students’ terrible car accidents and how lucky they were to walk away injury-free. I quickly direct-messaged them to say the injuries might not be physical, and I explained what happened to me. I had such an urgent need to tell them, because sometimes you can’t see when real harm has been done.

I’ve found a way to choose happiness, but that isn’t always easy. Even if your car doesn’t do somersaults while you’re driving, there’s plenty to feel down about – especially as we age. But I’ve been able to pick what to focus on, what to fill my brain with. Luckily, I had my husband and three little people in my house who helped me choose happiness when the choice wasn’t clear. We opened the door and stepped outside. And there was fresh air and warm sun, and even a few elephants and lions. Just enough to be happy.

March 2014
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