08/10/2015 8:50 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

The Sadness On My Shoulder

Dramatic blue sky with sun rays bursting through the clouds
Niloo138 via Getty Images
Dramatic blue sky with sun rays bursting through the clouds

"You know what, Leigh? You should look at it like this -- the sadness is your friend. Take sadness with you wherever you go and you'll never be alone."

The psychiatrist looked directly at me while my vision flickered from his grimy lino of his office floor to his face, and back again. I nodded gingerly but said nothing. Had I spoken I'd have told him that his sadness can go shove it and I'd rather be mates with happiness.

I'd just taken myself off Zoloft -- a popular anti-depressant in the SSRI family -- without any knowledge or information about the consequences, and unbeknownst to me, was about to be prescribed Lexapro (another SSRI) which would render me numb and indifferent for the good part of my 20s -- but that's another blog post altogether.

While the good doc had a strange way of making his point, he did have one. Happiness is not a default setting. Not for everyone, at least. It's not a baseline from which all of our moods or emotions ebb and flow. It's not a threshold we only stray from when we encounter unfortunate circumstances.

Happiness is not an entitlement.

I spent my childhood hardening the soles of my feet on hot driveways -- enjoying endless summer days riding bikes in dusty paddocks, making cubbies in gumtrees and wrangling the flying fox with my brother and sister while Mum and Dad captured the memories in a briefcase-sized VHS recorder.

I had a dream upbringing, but still, from eight years old I had to see a "worry doctor", which was kid-speak for a psychologist.

Sadness and worry have sat on my shoulder since then. Sometimes they take holidays, and even gap years -- but just when I think they have fucked off for good, they return.

Which is fine. It's not fun, but it's fine.

What has taken me over 30 years to learn is that I am not entitled to feel happy all the time. It is not my right to wake up happy everyday, despite my privileged upbringing, great career and supportive husband. It is not my circumstances that make me feel the way I do -- it's beyond my surrounds and confined in the vastness of my complicated mind.

I've learned that if I begrudge and suppress sadness, it won't bring happiness. If I refuse to pay sadness attention it ends up demanding it in one way or another. Like one of those cruel magnifying beauty mirrors that show you every pore, wrinkle and blackhead, when sadness teams up with resentment it only magnifies the ugliness.

Happiness is not my default setting. Not everyday. And I think that's what the doctor was trying to say when he told me to make friends with the sadness -- to make peace with the fact that it's not what's happened to you that makes you sad -- it's the nuts and bolts of how you're made. It's part of you.

I've learned to be gentle with myself. Because when sadness sits on my shoulder, I need a friend.


If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 131114. For further information about depression, contact beyond blue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.