Choose Joy

I visited New York City for the first time in 1994. I was in my mid-20’s and pretty well established in my performing arts career in Toronto. A Canadian friend who had made her way to NYC a few years earlier to try her luck on Broadway, had invited me for a long weekend. During my stay, my friend got the flu and was bed-ridden, so I was on my own to explore the city and feel it out. Having grown up on the remote prairies of Saskatchewan, I found myself utterly overwhelmed by New York City. Yes, I had lived in Toronto for many years at that point, but comparatively, Toronto was no match to the energy, scope and high-density living of New York. It was like my mind couldn’t process the enormity of the experience on top of the irrational abandonment I felt by my friend’s incapacitation.

I did my best to make the most of it and pretended I was okay, as I had learned to do throughout my life. But inside, I was lonely, depressed, confused and anxious.

On the third evening of my stay, I was eating solo and journaling in my notebook at a Diner on the Upper West Side, when I realized that my name, Jody, contained the word, Joy. I distinctly remember feeling a deep longing to connect to Joy and lamented to myself as my eyes filled with tears: “Where is my JOY?” I knew, as we do in that way that often propels us to seek therapy, that I was NOT happy. And I knew that it wasn’t simply due to a bad weekend alone in New York. I knew that Joy was something that had eluded me, or that I had kept myself from experiencing, for most of my life.

Like many of us, I had grown up in a dysfunctional family. I had been raised by well-meaning parents with undiagnosed and untreated mental illness, who relied a lot on what we call in my field, “maladaptive coping skills” to manage themselves and their children. Much of my confusion, depression and anxiety stemmed from growing up amidst chronic disconnection, alcoholism, and emotional abuse not uncommon in many families. I had spent most of my life normalizing my upbringing – as I was trained to – and believing that I was simply damaged goods. I had unconsciously adopted the same maladaptive coping strategies as my parents and was cut off – disconnected – from myself and others.

No wonder I felt no Joy.

In the years since becoming a mindfulness-based therapist, I’ve come to know that there is no human need stronger nor more important than the need for attachment and connection. I’ve also come to know that there is nothing more stressful to a developing child than the pain of disconnection, rejection and neglect by the very people that are supposed to love you unconditionally. Lastly, I’ve come to the conclusion that the inhumanity of chronic disconnection underlies almost every emotional and psychological disorder we encounter. Treating the symptoms without addressing the disconnection, does not help in the long-term, which is why my work as a therapist is grounded in the core values of commitment, compassion and connection.

After that day in New York City where I saw Joy in my name and knew it was lacking from my life, I made it my mission to FIND MY JOY. I started seeing a therapist, I read self-help books, I attended workshops and developed contemplative practices. I took emotional risks and admitted to friends that I was hurting inside, that I was confused and scared. I became willing to let go of defense mechanisms that might have kept me “safe” but also kept me imprisoned in isolation. I learned what it means to connect to myself and I learned that connection is the currency of healing.

Many of us have been born and raised in disconnection. Today, after more than 2 years of living with the Coronavirus, we need to understand more than ever what it means to connect. With so many of us isolating and shutting off from others, with so much fear and uncertainty in the world, connecting to ourselves can be life-saving. If there is anything we can learn from this time we are living in, it is how to compassionately connect with ourselves and others.

So what does it mean to connect? To me, connection means becoming willing to stay open-hearted to ourselves and all that we are, the good, the bad and the vulnerable. We are collectively taught in our culture that we should only accept the parts of us that we like and approve of, which means rejecting so much of ourselves. Connection means that we accept those parts of us that we hide away and bravely welcome the pain, fear, grief, disgust, anger and confusion that these parts carry. Connection means becoming willing to feel all our emotions, not just the “good” ones, because there are no good or bad emotions, just pleasant and unpleasant ones, that we can learn to regulate so as not to be overwhelmed by them. Connection means knowing what you are sensing and experiencing, and relating to it with compassion. Connection means bringing someone safe into your process, like a therapist or trusted friend, either in person or online, to witness and hold space with you while you grieve, grow and gain new perspective. Eventually, as I have found to be true personally and professionally, what emerges from committing to this compassionate connection, is Joy. Joy is the by-product of full-bodied, open-hearted living from the inside out, when you don't have to shut down or cut off from your inner life, even if you have to isolate from life outside. Being able to stay connected to ourselves in good times and in bad, helps us connect to those around us who are suffering, as well, so that Joy can spread to others who need it as much as I did and as I much as you probably do, too.

Over the past two decades, I can honestly say that by committing to compassionate connection, I have not only found my Joy, but I cultivate it. I choose it every day and I help others find their Joy. As Joseph Campbell wrote, “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.” By becoming willing to see, feel and allow all parts of myself to exist, to develop compassion towards my own experience, I chose myself, I chose life, I chose Joy. And I know you can, too.