12/29/2014 12:27 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2015

Unreasonable Happiness

How would you define happiness? For many people, it comes as a result of external events such as a relationship, a job, winning the lottery, buying a new car or going on vacation. If I told you that happiness can also be felt following a serious health crisis, a financial challenge, a death of a loved one or the shifting of a relationship, would you ask me what I had been smoking, or what planet I was on?

First off, I don't do drugs and while I did tell my parents that I was an alien baby who had been left on their doorstep, I firmly believe that it is quite possible to feel the emotion of happiness in the face of those life events, because I have lived each and every one of them and am happier today than I have ever been in my 56 years.

In 1998, my husband died, following a six-year illness and 12 years of a "paradoxical marriage" which included both love and challenge that all these years later, I am learning to surrender as I shared in a recent Elephant Journal article called "How To Leave Our Anger and Resentment in the Past." When it became too great a burden to carry and spilled over into nearly every relationship since then, I knew it was time to put it down.

When Michael passed, I was left with financial debt, and as a single parent, the sole responsibility for seeing to it that my son was raised with love and support to become a good man. I gathered around us, all manner of resources, including male mentors, since I knew I couldn't be the proverbial mother and father to the then 11-year-old who is now 27. He has indeed become a good man. I worked a full-time job and several part-time consulting jobs for the past 16 years, doing what I could to keep the same roof over our heads that was there back then. I was determined to provide for the two of us. As many parents who are reading this can attest, there are times when I truly believed in the dichotomy that I was the worst mother in the world and that I should be voted Mother of the Year. My son might wholeheartedly agree with the first and reluctantly, with a wise guy smile, concede to the second.

In the past few weeks, Adam and I have had "come clean" conversations about our relationship. For the sake of his privacy, I won't share the content here, but suffice it to say, they were indeed wake up calls that cause me to, in 12-step parlance, "take my own inventory" daily. His keen observations about my worldview and the ways in which I have acted on it have been heart- and eye-opening. As painful as it has been, it has also been incredibly rewarding.

The deaths of my parents (Dad in 2008 and Mom in 2010) have also been a catalyst to examine perceptions about my childhood and the ways in which, like Play Doh in my hands, I have used it to shape my reality. I had always seen my upbringing as pivotal in molding my positive life choices, but never the negative ones. By doing so, it would sometimes feel like a betrayal of my parents' love, even though I now know that isn't so. What I learned about co-dependent "savior behavior" also came from them. The model they offered for a lifelong loving relationship was such a hard act to follow that I have never been able to emulate it. As a result, throughout my adult life, before my marriage and since being widowed, I have not been in a relationship where I didn't feel like I was responsible for the emotional and/or physical well-being of my partner. It occurred to me recently that as an empath, I have taken on the traumatic residue of family, friends, partners and clients and it nearly overwhelmed me. I did it because I thought I needed to in order to earn or maintain love and approval.

A major event occurred on June 12 of 2014, which was a game changer and one that allows me to be typing these words while lying on my comfy couch, with a bunch of pillows around me and a cozy blanket over me. On my way home from the gym, a heart attack sent me to the ER to have a stent inserted and a lifetime of entrenched patterns removed. One was physical surgery and the other emotional. The former took a matter of minutes, while the latter has had me in the metaphorical OR for the past six months, without benefit of anesthesia, so I feel EVERYTHING.

For the first time in forever, I am offering the woman in the mirror intense self care, without the desire to subsume my own needs into those of someone else's. I am content to say yes only to what appeals to me, unless I have to. I am giddily delighted at times to practice saying no to what I really don't want to do. I am making moment by moment decisions more often, rather than planning for the indefinite future. Although I am still a woman of my word and keep agreements, I give myself permission to renegotiate if I don't have the energy to follow through at the moment. That would have been unthinkable in the past.

It occurred to me today, on my way into the gym where I do cardiac rehab throughout the week, that likely only those who have faced life crises and lived to tell about it, have the capacity to know what unreasonable happiness looks, feels, tastes, sounds and smells like. To me, it is Nirvana.