Almost no one enjoys pain. In fact, many distorted patterns of behavior that can become serious mental health conditions begin with the very normal desire to avoid feelings of pain – physical or emotional.
As humans, so much of what we do on a daily basis is either to avoid pain or maximize pleasure. These are powerful motivators, and can be expressed in both healthy and unhealthy ways.
But avoiding pain forever is impossible. If you live, if you love; if you take the risk of simply getting out of bed in the morning, you put yourself in danger of experiencing some kind of pain. It is unavoidable.
So we know, in our healthy selves, that the unhealthy behaviors we use to avoid any feelings of pain – disordered relationships with our bodies, food, the mirror, the bottle, the substance, the boyfriend or girlfriend – will never actually work. They will never truly be the anesthesia that keeps us from experiencing pain. In fact, what I realized after a battle with an eating disorder was that the quick hit I used to avoid pain in the moment in all actuality only increased the severity and chronicity of my pain in the long term. And I refer not only to the physical pain of hunger, sleeplessness, gastrointestinal distress, fatigue and joint pain – but also the emotional pain of anxiety, depression, grief, loneliness, bitterness, and even rage. The mechanism I sought out to deal with momentary pain only compounded it in the long term. I was losing the battle.
However, one thing I learned in my recovery – and am STILL learning, in different ways and different contexts today – is that even though at times we cannot see where pain might come from or why, we can decide to make sure that that pain serves a purpose. Sometimes pain, whether it comes from outside or inside, whether it is physical or emotional, hits fast, hard, and unexpected. Sometimes there is no explanation for it. Sometimes it feels random, cruel and relentless. We can’t always find a “why” for our pain – but if we did, would that make it any less intense? Probably not; it would just serve as an explanation, but not a sustainable treatment.
In the darkest moments of our pain, once we’ve realized the shortcuts we’ve taken to avoid or minimize it no longer work, we are confronted with the decision of whether or not we will find a purpose in the pain. Give it a way to serve us. If we’re going to have to experience pain in life – which we’ve already covered, is not a choice – how can we feel it deeply and give it meaning? For many, the pain of struggle with addiction, and eating disorder or trauma and the battle for recovery leads to a deep desire to help others recover as well. They put the pain they experienced toward the purpose of helping others, writing books, becoming advocates or treatment providers themselves.
But on an even more personal level, we can choose to use the pain to serve the purpose of deepening our understanding of ourselves, our compassion and empathy for others, and adding a completely new dimension to our gratitude. After an abusive relationship, a truly loving and selfless partner can be even that much more appreciated. After years of hating one’s body and manipulating calorie intake and exercise, a confident day at the beach, feeling the sun on your skin can be that much more delightful. After years of feeling shame and humiliation, even the smallest accomplishment or creative expression can be that much more thrilling. Pushing through periods of pain instead of avoiding them, processing that pain with loved ones and a treatment team, then lends us physical and emotional memory that we can retrieve to help us live more fully in the present moment, finding a deeper sense of gratitude than we could have without traveling through the scorching fire of torment.
Of course, it is not a requirement to experience a mental health crisis or traumatic experience in order to find purpose in life. In fact, I wish for every human being on this earth that pain would never be a part of their experience. But we know that we will face pain as a condition of living and loving. What will we do when it comes? We cannot control if or when the pain may come, but we can find the purpose, dare I say, even the beauty in the brokenness, so that we transform one of life’s harshest realities into something that gives birth to redemption, hope, and life.