Our imaginations are powerful.
Growing up, I could play for hours by myself: dressing up in my mom’s old clothes and venturing to magical worlds, writing stories about mythical times and places, or building “forts” with my brother or friends in the living room. Escape from the monotony of everyday life was a joy – play-time was a thing of excitement and enchantment.
But then, we grow up. We experience pain, betrayal, a loss of innocence, and rejection. We take on the demands of an education, work, a family and other complex relationships. We pay fines and taxes, attend community meetings and do our best to become responsible members of society. Our imagination takes a backseat and duty takes the wheel. Couple this with the intrinsic and extrinsic pressure to be successful, and it is no wonder that so many people are burnt out. Exhausted. Done. It leaves us yearning for an escape, or something to numb us – a way out, either literally or figuratively.
Pain avoidance is a key component of many addictions, eating disorders and other co-occurring mental health issues. And why wouldn’t it be? Who likes to experience pain? It is a rare few who would choose it for its own sake. The weight of both responsibility and expectation can be too much to bear, and so to avoid pain and “check out” can often seem quite logical.
And adults have found a wide variety of ways to escape the pain of life’s harsh realities and transport themselves to another world. Instead of playing dress up, escape comes from a high provided by a substance, by food, sex, or inflicting self-harm. While the healthy-self reasons that in the long-term, these things provide much more pain than the momentary hurt they’re utilized to allay, during escapist episodes, that’s not the point. The point is to get away from the pain, now, no matter what. The imagination roams free in search of a vehicle to transport oneself away from the burden of reality. And there are increasingly dangerous ways to numb oneself to the present moment, potentially even to the point of death.
No matter how exciting or soothing the escape from momentary affliction may be, as anyone in recovery knows, the crash landing back into the real world is brutal. But one never remembers that when they’re numb. When the healthy self is back in the driver’s seat, it realizes how much worse the pain of coming back to earth is, when compared to the pain it sought to escape in the first place. Then the waves of guilt and shame come crashing to shore, which compound with the deeper hurts and feelings of worthlessness that preempted the episode. It is a vicious cycle of lies that can enslave the mind and body.
Change can start when it finally becomes clear that pain avoidance through substance abuse, disordered eating or other self-destructive behaviors only leads to more pain, not less. While the deeper underlying issues are always complex, on its face, the equation is simple. The only way to manage stress, pain, the wounds of trauma, grief or depression is to work through them, not escape from them. Freedom lies on the other side of learning to “sit” with difficult emotions. Healing comes through accepting and forgiveness – a hard look at the reality of what is, and choosing to find the good, the grace, the positive that can come from it. The lie of any addiction or eating disorder is that escaping the pain will bring release, when it only brings more pain. Breaking the cycle begins with accepting that pain cannot always be avoided and joy can come back by working through it.
As adults, we can utilize our imaginations to anesthetize – or we can use them to dream, to plan, to cast vision, to motivate. Our childlike fantasies once helped us to experience wonder and joy, and we can tap back in to that if we try. But as adults, our dreams can now do something they never could as children – empower us to change ourselves and the world around us – an option available to us as people with responsibilities, opportunities and families. Our imaginations are powerful, and can be used for tremendous good, but they only serve us when they provide more than an escape. Pain is real and a part of life – the only way to the other side is through it.