Pain. Or gain?
These days I vacillate on whether or not the one goes without the other.
As much as I think that the stars were crossed for my life, I’m equally certain that most people don’t have it easy, even in the West, where we enjoy more everyday luxuries than we can name. Our abundance and relative wealth does nothing to mitigate the hardship of the emotional landscapes we grow up in, nor does it relieve us later in life when the scars we receive pull suddenly, or re-open. Our riches do not heal new hurts.
I was a few days old when my world (probably) first fell apart. My mum required some surgery, which was scheduled and delayed as she waited, fasting and trying to nurse her newborn. And so it came to pass that mid-feed and still unsatisfied, I was taken from her and given to my dad. She was wheeled off elsewhere to wait. And wait. And wait. And meantime, I can only imagine the frustrated, helpless bewilderment of the new father as his firstborn screamed and screamed for food, the pain of hunger and need and loss overwhelming her.
I was seven when it fell apart again, with the sudden, strident entry into our lives of the beast Depression. We were all sucked under to The Bad Place, and the years were transformed into living death by a thousand verbal cuts, culminating with separate ways being taken, and leaving me with my own, smaller, twisted beast to deal with. Yet succumbing was never an option, because one thing I’d learned was stoicism and the ability to just keep going.
Then followed the first set of working years, where knock followed boost followed knock followed climb followed fall, and a weird breed of succfailuress was born. No matter how hard or how long I worked, my efforts were never enough and my failures quickly pounced upon. I was in a leadership position over a team who didn’t respond and the buck stopped with me, whatever shift of sands had thrown us off that day. I awoke daily with dread gnawing at the pit of my stomach, knowing that 12 hours wouldn’t be enough, and I’d still be for the high jump. I grew weary.
Marriage seemed a bright spot. A change of scenery to take a frivolous, fascinating course in something I’d long loved was the perfect escape, and yet the catastrophic re-entry of the beast Depression sucked the wind out of even those shining sails and turned it into a forboding, terrifying ghost-ship.
Then loss compounded. And another loss followed. And finally, the loss of all but the tiniest hope.
Even though the beast has been warded off (for now) and those frail hopes are pinned and never said “never” to, I still well up when imagination and wistfulness catch me off-guard – the sunshiniest day can be plunged into darkness by the errant thought of the babies I didn’t get to keep. Of the name we wanted to call our daughter (were we ever lucky enough to have one). Of clutching, paralysing envy at seeing a mother with her children. Of the long, long stretch of life ahead which might be ‘just us two’.
And all too often I’m overwhelmed, dragged back down into the Dark Place, hearing the siren-calls of depression and alcohol and the desire to just not be in my brain any more – to turn off the hurting and screaming and blur everything out, and weariness creeps into the bones of my soul and life grows cold and unfriendly.
Yet somehow, because occasionally, if we look hard enough, there is light to be found even in the midst of darkness, and a queer light which kindles and flickers and glows the more it is focussed on, as though the gaze is oxygen to its ember, and none of these pains is without their gain.
Rejection: a deep-seated fear of being left behind or left out or shown I’m unwanted makes it all the sweeter when the opposite is true, and gradually, with time and the now-consistent drip-feeding of love from family and friends, this spectre appears dimmer, and her clutches less powerful than before. This love provides a framework within which to cope with new rejections, and the reinforcement in words from those who matter allows me to shrug things off which before would have pierced my heart and shaken me to my core.
Hunger: once uncontrollable, it controlled me and the satisfying of it was the only way to quell the panic and suppress the pain. The senses were fooled by the positive input of food, translating it as safety and comfort. Now better understood, hunger is a friend to be embraced – a co-worker on the way to a healthy lifestyle and a reminder that food, appropriately portioned, will follow. When I work with hunger and allow myself to feel it, I know it no longer controls me, but that I control it.
Depression: never a friend and always a liar, a cheat and a saboteur, it nonetheless allows me to see how strong, how determined, how full of perseverance I’ve become. It allows me to connect, in a unique way, to a community of people who have experienced it, and to offer my support and encouragement where possible. It has allowed me to empathise and attempt to provide insight based in my own experience. And even though it sometimes still calls me and threatens to overwhelm, I know from the past, that it will not win me, and that it too, shall pass.
Low self-worth: this puzzled me for the longest while, for how dare I attempt to stand up for the validity, dignity and inherent worth in human life, just as it is, if I denied that worth to myself? And yet nothing could make me see that I was of value; merely a shell full of useless thoughts and trivia who could play the clown and sometimes make people laugh. Again, the consistent-drip feeding of positive input from those who care and the idea that I could hold a positive opinion about myself were key, and though work is still in progress, the foundations are strong. The light side is that I have a hyper-awareness of the actions and words which can build people up or tear them down. Shamefully I’ve willfully used both, but am learning to stick to the side which supports, blesses or encourages others.
Grief: a profoundly painful, lifelong membership to The Invisible Moms’ Club might appear to have very few bright points and yet the compassion and empathy I feel for my fellow members is beyond any I could have expected to feel before. We are a sisterhood of grief, and it is as fragile and beautiful as it is painful, and in it, we reach out through our tears to take the hands of those who fall, and pull them once again to their feet. In turn we can reach out our hands when we stumble and know that we’ll be caught. Another side (though tinged bittersweet) is the utter joy when I see parenting being done well and done right, and parents and their children living the beautiful moments together. Even with empty arms, I can still celebrate those times.
Weariness: for so, so many years, my forte has been my strength and ability to just keep going, to keep supporting, to keep doing the things which need to be done. And with the roller-coaster of the past few years, my ability has been compromised and I now walk through life gently, as though cracked and held together with tape, ready to fall apart at any moment. This weariness and the overwhelming nature of my thoughts has led me to some destructive behaviours, forsure, but it’s also led me to admit weakness; to admit inability to cope; to admit I’ve failed and need help. In developing strategies and reaching out to others for support, I have learned that there is a different kind of strength in weakness, and that in those desperate times, power comes not from isolation, but from connection and community.
I’m a huge believer that life is a series of stepping stones, some which harm us, some which help us, but each of which shapes us. The thing is, I’m gradually learning that we aren’t (or don’t have to be) victims to our past. I’ve lived that way and it sucks. In taking stock, understanding the impacts of the past, particularly of past pains, I have found it possible to (mostly) take on board the positives which can be found in them. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to sit back and say “I’ve done it”, but my character is changing, slowly and surely, into someone who seems to be a better person – more likeable; more compassionate; more patient and understanding; more willing to go the extra mile to encourage; and ultimately, happier.
I have been through the fires of life, and they aren’t over yet, but as the process continues, the dross becomes apparent and is seen, then discarded. I am being refined, and as painful as it is, I’ll come out better and shinier at the other end.