Pain, & truth, & holding onto the stories that heal

I don’t much appreciate the hedgehog that’s living in my throat, and whoever sneaks in while I’m sleeping to stuff skewers in my ears and glue in my sinuses is not on my Christmas card list. Ah, post op, that unique combination of pain, boredom, and day TV. I’ve still got laryngitis which fortunately Rose thinks sounds sexy. I’m sure that helps with the regular top up of slushes!

Have an out of sequence blog post I wrote before going in to hospital. I’m not coherent enough to edit so I take little responsibility for the content.

I’ve had some lovely responses to my recent post Fear, grief, & chronic illness, telling me that other people too, don’t always find a positive approach helpful, that letting their pain speak limits its destructiveness, or that hearing my own vulnerability is in some helpful. I so needed to hear that.

I try to keep this blog as real as possible and sometimes that feels like an endless task of painting pictures of myself and the way I see the world, then pulling them down again to paint another one that’s more complex or shows something different… and I feel this suffocating pressure to only show the successes and the positive, or only share the pain after it’s been digested and finished with and turned into something palatable… it feels both incredibly vulnerable and somehow deeply urgent to defy these pressures, like fighting upwards through water to get to air where I can breathe again. But the water constantly rises and the struggle is often present for me. I don’t know if that’s a function of my culture, of the way social media works, or of the mental health culture… perhaps it’s a little of all three?

Certainly we fear pain because we’ve turned intense pain, even grief, into mental illness, which means you are not well and should do things to become more well. Intense pain is at times necessary, needed, appropriate. A rational and human response to life. Add to this the pressure of peer work where you are supposed to show that you are now ‘well’ and provide hope for others by successfully remaining well. Social media can be a fantastic vessel for connection, but it also comes with pressures and vulnerabilities. People sculpt their online image with the attention of a company to their brand. They live in fear of the enthusiastic judgements and criticisms of public life, and they try to show their best side and most successful parts of life. The reality of their self and life becomes increasingly divorced from their public image. Often they police other’s sharing also, shaming those who express hurt, confusion, loss, or other ‘private’ emotions and experiences. This is not to suggest that people who prefer not to share deeply personal things or distress on social media are wrong or deceptive, merely that people draw the lines between public identity and private self in different places, and that a competitive culture of presenting a successful public self can be difficult to navigate. The lines between authenticity, duplicity, intimacy, and privacy can be a challenge to determine. Ultimately, most of us want a sense of connection but fear of judgement and hope for respect and admiration can be big obstacles.

Back to navigating pain. It’s not a complicated concept – go down into the pain and hear what you need and do it, and it will ease. And yet I find myself over and over again losing this approach, forgetting that it works for me, and I never hear it from anyone else. When I’m struggling responses range from the positive thinking to the hang in there, and there’s nothing wrong with that – people share what works for them, or what they think may help. But I never hear – go deeper into the pain, stop avoiding it, downplaying it, ignoring it. It’s real, it counts, it needs attending to. Surrender to it, and it will pass through you and ease. Over and over again I stumble onto the discovery that by letting go from the cliff I’m hanging from, I don’t die, and the world doesn’t end. I fall into it and it hurts and I come through it. I still haven’t found any way of fixing this knowledge into my mind or life.

I think this one of the biggest challenges of having a belief that doesn’t have a lot of cultural support. Sometimes the process of undoing one belief and building a new one feels like I’m deprogramming from a cult while I’m living in the next town over. It’s really hard, and there’s plenty of triggers around that reset my old beliefs so I have to wrestle out of them all over again. I think anyone that’s come through any kind of abuse, particularly entrenched in the local culture (school, family, church, club) and minimized, struggles with this vulnerability. You are given stories to understand yourself and your world that do you harm, but that on a deep level you continue to believe and fear may be true, even when you’ve decided that other stories are more accurate. Contact with these old stories (being molested isn’t ‘really’ sexual abuse, kids only cut themselves for attention, you’re a drama queen, you’ll never amount to anything, all mothers adore and do right by their children) can either trigger a major response – kind of like an immune response, or sneak in under your guard without you noticing. In the major response, you encounter a foreign story and you are half infected by it and half fighting it off. The more vulnerable you are to infection, the more dramatically you fight, and the more internal struggle you experience! The other option is much more subtle, a slow insidious poisoning where the story seeps in and takes hold and becomes your own without you noticing or putting up any kind of fight. Weeks or months later you find you’ve taken on their perspectives “I’m useless and lazy and never try hard enough” or internalised their ideas “I’m only bulimic, if I was really dealing with an eating disorder I would be anorexic” and are starting to live from them as if you believe them.

It’s so hard! It’s made even harder if you have little support for your new stories, if you are in regular contact with people who believe and push the old stories onto you, and if they have any kind of power or authority over you. Other things that can make it harder to keep your own beliefs is if you don’t really believe your new ones (eg. trying to use over the top positive affirmations “Every day, in every way I am getting better and better” can be a much more vulnerable position because the new stories are so unrealistic and unsophisticated with no room for back steps or grace for human flaws or bad days, that every day life can constantly provide you with enough evidence that your stories are not true that you are forced either into constant internal conflict or severe denial to maintain them). Self loathing and self doubt, which obviously spring from particular stories about yourself can also make this process more difficult as they naturally undermine all your other beliefs and endeavours and make you prone to hearing bad things about yourself as true and good things about yourself as untrue. A lack of emotional skin, which can be about trauma but is also often related to social power – the less we have, the more important others opinions become for our survival, also increases our vulnerabilities to living according to other people’s stories, and often these stories suit the other people and not ourselves.

This is where I come back to authenticity, and to the idea of truth. Truth is often complex, and we like to boil it down. We try to sum up our childhood, our relationships, people we’ve known, as if we could weigh the good and bad on scales and come to a definitive number. The reality is that this process obliterates and obscures truth. Finding truth is not about boiling down but about opening up. It doesn’t sum up all the complexity in a neat conclusion, it lays each piece next to each other, side by side, not over lapping. A simple example: my childhood was terribly painful. I was devastatingly lonely, witnessed violence and abuse, was traumatised by death and loss, suffered chronic suicidal impulses from the age of 10, and struggled with nightmares, self hate, guilt, grief, sexuality, gender identity issues, bullying, undiagnosed multiplicity, severe dissociation, and major trauma. That’s one story. It’s all true, all verifiable. My childhood was also wonderful. I was given free reign to be incredibly creative and adventurous, taught skills and resilience, offered freedom to explore rivers, climb trees, sleep out on the roof, light and cook my own meals on fires, wear wild clothes, explore artistic pursuits. I saw deserts and mountains, swam in icy snowmelt rivers, watched a meteorite shower, built a hay bale cubbyhouse to sleep in, stayed up late to watch lightning, nursed an injured baby goose for months in the pocket of an apron, ride motorbikes and go karts and beach buggies, go rock climbing and abseiling outback, bucketed hot water into a bathtub once used for stock feed in a paddock, and had a hot bath outdoors in the rain with my sister. This is also all true. People often try to ‘sum it out’ as if the good might outweigh the bad or vice versa. I’ve found that when one story obscures the other, I lose some important truth. It’s not or, it’s and. My childhood was wonderful and painful. It’s headbending, but its a key skill to be able to tolerate the tension of more complex stories like this, because single-note stories, black and white stories, often distort and conceal some truth that we need. There’s freedom in the contradictions.

Hanging onto them, even when they’re as accurate as we can craft them, as undelusional, as informed, as balanced as we can manage, can still be tough. This is where good therapy can build you up and be another voice of support (“I know your father says that you’re weak for being raped, but I also know that’s not what you believe and not how you feel about other people who’ve been raped”), or conversely where bad therapy can take your head apart (“You are manipulative and faking your issues for attention”). I also use a number of other sources of inspiration. My favourite artists adorn my walls, I reread my favourite books every year and own the movies that inspire me and inform the stories I choose to tell about myself and my life. For me, it’s about poetry, about heroes like Cyrano de Bergerac, Bradbury, Amanda Palmer, about the love of children, about all the things we use to anchor us in our beliefs and weather the tides that pull us off course and plant traps in our minds.

2 thoughts on “Pain, & truth, & holding onto the stories that heal

  1. I’m bookmarking this post to read again (and again, and again) as I go along the difficult path in my future that I’m currently preparing for.
    There were two things you said early on that really resonated (and more that I skimmed over that I feel will resonate when I read them properly, which is one of the reasons I’m bookmarking this!)

    ” go down into the pain and hear what you need and do it, and it will ease”. I’ve heard this from one person: you! I’ve never read the post that you linked to with that phrase, but your awareness of your history and your strength in facing what challenges you has come through in so much of what you write.

    I’m so glad that it’s something you’ve shared, because what you’ve written (and the pain that came from trying to ignore my personal problem) was the only thing that guided me towards planning for a future that fixes it. I appreciate so much of what you share, but that idea has made an enormous difference in my life.

    “I feel this suffocating pressure to only show the successes and the positive, or only share the pain after it’s been digested and finished with and turned into something palatable” – This is something I wrestled with a lot with blogging, and have felt that I can’t entirely let go of because of the way I want/need to portray myself for my work.

    Instead, I’ve been working on showing the big vulnerability in my life with friends face-to-face, even when it comes up in a quick chat or with someone I’m not quite *that* close with. It challenges me – and often challenges them! – and there’s often tears in public for a moment.

    For the most part, sharing that vulnerability while it’s still raw and hard is something I’m glad I’m pushing myself to do. I’ve had a few people react awkwardly, but I’ve been lucky to have friends where the majority have been enormously supportive and/or have been through something similar and have shared their own experiences, which have helped me work even more at finding the path I need to take.

    Like I say, I know I’ll be coming back to this post a lot. But here’s my first reaction, openly shared while it’s still fresh. Thanks for inspiring me to share it. 🙂

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    • Thankyou for sharing your experience with me. The approach to pain I’ve learned (and forget, and relearn constantly) is to be honest drawn more from fiction books generally! Ursula Le Guin, Partricia A McKillip, and Ready Bradbury all have the most poignant things to say about pain and courage that have been guides to me when I was lost. Women Who Run with the Wolves by Claridsa Pinkola Estes is another one as was Facing the Wolf by Theresa Shepard Alexander…

      I’m not sure of how things will play out in the longer term with my public life. Children may radically impact what I feel is appropriate to share. I don’t have a clear model there at all, I’m finding my way stumbling each day and trying to be guided by my values in a context of technology, social media, and activism where I can’t really see the long term outcomes of my choices… But if couldn’t also find relationships in my private life to be authentic in, to be safe to strip back some of that veneer of success and functioning in, this blog would be very different and probably of limited usefulness I suspect. Those relationships are the heart of who we are – seeing and being seen. I’m so glad to hear that you’re finding ways to share that vulnerability safely and gather the support you need. Your courage in doing so is inspiring. Each of us, in our own way, finding ways to connect and be real, gives each of us hope, I think. xxx

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