That Pain You Hide
“Many abused children cling to the hope that growing up will bring escape and freedom.
But the personality formed in the environment of coercive control is not well adapted to adult life. The survivor is left with fundamental problems in basic trust, autonomy, and initiative. She approaches the task of early adulthood――establishing independence and intimacy――burdened by major impairments in self-care, in cognition and in memory, in identity, and in the capacity to form stable relationships.
She is still a prisoner of her childhood; attempting to create a new life, she reencounters the trauma.”
― Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery
I like to write and think about Eudaimonia: The Good Life. Eudaimonia is a central value of mine that I pursue no matter the condition of my life: health, pain, joy, and sorrow. But I want to also address those who are going through the depths of trauma and stuckness. The way I write about Eudaimonia might give you the impression that I am not in touch with absolute intractable despair. I won't get your experience exactly, but my value of Eudaimonia comes from the experience of traumatization in myself and others. I will continue to write about what works and what health and healing look like because I believe that is more helpful than focusing on the pain (unless you're ready to "go into" the pain). But I also know that you need to know that I know pain before you'd be willing to hear about the medicine. I will try to demonstrate what I know about pain from time to time. Here's an attempt:
To find yourself trapped in stuckness just as you've escaped the physical confines of the prison of your childhood (or some other suffering) brings a fear that paralyzes your very soul. It touches the indestructible essence of you, and, just for a moment, even the eternal, immovable part of yourself wonders why it chose life to begin with. What’s the point of this suffering?
The suffering drags on and on—days spent sitting glazed, staring out the window, numb to the world. Or worse, you wriggle around with wretchedness, an inferno of panic burning up your insides as you wonder how much longer you can stand to feel this way. Perhaps you catch rage like how a smoldering coal erupts with fire with the slightest breath. Or you watch in disbelief while you compromise your values just to keep a little peace, while the moral fibers of your being scream at you, “No, not again!” but you are helpless against the fear of ruffling even one feather—seeing the slightest hint of discomfort or displeasure on the face of another.
It goes on like this for years, maybe decades. You get by and find workarounds. Like a battered jalopy with mismatched doors and ill-fitting parts, you limp along the highway, white-knuckling it to your destinations each day. You come home both wired and exhausted (if you managed to leave your room at all), wanting nothing more than to sleep dreamless sleep, to feel what death might feel like, just for a moment, because you've determined that the end of life is the only way your chronic experience of chaotic innards will ever end. How is it possible I haven't just blinked out of existence? I feel I could vanish or explode or…
But you don't sleep. You’re wide awake as the darkness of night taunts your pain “Relax! It's so serene!” as you feel a metallic grinding in the energy that pulses through every nerve in your body. The silence is like nails on a chalkboard, an endless drip of water on your forehead.
It goes on like this for years, decades. “This is my life,” you think, “what a waste.” You hide your pain because when you don’t, you're told to “think happy thoughts” that “hurt people hurt people.” So you hide it all the best you can as you paint a mask on your face and modify your voice. Whole personas emerge to take care of daily tasks and keep food in your mouth (for what?). You are constantly isolated no matter how many sit with you at the table. Compliments, praise, and accolades mean nothing because your plastic facade is the recipient, and what feels like your “real” self is a bloody nub of a soul. Eventually, you can’t even keep that up. Your cardboard spaghetti western is soggy and collapsing. Everyone knows now… can't recover from this.
So, you're at an impasse. “Do I kill myself or seek help?” Maybe you've already sought help, and it's all fallen flat. “Do I try again?” Part of you, way out at the margin of the map of your brain, has a shred of hope that something has to work. “It should work, shouldn’t it?” It's like a candle to an ocean, but somehow, that little pilot light of hope keeps you going—for years. It’s a miracle in and of itself.
It's the miracle with which you start. Ground zero for a revolution led by your essence. No matter how bad it gets, a gentle, small voice whispers, “Keep going, you're almost there.” Out of options, you pray, “god damn, someone just show me the way already.” And in that moment of humble surrender, something inside quietly opens—something outside comes into relief: a person, a situation, an event, a book, a movie, a plastic bag blowing in the wind. The moment is marked with the ominous light of the morning sun during a solar eclipse. Everything looks the same, but something feels different.
Suddenly, you're able to go to work. Not like your job, but a tiny start-up gem mine opens for business in your heart. You still struggle. You have a long way to go. Those old feelings linger and tug at you for a long time and still threaten to devour your bones, but something is different. That pilot light becomes a proper flame, and you can add larger, longer burning pieces of wood.
As you huddle there alone at your little fire, someone joins you, and then someone else after that. You don't even notice that another body is curled next to you, adding warmth to your desperate scene. You and your company unwittingly band together against the elements. You understand each other, masks off. "Yeah, me too," you say, and the ice in your throats thaw into smooth chuckles of knowing. "What is this all about?" y'all ask as you look up to the starry ceiling, squinting your eyes and furrowing your brows as you try to penetrate the void with the will of an ant who does not know his size.
Together, in your humility, the cosmic joke begins to dawn on you. Your suffering is the result of a thousand ancient accidents that humans have been trying to meditate and write their way out of since the dawn of civilization. You were set up to feel cursed with aloneness, but the punch line is that everyone is feeling that aloneness... together.