It’s easy to get stuck in pain. Physical pain takes over your body. Emotional pain takes over your body, mood, emotions, and thoughts. Existential pain takes over your thinking and ungrounds you pretty badly.
How do we avoid getting stuck in pain? How do we find a way out?
Of all the types of pain, physical pain is the most difficult to get out of, especially when it’s chronic, so I’m not going to cover it here (haha, cop out!) Actually, it’s just not my zone of expertise – other people cover it way better. (See, for example, Vidyamala Burch of Breathworks)
Emotional and existential pain, in my opinion, are easier to navigate your way through and out of. With some good tools and skills – and social and/or professional support – you can make it through and out.
The first step is to know – or trust – that there’s a way out for you.
Actually, the zeroth step is to know that you’re in pain. You can go quite a long time before you realise it – it can creep up on you slowly and it’s only when you look back, as I did age 20, that you see it’s been there for 4 years already. Ow.
Anyhow, this knowledge that there’s a way out for you, this confidence, this trust, has two parts to it.
Firstly, you trust that there’s a way out.
When I had depression in my late teens and early twenties, I couldn’t imagine a way out. I couldn’t imagine being free from depression. I’d been a baby, a child, a teenager, then a depressed young adult. That was my story. I couldn’t see any way out of becoming a depressed adult, a depressed middle-aged adult, a depressed pensioner, and dying, depressed.
But I saw other people around me who had been depressed and who had found a way out that worked for them. They didn’t all take the same way out, either. I began to trust that a way out was possible for them, but I couldn’t yet trust there to be a way out for me.
This brings us to the second part: You trust yourself to be able to move towards the way out.
This part is harder than the first one.
One day, I came across the question, “What’s so special about you that there’s no way out for you?”
I was startled. What indeed was so special about me? Why wouldn’t I be able to find a way out? I struggled to find an answer.
I didn’t find an answer.
I began to doubt my doubt. I started trust more deeply that I could find, or be guided to, a way out.
I began to find the way out.
Later on, I can reconnect more easily to the child in me, the child I was, who could experience happier states, joyful states, playful states. I began to see that these attributes were there all along. They’d been squashed and hidden away by the depression.
These days, I trust that most people have most typical human attributes: happiness, joy, playfulness, seriousness, anger, hatred, love, kindness, despair, fear, anxiety, delight, relaxation, stress. We tend to inhabit some of these more often, and for longer, than other. But that doesn’t mean that the other ones have disappeared for good.
Can you find pain-free experiences in your memory? In your day-to-day life? Can you remember a time when you didn’t experience such pain?
It doesn’t matter how short or long that pain-free state lasted. The fact that you had it and can remember it is good enough. You can’t go back to that time but what you know and can have confidence in, is that you have the possibility inside you for not being in pain. There is the possibility of a way out. That state is in you, somewhere. It just needs a little more airtime.
You begin to have some orientation: towards the way out. You’re not stuck any more. You have a compass to orient by: things either lead you towards happier states, or they don’t. And you have confidence in yourself that you can take steps in that direction.
I’m reminded here of another story from my PhD supervisor (who was, by the way, renowned for his story-telling. One evening on the last full day of our field course, our whole course group was sitting in the local bar. Egged on by the students, he regaled us with story, after story, after story. Magic.)
The particular story here is one about a train that caught on fire in a tunnel. It may well have been a steam train. Anyway, it was on fire in the tunnel, and this particular tunnel through the mountains was slightly inclined.
One group of passengers got out of the train and, figuring that the train was nearer to the end of the tunnel than the start, began walking in that direction.
A different group of passengers hesitated. In that hesitation one of them realised that going towards the end of the tunnel would take them uphill.
The smoke from the fire was, as smoke does, going uphill. Walking into the smoke would probably kill them. They walked the other way, the longer way, downhill, and made it out of the tunnel alive. The other group didn’t.
The point here is, of course, that some things that look like they’re going to help, or that look like the best and fastest way out, after some consideration (or, in less lethal circumstances, testing out a little and seeing their effects), turn out to be things that don’t help.
Think, for example, of spending time with the friend or family member who ‘should’ be a support for you according to the unspoken and frequently incorrect rules of how perfect families and friendships should operate, but who always reminds you how crap you are at everything. Or going out drinking. Or burying yourself in your work, yet again, and exhausting yourself, yet again. They might be good, or even recommended (Had a crap day? Drink wine!) But if you find that they don’t seem to be working, check in again with whether or not it really helps you move towards your goal of having a less painful experience of life.
Life is never going to be painfree. There’ll always be some degree of pain, or painful events happening and bopping you on the head. And you can navigate your way through and out.
Now you’re here, you’re possibly wondering if you have what it takes.
Yes, you do.
If you’re reading this, you’ve had what it takes all along. You’ve been doing it already. You have what it takes to keep yourself alive, to keep yourself moving, to keep yourself searching, learning, testing, considering, and taking action.
Believing that you have what it takes, is hard.
You have what it takes.
You’re also not in this alone. Remember that piece above about everyone having all typical human attributes, in different quantities? Everyone has had some experience of pain. Most likely, other people have had similar experiences and feelings to you. They may not have had your exact mix of experiences, or your exact blend of attributes. But there’s enough. You’re not the only one going through this, feeling like this, thinking like this.
You’re not in this alone in another sense too. There are people around you who can support you in finding and walking your way out. Be sure to make sure that the obvious people to help you are actually helpful – and that applies as much to professionals (doctors, psychiatrists, therapists, counsellors) as it does to family and friends.
Some people will get you more easily, readily and deeply than others. Choose wisely.
One is enough. If you find one good person to support you as you navigate your way out, fantastic. More than that is a bonus, it truly is. Enjoy it as such, as and when you can.
Now, how are you going to apply all that?