Pain into Purpose

At the onset of my anxiety, before I even knew I had anxiety, I listened to an episode of Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations that stuck with me for months to follow. It’s called “First The Pain, Then The Rising.” In it, Glennon Doyle asks her therapist to teach her how to not “waste this pain.” “I have to use it somehow,” she says.

I remember writing that line down in my journal and underlining it three times. Little did I know that months later, this sparkling gem of a quote would come up in my own therapy sessions.

But before getting into that…

Mental illness makes us feel small in so many ways. For me, it makes me feel like a tiny stick figure standing on a cliff edge, yelling up at a gigantic 3D dragon whose flames could incinerate me with one snort. I feel inconsequential. My shouts and complaints amount to nothing. They bounce off the scales of this dragon and echo back to me so that I’m constantly reminded of my own smallness.

*Insert your own analogy here, whether it’s of dragons, a gremlin perched on your shoulder, or a dark shapeless mass*

All this to say that feeling futile is part and parcel of a mental illness. It wants you to believe that your suffering is meaningless, that fighting against it is pointless. That’s how it wins, and we have to try our best to not let it, as difficult as it may be. And one way we do that is by turning our pain into purpose, by envisioning a greater good that we are fighting for through all the ups and downs, through all the breakdowns and tribulations and rock bottom moments.

By doing so, we can begin to break free of the resentment, the hatred, the self-victimization and all the darker secondary parts of mental illness that make healing so much harder for us.

Last night, my therapist suggested that I come up with a list of why anxiety might be a good thing. I looked at her all incredulous, even a little outraged/resentful. Anxiety = GOOD? You’re kidding. THIS is what I’m paying hundreds of dollars for?

But then I remembered the quote (“Teach me how not to waste this pain”) I had jotted down months ago, and I knew, albeit grudgingly, that the time had come for me to apply my lessons. Practice what I preach and the whole shebang. In all seriousness, I have a spooky spiritual sense that somehow the past me knew that future me would be in dire need of that quote.

So here are my own ramblings on the purpose of my pain. I hope it inspires you to create a list of your own, and to realize that your suffering is not meaningless. You’ve gotten this far for a reason, and you’ll continue to grow and heal and do amazing things.

· Compassion: every time I’m going through a particularly difficult phase of my life, it feels like my heart has been cracked open, but sometimes in the best of ways. I FEEL so much more than what I usually do, which means I’m able to feel for others who are also fighting their own battles. When I hear that someone else is facing anxiety, depression or other common struggles, I develop a closeness to them, even if we don’t know each other. I think there is beauty in that connection, even if the basis of it isn’t “good” in the traditional sense.

· Honesty: When I am struggling, masks and facades start seeming pointless in the face of such immense pain. I am stripped of all conventions, left naked and raw. While uncomfortable at first, this honesty is an invitation for me to confront (and love) myself in its purest, most vulnerable form, to start from scratch and build myself back up, as a phoenix does from ashes. Sometimes it takes hitting rock bottom to finally face the inner demons you’ve been dodging all your life, and only then is there hope of defeating them.

· Beauty in small moments: When every day becomes an endless battle to feel good, small moments of joy become that much more powerful and memorable. For me, even the minute act of crossing off an item off my to-do list can create the positive inertia I need to feel even incrementally better. I’ve realized that healing comes in increments, and that even tiny pockets of happiness and positivity go a long way in creating an upward trend.