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pain dignifies

April 6, 2012

When I woke up this morning, I had stuff I planned to do. I had stayed up until 3 AM working on one guest post for the Slacktiverse; I have also agreed to do a second one that I haven’t yet started.

Our laundry pile is 4 feet high. Spouse needs me to take something to the post office. I’m sure there are other household tasks that need doing.

My plans, though, were curtailed since I’m not feeling too good, so I decided to make use of these circumstances in a particular way. I’m sure there is an interesting explanation for the physiological mechanism by which, when I am in a certain amount of physical pain and/or discomfort, suddenly I find I can do some other task I’d been putting off because I was agonizing over the outcome.

Four days ago, I wrote that some part of me wanted me to talk about painful events in my past, but that most of me was resisting. After I published that post, I thought about how to approach the most painful topics. I knew I didn’t want to do a straight narrative. To put myself through that would be excruciating, what could I hope to accomplish by doing so, and why would anyone else want to read it? I decided to do what I normally do when I have a particular topic I know that I want to write about — I wait for concepts and words to bubble up, and then I start writing them down. Gradually, as my writing jumps around, the shape the piece wants to take becomes clear, so I take out everything that doesn’t fit, then polish what’s left.

There is so much material from 1985 and 1990 that I don’t know where to start. But really, I have a lifetime of material — why limit myself? So much pain, so much of it agonizing.


In my family of origin, we did not talk about pain. Doing so was seen as exposing your weaknesses. And thus, you had no right to be surprised or upset when other people, knowing you were vulnerable, hurt you even worse. You brought it on yourself, really.

It was therefore with great trepidation that I wrote to my parents in 1985, and I gingerly conveyed that things were really not going well. A lot was at stake, because my parents had made it very clear to me before I left that I was not welcome to come back. If I couldn’t make this new situation work, I was on my own. So I was highly motivated to make it work, and in fact had gone into it expecting it to be the best thing ever. The reality beggared my imagination. Being awake and living through every day was worse than any nightmare, but I also had nightmares. And the person I was living with threatened to come into my room at night, while I was sleeping, and torture me until I woke up, so that I would scream and beg for mercy. It wasn’t fun for him that I wouldn’t beg for mercy when I was awake, although I was terrified all the time. Since sleep was no longer my refuge, I started taking sleeping pills so that I could not be awakened, by torture or anything else. The next day, or for the next two days, I was groggy, lethargic, and dazed. I never really felt awake; more that I was trapped in a surreal horror movie. I started wondering if maybe the entire experience was an extended nightmare, and I might hope to wake up to find that none of it had happened. Except that nothing in my life had ever worked out for the best, so why should this?

When your best friend becomes your worst enemy overnight, who can you trust? And who can you go to for help? This was my frame of mind when I wrote to my parents, who never wanted to see me again, so I could ask for their help.

They came out for a visit a few weeks later. Everything looked normal to them, so they went back home and left me there. And then things got really really bad for me.

But now I knew my parents would not help. I knew no one but the people I was living with. I was 800 miles away from where I was born. All my friends were away at college; we’d lost touch. My first sort-of-boyfriend wouldn’t take my calls. I rarely left the house because there was nowhere to go.

A different family member came to stay with her parents while she figured out what to do next. She didn’t seem to notice anything was wrong either. And I didn’t know how to bring it up. Besides, I like hanging out with her and her friends, who were fun, and seemed to be fond of me. When this person hooked me up with a fake ID so we could go to bars together, I jumped at the chance to get out of the house. Really, I just wanted to hang out with her and her friends, do some dancing. I had not been a drinker in high school. But I became one now to numb the pain I couldn’t talk about. She watched while some drunk guy I danced with started pawing me. I didn’t want to make a scene, and I didn’t know how to refuse his attentions, so I went along. That was my first kiss. She said later that it “looked  like I was enjoying myself”, so she didn’t intervene. But I liked her, and I wanted to seem ‘cool’, so I didn’t protest.

There’s tons I’m leaving out, of course. I brought her up mainly because of the next incident. All of us were attending a family event in another state. (The hosting relatives were not related to me, and this was the first time I had met them.) During the event in question, which I had enjoyed!, the threatening person I lived with later told me he had been fantasizing about killing me. He told me about the weapons he was considering buying. He wanted to make sure it was really gonna hurt. He had a certain kind of glint in his eye, which told me that, despite the joking tone, he was deadly serious. I was now afraid to be in the same room with him, but it was going to be unavoidable later. If I was going to ask an adult for help, it would have to be very shortly. I was still too scared to talk to the people in charge of my care (!), but I thought my friend (several years my senior) was adult enough for this purpose. Besides, I was going to ask her to talk to her father on my behalf. I went to the hospitality room at the hotel and drank five beers in quick succession to get drunk enough to have that conversation. And then I sought her out and had it. It didn’t go well. She didn’t believe me. She went to the threatening person — after I begged her not to! — and he denied everything. As far as I know, she never talked to her father. And the threatening person found me, and kicked up the threats to the next level. By then I was mainlining despair. Because no matter what happened, I now knew, there was no adult who cared about my safety, and I would have to save myself, somehow.


Fast forward 20 years. My parents have come to visit Spouse and I. I had hoped to have one of our usual pleasant-but-innocuous conversations with my mother over coffee in a little café, but instead all 4 of us are inexplicably tramping through a nearby forested city park, in February. My father has (unusually) commanded Spouse’s attention up ahead on the trail, because apparently my mother needs to talk to me privately. It is now that I hear for the first time that my parents agonized over how to respond to my 1985 letters home. They were in fact able to read between the lines; they knew something was horribly wrong. My father wanted to do something. But my mother told me she talked him out of it. “If what we fear might be happening really is happening, that would be monstrous. And we are not that kind of family. So let’s just sit tight, and wait for it to blow over. She’s probably exaggerating anyway.”

My mother was telling me all of this in 2005 because she had had a nagging feeling for 20 years that she hadn’t done the right thing back then. She felt guilty about it. She wanted me to absolve her on the spot.

I have no recollection of what I said to her; I was in shock.


At the time of that February conversation, I was already working on a lengthy letter to my parents, that I kept revising, because I wasn’t sure what I was trying to say. I began writing it because I wanted a way to talk about Abu Ghraib; and the unfolding scandal of the rapes of children by Roman Catholic priests, and the subsequent cover-ups. From what I remember, my father was astonished by Abu Ghraib, and both parents were sure that the Church was trying to do the right thing, if only those victims would just stop talking so much about all that unpleasantness. I wanted a way to tell my father that I had been tortured, so I felt affinity with others who had been tortured, even though I was never in a war. I wanted to tell both of my parents that their lifelong insistence that authority figures should be blindly obeyed and not questioned was part of how the Roman Catholic Church got away with child rape for so long. That maybe the Catholic schools they attended, and forced us children to attend as well, inculcated us (or tried to, in my case) with similar pro-authoritarian ideas … precisely because people are much easier to victimize that way. And if you are a victim, everyone else will helpfully tell you it was your own fault. Somehow. Because the Just World Fallacy.

But no matter how I wrote, and rewrote, and revised, and started over, that letter, it kept ending up in the same place. (Which was not at all my intention when I began.)

What became clear to me over the 14 months I wrote that letter was that I couldn’t find anything personally-significant or meaningful that I shared with my parents, sufficient that staying in contact with them made any sense. They were, essentially, strangers to me, and I to them. And maybe that was for the best.

Most of my personal insights and epiphanies have come from extremely painful situations. If I can’t talk honestly about the pain that started everything, then the insights and epiphanies won’t mean much. And my life narrative is extremely short. (And boring.)

Pain is an integral part of being alive. Pain tells you something is wrong. Pain sharpens and focuses your attention, so you know what to try to alter, fix, or work around. Pain motivates, when inertia has enervated. Listening to and responding to your own pain inspires you to change the world. Or at least your little corner.

People who won’t even acknowledge that they have pain, and people who only want someone else to make their pain go away — without accepting their own responsibility — are people I cannot relate to.

None of this should suggest that I like listening to a litany of bodily hurts. (Nor will I offer same to others, unless they have expressed a genuine interest.) I’m thinking more about emotional pain. It can be such a great teacher, but in my experience, you have to be open to the process, which is uncomfortable, often unpleasant, and always seems to last longer than you think it should. Then you have to talk about it afterward. In talking or writing about it, you learn what it meant. You find larger truths that you have now lived. And you feel connected to others who have suffered. By living with it, rather than trying to make it go away unfelt and unacknowledged, you find it is survivable.

This is part of why I now feel like I am truly an Elder/Crone. (I’m also postmenopausal, but that is not as important to me.) Finally I understand how I got to this place in my life. If there were some way to live a life (mostly) free of pain, I wouldn’t take it. Here in the eye of the storm, I know what I’m doing. The art is in the process, not the outcome. There is always more to learn about what you can do.

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