Does Pain Make Life More Meaningful? How I Navigated The Shit Show That Was 2021

I have been sitting on this post for several weeks. Partly because I am struggling to write anything cohesive at the moment, and partly because I can’t make this a “things I was grateful for in 2021” post with which to wrap up the past year.

Not even the most optimistic blogger could reframe 2021 as a great year. Months of lockdown, fears about catching COVID, distance from family and friends, and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness have ensured that the past twelve months were a shit show for many of us.

Girl leaning against tree looking empowered, resilient

The Australian government did a reasonable job of tackling the pandemic, but who knows what the real, longterm cost will be to our mental health and the economy. And it is terrifying to think about how many other important policies have been sidetracked to save us from this virus, not to mention their lacklustre approach to climate change, their ongoing lack of commitment to women’s issues, and the arrogance of our PM on the international stage.

But this isn’t a political blog and several personal challenges last year, that started with a serious health-scare in February, have been followed by a problematic transition into semi-retirement.

Did I really feel optimistic in January?

But we were in a different situation back then. Our family had just survived a lockdown Christmas and re-entered the world with the excitement of William Shatner on his descent back to earth, optimistic and eager to move onto the next phase of our lives.

So blinded was I by the excitement of what semi-retirement would bring me, I forgot that the finger of fate is always on the button and that it would take more than a fancy-pants new computer to fulfil my grandiose intentions of becoming the next Sally Rooney. Hence, when the emotional ramifications of the pandemic dried up my creative juices like a harsh summer in the Northern Territory and I couldn’t string even a few words together or achieve anything other than watching back-to-back episodes of New Amsterdam, the year started to unravel.

I wondered whether my lack of motivation was caused by menopause or if some greater force was at work

Was I suffering from a case of minor PTSD related to COVID, or had I simply underestimated the disparity between the expectations of retirement and the reality? Whatever the reason for my lethargy, my focus went out the window and I spent most of the year wandering aimlessly around the apartment.

The difficulties that some people experience during the infamous transition into retirement are well-documented, but in my defence, what the brochures fail to mention is that you don’t suddenly land in some nirvana after your last day at work. You still have to balance the books, care for those in need, and worry about the unknowns, currently under the permanent shadow of a pesky virus that appears to morph into something even scarier each time it mutates.

Then there’s the overthinking that accompanies your approaching mortality. I mean…don’t get me wrong, I am inordinately grateful to be still be here with a wealth of choices, but what has materialised so far will require some adaptation. For example: Having waited my whole adult life to implement a proper fitness routine, my body has conveniently decided to degenerate with the speed of light since I acquired my new gym membership.

And I’ve lost count of the number of conditions ending in itis I’ve suffered from this year, none of which I’d heard of before

But my biggest bete noire has been my preponderance to overthink. “Existential crisis” doesn’t cover the number of Camus moments I’ve experienced in my quest to work out exactly what my purpose is now. I have days when I feel guilty about not being productive enough and days when I feel guilty about taking on too much and not making the most of this wonderful privilege of free time. The only thing I have recognised is the underlying pressure to reinvent myself and redefine my purpose.

I would struggle to answer the question of what I do right now

Like most retirees, when people ask what I do, I bore the pants off them with how busy I am. And I am busy: I write a lot – although, very little worth publishing; I read and file a lot of research; I try to stay fit within the allowances of my degenerating body, and I attempt to live vicariously through the lives of my children – albeit, they don’t seem as keen on that idea.

But what am I actually achieving? And do I need to achieve anything?

My single accomplishment from this year’s shit show has been my clearer understanding that LIFE IS HARD for everyone, an acknowledgement that has carried me through many difficult moments and highlighted the importance of resilience to me again.

Fundamentally, I have always believed that resilience is the key to happiness but in the past I struggled with the in-egalitarianism of that idea, i.e., why some people (seemingly) sail through life whilst others struggle through no fault of their own.

I never quite understood the “pain makes you stronger” theory because I allowed the traumas of my childhood to define me. Unlike some people, I struggled to harness my pain and transform it into a strength. Instead, I chose to wallow in it, allowing it to weaken and control me.

I chose to be a victim

Unfortunately, victimhood has served as the perfect excuse for my inadequacies, my fragility, my tendency towards mild depression and my struggles with work and parenting. It makes sense that if your emotional battery has never been fully charged, you go flat much more quickly when faced with challenging life situations like parenting, relationship disharmony and rejection, which must increase your predisposition to mood disorders. And as I discovered recently, difficult transitions like middle age – when there is more time to overthink the meaning of life – can also be a trigger.

The struggles of people who have suffered trauma are valid – as proven by research into the longterm effects on their potential and mental health – but I’ve come to understand that being a victim is neither a healthy option nor a solution to my low moods.

So how do you stop the pain?

For years, I masked my low-grade depression with self-medication. I still do, to a degree. I had to, because despite my awareness that no one leads a charmed life, my anxiety-induced perfectionism and hypersensitivity ensured that the knocks hit me harder.

But this year, I had the time for an epiphany. Tired of wondering why the fuck I couldn’t enjoy what (by most standards) is a pretty good life, I spent the year experimenting with different strategies and medications – HRT in combo with my anti-depressants – in an attempt to change my outlook. I took the opportunity provided by COVID’s restrictions to rest, exercise harder and create boundaries in relationships that were becoming toxic. In brief, I sought a way to approach the rest of my life in a way that suits my brain.

I chose to live by two maxims:

1) “Life is shit and then you die”. Because when you expect the worst, (which you do when you suffer from anxiety), things can only get better;

2) And “Tomorrow is another day”. Because time does indeed move relentlessly forward and dwelling for too long on the unfairness and the absurdities of life is clearly a waste.

Now, I realise that to the optimist that those maxims sound ridiculously defeatist, but they work for me.

Which brings me back to the question of whether pain makes life more meaningful?

Maybe. I haven’t experienced life from the other side, so I suppose I will never know what might have been. What I will say categorically is that my pain has shaped me in many ways for the better despite my moans about the negative impact of my trauma. I believe the knocks have shaped me into a kinder, more compassionate person – if not a happier, stronger one.

The writer, Paul Bloom, an advocate of this theory, agrees. He says:

“Some degree of misery and suffering is essential to a rich and meaningful life.”

And I think he has a point. Maybe we do have to experience pain to understand our purpose here. The gift of semi-retirement has given me the time to look at my life more closely, to separate its different elements and compartmentalise. All those cliched strategies for people with depression – walking in nature, fortifying relationships with family and friends, standing up for my rights, and being more self-compassionate – have helped me develop more resilience and autonomy.

Anxious people like me place an inordinate amount of pressure on themselves to lead perfect lives and then, when they don’t succeed, they see themselves as failures. But as Mofiyinfoluwa Okupe’s points out in her article on Medium, though many of us may have come through the past twelve months without any outstanding achievements, we must remember that some of us have “fought different, less glamorous battles…clawed through {our} own darkness and now {we’re} standing in the light.”

Every year brings a mix of highs and lows, and good stuff did happen to me this year: I caught a potentially life-threatening Melanoma in time, I watched my children continue to grow with pride, I discovered what I can only describe as the spirituality of swimming in cold water, and I fell more deeply in love with my husband. I have also been fortunate to live in a democracy that provides a wonderful healthcare system and (for the most part) promotes values I agree with.

And so, I will leave you with one final, simple quote which I hope inspires you as much as it did me, or at the very least helps you reframe your pain if it is holding you back.

“Sometimes when you’re in a dark place, you think you’ve been buried, but you’ve actually been planted.” Gratitude Addict

Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash.

The Meaning Of Life: And Why People Who Live In Hot Countries Suffer From Depression Too

Kurt experienced a few personal setbacks a few weeks ago and because I know that many of you follow this blog because you too have young adults who struggle, I thought I’d take you through what we’ve learned from it. Obviously, I won’t go into precise detail about what happened, but suffice it to say that after more than a year of giant leaps towards a balanced, happier life, his world came crashing down around him and he felt unable to cope.

Man looking out onto world.
Photo by Larisa Birta on Unsplash

We’ve all been there – those parts of growing up when it feels like life is conspiring against us, leaving us no way out. But it’s worse when you have a disability and the lack of a good emotional skill set and resilience to cope with it.

His cry for help coincided with my first day in a new position at work – a position that I know is within my field of expertise, even though my anxiety consistently tells me that I can’t do it – so, needless to say, I was already in an emotional tail spin that morning when he started calling me. In hindsight, I think that I may have over-reacted to the situation.

My therapist tells me that anxiety can be contagious in some families, like a chemical reaction, where the molecules keep bouncing against each other, escalating it. Apologies for my simplistic interpretation but I never took Chemistry seriously at school. However, I did manage to stop my eyes glazing over as she was explaining what she obviously believed was a useful analogy to me. And I know that I use this expression all of the time in this blog, but sometimes it really does feel (for a lot of us) as though we will never get our shit together and that life takes some perverse enjoyment out of kicking at us when we’re already on the ground. Fortunately for us oldies, though, maturity and experience help remind us in those moments that we will (most likely) get back up on the damned horse, whereas Kurt is still young. He has yet to understand the difference a year, a day, or even an hour can make to how he is feeling in that moment, or how different those areas of his life that he struggles with today may look in ten years time.

When you’ve been misunderstood and had to fight for acceptance for most of your short life, resilience is hard to build.

However, a week on, I am happy to report that he is in a very different headspace. In fact, a few nights ago the family got together for dinner – Waltons-style (not quite) – I watched the light return to his eyes as he held court at the dining table, and it was almost impossible to believe that this was the same, broken young man from the week before.

Watch any documentary or reality show on the topic of depression or suicide ideation and you will see that most people regret their attempt if they survive to be given a second chance at this crazy thing called life.

We live in a crazy world, and not even maturity hands over all the answers to our reasons for being here. So it’s understandable for an over-thinking twenty-two-year-old, whose brain is still developing, to lose his way; to question if the pressure and suffering are really worth it, and (perhaps, more importantly), why the shit seems to be dealt out so disproportionately.

Hence, the rise in mental health issues in our youth.

I constantly question what we can change for this boy of ours to help him believe that overall the good outweighs the bad. That is the problem with depression – it is not something that you can fix by throwing money at it. On paper, Kurt has everything he should need to be happy. He has family support, a job and that sort of energising personality that Robin Williams had. ie. a convincing mask.

When the old man and I watched Chernobyl this week, I found myself looking at the bleakness of the Russian landscape in disbelief, wondering how any population could enjoy their lives beneath the heaviness of those grey skies and such an unforgiving political regime – let alone a dodgy nuclear reactor – and I decided that it is because they have known no different. But I was wrong. Happiness doesn’t come from the tangible stuff in our lives. It has less to do with blue skies and much more to do with living in a supportive community and having friends. It’s why the poorest in Africa and India are still happy. Seriously, Indian people are the most rounded, happy people I’ve ever met.

Blue skies help, but people who live in hot countries suffer from depression as well.

I keep telling Kurt that dealing with life’s crap makes you more resilient, even though I’m still trying to convince myself. I’m not comfortable using “stronger” in this instance – there are many days when I feel far from strong, but I hope that he builds the resilience to hang in there long enough to experience the good bits about this world. Ie. the myriad of wonderful relationships and experiences that are within his grasp if he allows his stars to align. But then that does require a certain level of positivity, hence the Catch 22 fuckery of my parental wisdom.

I suppose that the real crux of the matter when it comes to the meaning of life is that, in truth, there is no real alternative.