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.

Talking Publicly About Trauma

Anna Spargo Ryan has written a riveting and widely appraised book called The Paper House, and I’m thrilled for her success (if not a bit jelly) because I’ve followed Anna on Twitter for a few years. She is intelligent, witty and an advocate for mental illness awareness and I was particularly keen to read her book which deals with the topic of grief, because I knew that she would treat it as empathetically as it can be. 

Caucasian woman feeling sick flu illness
Talking Publicly About Trauma

 

Because, let’s face it, “grief” is not everyone’s cup of tea; not everyone is prepared to open up about a topic that is so intrinsically painful and personal. But it just so happens that I have, and the subject is at the core of the storyline in my own manuscript; another reason I was keen to see how Anna treated it.

 

Very differently to me, it appears, because Anna is one of those rare writers whose fingers drip melted chocolate onto the keyboard and create literary genius.

 

I admit that these days I rarely read what would be categorised as “literary” books, and my own work will fall into the category of women’s fiction – more Jilly Cooper than Graham Greene – with its own treatment of mental illness, although it is similarly symbolised by a central, dysfunctional family whose experiences of death are treated in a more black and white, in-your-face, Big Brother style of writing.

 

Since having children or reaching middle age, (I’m not sure which), I suffer from what I know to be a common problem of not being able to stay awake longer than fifteen minutes through pages of descriptive prose, clever metaphors and stunning imagery, no matter how breathtaking it is. 

 

Although that is not The Paper House. No, Anna’s book is so much more than that. It is more akin to putting on a ball dress for the first time in a long time, when you feel typically more comfortable in jeans. It forces the reader to think about her purposeful choice of every word on the page, their beauty and their poetry in spite of such gut-wrenching subject matter, as she takes you on a journey of flora and fauna and emotion.

 

Anna drags you into Heather’s world of visceral pain, not in a maudlin, heavy-handed way, nor does she allow you to wallow and fret for her loss. Although not trivialised, “grief” is touched upon delicately, and decorated with a heavenly backdrop that helps describe the outer body experience of living, the shell of her former self that she is reduced to by her grief.

 

There is dysfunction, humor and realism too, brought to life by a sister who refuses to allow Heather to fall victim to self-pity and absorption, and a husband whose view is typically more black and white, more ‘life goes on’ as well as a handful of quirky instrumental characters who pass through her journey and contribute to her recovery.

 

Anna’s book tackles the difficult subject of recovery of the mind, body and spirit after trauma.  As is often the case, this new trauma in her life – the loss of a child – triggers the pent up grief of her earlier loss of a parent, which I recently identified as an aspect that has unwittingly crept into my own writing when I talked about my blog at a local library a few weeks ago.

 

To be honest, I never realised before just how much my own personal trauma has infused my writing. But grief never goes away completely.

 

Not trauma on the scale of heinous, newsworthy trauma, obviously, nevertheless the sort of low-level domestic trauma that we all go through at certain junctures of our lives, that is impactful enough to put a pin in our happiness, take a toll on our relationships and affect how we function.

 

Anyone who follows Anna’s blog knows that she suffers from anxiety and she wrote a post for Daily Life recently entitled Can We Not Shame Women For Writing About Their Trauma?. The article discusses how certain women writers have recently been accused of capitalising on their trauma in their blogs and writing. Some people believe that these writers should be reminded that not everyone is interested in reading about abuse, infertility, death or mental health issues.

 

But in Anna’s own words, ‘Critics accuse us of being self-focused and overly dramatic, but it is in relating these stories that we find our commonality. We are not isolated. We are not one person climbing a mountain on her own. We are women who, for the first time in all of history, can hear and be heard’. 

 

I tackle “depression” in my book, as well as suicide, loss and the effects of mental illness on a normal family. These aren’t light topics that can be trivialised and I hope I treat them responsibly – but identifiably too – because I know that there are many people out there living those experiences right now, who are not being supported.

 

I used to co-run a support group for parents of kids with ADHD and sometimes our meetings would attract up to a hundred parents, all coming to be educated, supported and reassured. Due to the stigma surrounding ADHD, many of those parents chose to remain anonymous, yet still came in their flocks.

 

Talking and writing about trauma publicly does help others, which is why TED is such a success and literature such as Anna’s has such reach. We are fortunate to have choices in our democracy, and if we don’t want to hear about it, we don’t have to listen.