On the Freedom to Be With Emotional Pain

This essay was originally published on March 4th, 2015. It has since been edited.

On the days that are especially tough, like today—when I’m feeling weird or anxious or overly analytical about the seemingly smallest things; when my body aches and I’m not sure if it’s because I’m still healing from psychiatric drugs or just because I slept wrong; when my mind is working hard to take me over, to riddle me with insecurity and doubt and questions about the future; when my instincts tell me to curl up in a ball and take a break from it all (which I often do, and boy does it help)—I remind myself that all of this, all of this struggle and tension and pressure and doubt, all of it exists because of the simple, beautiful reason that I am a human being living in a society bent on convincing me I can’t believe in myself.

Whether it’s the mental health system—which encompasses far more than just Psychiatry and the Pharmaceutical Industry; it’s Psychology and Social Work and the whole Therapeutic Industry, too—or the “Beauty” Industry, or the Media Industry, or the Education Industry, these powerful sociopolitical forces thrive by telling us stories about who we are, what we should become, what our bodies are worth, what our suffering means, and how to be “normal” (in other words, how to slip smoothly into the mainstream current of the status quo). But more than that, they thrive not only because of these stories they tell, but because we believe so deeply in them. We believe so deeply in these stories because we’ve been trained to be terribly afraid of who we are, and especially of the dark facets of ourselves.

When I let this reflection really wash over me and sink in, i sit listening to my pain in life beyond the mental health system. I find that it opens up in me a kind of presence with myself that I could never access in all those years I spent as a mental patient— in fact, that I had no idea even existed. It’s the kind of presence that emerges when you let fall away all those stories you once believed in so deeply: that your struggle means there’s something wrong inside of you; that only therapy and drugs and behavior modification will fix your brokenness and make you fit back in; that you must rid yourself of the dark parts of who you are. Once those stories sit unwoven at your feet, it’s just you, in this moment, as you are, free. Free from those stories. Free from those boxes, especially the bright, glistening ones that spew out promises of happiness and functionality if you can just accept that you’re a “sick” person in need of “treatment”.

I should say: it’s not that in this space of freedom the pain suddenly goes away. This, really, is the whole point. For I’ve learned since becoming an ex-patient that the purpose of life isn’t to be free from pain, but to believe in yourself in the midst of it. It’s to know that in the deepest part of yourself there’s a reason for the struggle that’s meaningful and must be listened to.

When I listened to my pain today, it told me a great deal.  It told me:

—You spent fourteen years of your life trapped in a system of “care” that took away any authentic sense of yourself, and any connection to a life of rooting and connection and purpose. It destroyed your sexuality, your creativity, your physical health, and your hope. Of course you’re baffled about this thing called life some days… You’re only four years away from that prison. You’re still learning how to be in your body, in your mind, in this life.

—Even though it’s been 4.5 years since you got off all those psychiatric drugs, your entire body—not just your central nervous system—is still working hard to heal. You were on them through your adolescence and twenties—your most formative developmental years, for god’s sake. Be gentle with yourself.

—The further you move from a psychiatrized existence and the clearer your mind becomes, the more you’re realizing the depth and breadth of the crisis our humanity is in—financial, environmental, social, political, cultural. Why on earth would you feel anything other than anxiety, fear, sadness, and frustration about this unfolding awakening you’re having, and the powerlessness you feel in it? 

When I was a mental patient, I’d never have been able to sit with myself long enough to have these reflections. I was so drugged that I could barely even think or feel. I was so terrified of my pain that my automatic reflex was to call my shrink or take a PRN of Seroquel or Klonopin. That was all I had… Pill bottles and paid professionals. Locked wards, too. Total dependence on the outside world to keep me “safe”, to keep me alive. I swallowed that story whole, and told it to myself for fourteen years.

Here I sit, on the other side of this writing, feeling more centered in myself than I was at the start. I’m still hurting, still afraid, still a bit baffled by just how overwhelming this post-Psychiatry existence can feel to me some days, but my heart is full of an aching recognition of beauty: I am alive, I am whole as I am, and I am connected to this world. My struggle is the evidence.