Finding a purpose in pain

10 Positive Purposes of Emotional Pain

The following is an excerpt from the final chapter of Finding a Purpose in the Pain by James L. Fenley, Jr., MD.

I became increasingly aware of addicts who presented to treatment in a great deal of distress, and during the course of their stay never seemed to connect to the program of recovery, would relapse, or sometimes ended up dying from their addiction. It was as if they went through fear, hurt, and anger but found only the solution of numbing out again with alcohol or drugs. In effect, they could never find a purpose in their emotional pain. This caused me to look earnestly at the benefits to myself and many of my patients who chose to risk and even embrace the pain rather than avoid it and follow a twelve-step program.

Below are ten “purposes in the pain” that I have found to be invaluable.

1. Pain allows others to be there for you

Most of us are great at looking good on the outside, even when we are “dying emotionally” on the inside. Our fear of appearing weak or vulnerable is usually the underlying cause for this. However, when our emotional pain is so great, it cannot be hidden, and our tears fall like water over the top of a dam whether we like it or not. What’s ironic about this is that our greatest fear is that if we lose control and expose our fear, tears, or anger, people will reject us, not want to be with us, and never see us the same way. In fact, just the opposite is true. Another way of saying this is this: never compare your “insides” to someone else’s “outsides.” This kind of comparing often arises when a patient is struggling mightily in treatment, with crying spells and fear, and comes to me asking why so many other patients are so much further along in their recovery. I explain that the patient who looks good outwardly may actually be less in touch with his or her pain and may have accomplished less in treatment thus far.

I use the example of walking into a room with only two people in it. One person appears disinterested, bored, as if waiting for something. The other is sitting with her hands over her face, sobbing uncontrollably. Who are you going to be drawn to? In lecture group, 100 percent of the audience answers the girl who is sobbing and in need. Thus, pain allows others to be there for us.

A much more personal example involves the night I entered acute psychiatric treatment in December 1984. My wife and our friends, Larry and Becky, had driven me there in the middle of the night. I was feeling frightened, hopeless, and like a total failure. While my wife was getting me admitted, I was alone in a room and Larry walked in. I was so lonely, and because of my pain I did something I had never done in my life. I asked Larry if he would be my friend. I was crying as he said he would and that he already was, and he asked that I be his friend also. We hugged. That was twenty-six years ago, and since that day we have introduced each other to others as “my best friend Jim” and “my best friend Larry.” We have remained best friends in the truest sense of the word since that moment of pain and vulnerability so many years ago.

2. Pain allows for major life change

As my mentor Dr. Bill Simpson used to say, “Jim, we all go down screaming,” meaning that most of us cling to what is familiar even if it is destructive or painful, because our fear of change or of being alone is so great. With addicts, we talk about hitting a “bottom.” Often this means reaching a point where someone is living for their addictive behavior, and there seems to be no way out. When someone finally reaches a point where “anything has got to be better than this,” major change can occur. Thus, emotional pain offers the opportunity for major, positive change, a great example being getting into recovery. Major life change is often needed in our lives because, unless a painful life crisis occurs, we will choose to continue on a familiar course even though it may mean staying in an abusive relationship cycle or a dead-end job with a verbally abusive boss. While the transition may be frightening and difficult, with the help of God and a recovery program based on taking things one day at a time, the results will be worth it.

The fear of the unknown is a huge issue for anyone contemplating a major change in his or her life. For the addict, learning to live life on life’s terms without the option of mood-altering substances as a quick fix is a scary proposition. Stepping out of the role of the angry victim and becoming an accountable and responsible member of the family while discovering what is left of his or her old identity can only be accomplished one day at a time, with the help of a higher power.

For many, this major life change may be based on a decision to put God and spirituality first in their lives. Giving less priority to worldly things and more to a spiritual path is a huge decision, and one usually made in the midst or aftermath of a crisis. Most human beings seldom, if ever, make major life changes except out of pain.

3. Pain allows us to find a better understanding of our identity

So much of who I am as a person has been shaped by the struggles in my life. When we are in a great deal of emotional pain, we tend to wrestle with important questions about our self—that is, who we are, not just what we do. In these situations, we often enlist the help of professionals who can give us tools to explore our feelings and core beliefs.

Much of this work often means going back and dealing with issues of family origin. It could, for instance, involve looking at a conflicted relationship with a parent where there are feelings of guilt, anger, and fear. Sharing these feelings with a trained professional may give new insight into a family sickness, relieve guilt, and give you a clear awareness that it’s okay to be angry and that as a child you were innocent and none of it was your fault.

Many times painful acceptance is a part of finding your own identity. It could mean coming to grips with the fact that your father was an alcoholic or that the mother, whom you have repeatedly gone to all these years hoping to hear the words “I love you”, will probably never say them. But when you accept these things, it can open doors, in the first case, to explaining your lack of trust and code of silence, and in the second, to knowing that it was never about you being unlovable, but about your mother’s sickness.

This could be the beginning of a major step toward recovery and improved self-esteem. Being in pain forces us to slow down, and it is in this setting that we can begin to gain a clearer picture of ourselves, our beliefs, and our relationships.

4. Pain allows the opportunity to lessen, put an end to, or find closure for “old pain”

It has been my experience that regardless of what the present crisis or emotional pain that brings an addict to treatment is, as he or she proceeds through individual and group therapy, and once he or she is open to feelings, invariably old pain surfaces as well. In lectures, when I ask for a show of hands of how many patients have found this to be true, at least 90 percent raise their hands. In my case, when I was dealing with my major depression in 1985—rooted, I thought, in my care-taking and workoholism—a lot of my childhood verbal and physical abuse surfaced, as well as feelings of distance and lack of affection from my mother.

A special area that I am attuned to is the frequency of unidentified sexual abuse in my patients, even with previous psychiatric hospitalizations. When I identify this, my main focus is not an attempt to treat the abuse. Instead I educate adults who were victims of childhood sexual abuse on the many ways it has affected them in their adult life as it relates to depression, poor self-esteem, sexuality, trust, and other issues. Foremost, I assure them that they were victims and were innocent, that the guilt they have carried is unfounded. I explain that they will need long-term individual psychotherapy by someone who has true expertise in that field. However, I also explain that if those issues are not at the surface they do not have to be dealt with immediately, and I instruct them to keep their focus on treating the addiction.

5. Pain allows us to get spiritually connected or reconnected

Addicts often present to treatment in a state of being “spiritually bankrupt.” In other words, as alcohol or other drugs become their overriding obsession and the center of their world, God ends up taking a backseat and the addict becomes more and more into self. Then, when at his or her bottom and in the midst of the pain, the addict is shown a program of surrender to a power greater than him- or herself. In a broader view, when I think of someone lost, in crisis, and in fear, I can imagine that person walking through a jungle, and by accident falling into a tiger trap that is twenty feet square and twenty feet deep, with no way out and in the middle of nowhere. After considering all the options and unsuccessfully attempting to climb out, what is the person in the bottom of the trap most likely to do? The answer is cry for help. We may not call him God, but we are definitely calling to something outside ourselves. Pain can be the beginning of a spiritual connection or reconnection.

I grew up in a very strict church. By high school I had decided I could never be good enough to go to their heaven, and I saw many of the members as judgmental hypocrites. In the process, I stepped away from God. It was not until I had gone through my personal trials and pain and recovery that I was able to find God, a God of Grace that I could live with.

6. Pain allows us to get our priorities in line

When people are in severe emotional distress, all the little worries and material things that seemed to be important suddenly lose their value. People often say that you don’t know how important your health is until you lose it. As someone who has lost his mental health in the past, I know the validity of that statement. At my worst, I prayed just to get through another day, not to have another panic attack, and to be able to be with my wife and children again. When an addict is “coming up for air” from the depths of his or her addiction, priorities are clear—priorities like physical and mental health, family, true friends, and God.

7. Pain allows us to be grateful for simple blessings

The best way to explain this is to tell a story regarding my own psychiatric hospitalization. For much of the first week or more, I was either having a panic attack, in the bed crying, or feeling nonfunctional. Finally, after I began taking some medication about two weeks into my stay, they told me to go to occupational therapy. This meant going outside for the first time. I had begun to feel somewhat better. When I walked outside, there was a breeze blowing. The feel of that breeze blowing on my face was one of the greatest feelings in my life. I can still feel it as I write this. You see, I realized in that moment that it was the first time I had been able to enjoy anything in a very long time. I see the gratitude on patients’ faces all the time as they begin to experience relief from severe depression or the relief that comes after taking the healthy risk of sharing a painful written assignment with me.

To be truly grateful, you must take a one-day-at-a-time attitude and be open to finding God’s blessings in each encounter of the day, in each opportunity that presents itself, or in just enjoying the view.

8. Pain allows for relief from repressed hurt and anger

In the chapter on feelings I explained how most of us have an easier time expressing either hurt or anger outwardly. For those of us who have an easier time expressing anger outwardly, if our emotional pain gets great enough, our repressed hurt will come spilling out whether we want it to or not, and with those tears will come some relief. The opposite is true for those of us who express hurt more easily. When the pain is overwhelming, the anger will surface, at times explosively, but with this outward expression of anger can also come relief.

Most importantly, when we are in pain we need to realize that if anger is easiest for us to express, we must consciously work on getting out our repressed hurt and fear in treatment. The opposite is true if we express hurt outwardly with greater ease.

9. Pain can allow us to understand humility

I’ve described humility in this book as allowing ourselves and others humanity or “humanness.” This means no one is better than anyone else. Judgment has no place with humility. Being in severe emotional pain and sharing that with others typically brings that group conscience to a place of humility, with each person focused not on judging the other, but on being a part of the emotional whole. Emotional pain is emotional pain; the outward trappings of an individual do not change that.

10. Pain can be a source of passion

It certainly has been in my work. Study many of the great writers, artists, and philosophers, and you will see how their own personal pain served as a source of passion in their work. I believe that is also true of many of the professionals who work in the field of addiction. It has been my experience that it is the passion of the treating professional that may be a major factor in first gaining the trust of a patient. I often end my lectures by picking a patient at random from the audience and asking what it would be like if I gave that patient a gift that would allow him or her to do all the following things: let others be there for you, understand yourself better, make a positive major change in your life, lessen or put an end to old pain, develop your spirituality, set your priorities in line, be grateful for simple things, get relief from repressed hurt or anger, understand humility, and be more passionate about life in general. I then say, “Do you want this gift?” The answer is always yes. When I ask the entire group, the answer is unanimously yes as well.

Then I say, “Great! You already have this gift. It is your pain. Now all you have to do is embrace it rather than avoid it, and share it with others when it is at the surface, and you will reap the benefits.

This blog post is an excerpt from Finding a Purpose in the Pain – A Doctor’s Approach to Addiction Recovery and Healing – by James L. Fenley, Jr., MD; Published by Central Recovery Press (CRP).