A Light at the End of the Tunnel

What I Said to Mary

1. Let your pain lead to something good. Creating meaning from your pain adds meaning to your pain. It will make you feel like the pain is not in vain, but serves some cause.

(Visit Pain, Sorrow and Empiness for the background to the advise I give Maria)

I told Maria of a woman (I’ll call her Stephanie) I recently met at the gym who lost her son to a drunk driver 5 years ago. Her pain was still lingering in all the quiet moments when lights are turned off, friends have gone home, and reminders of him stab at her from everywhere in the house.

So Stephanie began volunteering with MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). She gives speeches and testimony at court-mandated DUI classes. It hasn’t cured her of the pain, and likely never will. But it has helped. A lot.

I told Maria she ought to find something that would be to her what MADD is for Stephanie. I Suggested she look into programs or organizations or into her own church to see if there was a way to add meaning to her pain by helping others who have had similar experiences.

Here’s the thing: If you can use the pain to do good, to save someone from having to experience the same pain, then the pain is graced, if you will, with something noble. The ugliness behind the pain isn’t meaningful, but the pain will have led to something that is deeply and even profoundly meaningful.

For many people, that’s enough. Some of the pain is lifted. Some of the intensity dulled. Some degree of happiness returned.

2. Keep a journal or diary. I reminded her that when people get food poisoning or a virus of some sort, while nobody wants to vomit, the body often needs to in an involuntary reflex to expel the poison. We usually feel a little better immediately afterwards. I told her our souls sometimes need to vomit the emotional poisons churning around in our insides too.

Dumping such thick and mucky emotional poison onto pages in a diary in the form of words that convey all the vileness and violence of the past can be very helpful. Many people feel such emotional fingers-down-the-throat to be quite cathartic, even if it burns a bit on the way up!

Too many people keep the horror of their pasts bottled up, buried deep down inside, locked in the cellars of the soul. But such things start to rot when buried so deeply in the dark and dank corners of the psyche. Fumes rising from the emotional decay begin to choke and poison the rest of life.

I challenged Maria to start keeping a journal or diary, to start writing and to keep writing. I told her to pour everything out in words, letting them sting and rip and tear as they come, just keep writing. I warned her that at first, the benefit will be in getting all that inside emotional ugliness out of her, on the paper, giving it somewhere to go.

It reminds me of an intensely painful experience I had some 10 or so years ago. It was a root canal gone bad. The tooth problem led to a cavity that led to infection that created a kind of pain I had never felt before.

There was no where for the growing infection to spread, so it did the only thing it could. It built up enormous pressure on a nerve below the infected tooth that grew in intensity until I was popping a scary number of Tylenol and Excedrin, trying to numb the pain. Overdosing was not my main concern.

I couldn’t think or stand or sit or walk or talk or do anything but hold my face in my hands and groan. The pain was more intense than I thought I could handle. I literally contemplated knocking the tooth out myself. Seriously. Luckily, an on-call dentist finally called back and told me where to meet him.

When the dentist drilled into the tooth, the pressure was so enormous, infectious material shot out of the opening. It oozed and kept oozing from the hole. He was shocked at how long it kept pouring from the opening. He said he had never seen anything like it. The smell was awful! The taste was worse.

So it is with the human soul. When we keep emotional infection bottled up, it can sometimes create a tremendous amount of pressure that simply needs somewhere to go.

Sometimes it oozes into relationships, infecting marriages and children. Sometimes it shows up as psychosomatic illness. But eventually, the pressure builds. Emotional nerves are pressed on and lives become more painful than they need to be.

A journal provides an outlet for that building pressure.

I also told her that as she writes, at first just letting her insides vomit out the darkest of emotions, she will likely begin, over time, to record insights and start organizing and making sense of her past. The act of writing will allow her to reinterpret the past and reframe it for the present and redirect it for the future.

It was then that the bell rang and she had to go. I had another class coming in after lunch. She smiled. I felt like I had helped, but wished we had more time to talk. She said I did.

I hope she actually does what I suggested. I believe that if she does, her pain will have some release. It won’t disappear, but it will be less intense.

There is happiness around a couple more corners and a few inclines for her if she walks the distance to get to the corners and then keeps going, doing the leg work needed on inclines.

I believe she will. My prayers will be with her.

UPDATE (6/01/11):

Maria came in to update me today! Over the last 4 or 5 days since the visit I wrote about above, she’s been writing in a journal, pouring out her guts. She had a huge, beautiful smile as she told me it’s really helping her a lot. It always feels good to know when something you say helps lift another person.

We are all in this thing called life together. And it just works so much better when we lift our heads once in a while from our daily concerns and notice the needs of others. So look up and notice! You just may make your little corner of the world a better place to live!

Have you Been Where Maria Is?

  • What do you think of the advise I gave Maria?
  • What two pieces of advice would you have given her?
  • Have you felt helped by writing in a diary/journal?
  • Has volunteer work helped you when feeling depressed?
  • Please comment!