True Grit: My Search For Emotional Well-being

Mental health is a buzzword these days. People are expressing their feelings all over the place; the age of stoicism is over. People are talking about their traumas, their pain, and each story being told is powerful. The power in telling your story is multifold- speaking hurts out loud changes them and, if done right, can lessen the hurt. It can teach others, and by bringing others into the fold in a meaningful way, we all feel more connected. We are all learning as we go, and by learning together, we change more than ourselves.

Of course, the resistance is also there, as it is when any big change happens. We feel the resistance when we tell our story to someone who isn’t ready or willing to really hear. We see the resistance on a larger scale, people in powerful positions who demean or diminish what they feel as a threat to the status quo. The people who don’t yet have, or who have no desire to learn, emotional maturity, will always get it wrong. They will interpret depth as weakness, and use this perceived weakness as a vulnerability asking to be judged. The mocking quality of the speech of our top leaders today is one expression of this. A family member who interrupts you as you express yourself in order to tell you what to do is another.

For those of us who have been paying attention, science has been proving for decades that physical and emotional health go hand-in-hand; one doesn’t exist without the other. As social animals, we are always responding to the environment we find ourselves in, and often that environment isn’t safe on some level, even if it looks benign on the surface. As humans living in a modern world we are surrounded by stress directly related to how we have chosen to live in this time. We have chosen to value success as defined by an economic model. Our macro -environment has become unsafe for us all. Which makes our micro-environment that much more important, but the majority of us aren’t really doing that very well either. 

So what do you do if you, as many of us are, are tired of feeling awful? If you want to become truly healthy? That’s the question I’ve been thinking about for awhile. As someone who was saddled with a chronic, painful disease at age two, I’ve put in my 10,000 plus hours of extreme suffering, most of it in silence. Never wanting to be seen as a victim I’ve over-compensated by plastering the brave smile on my face and canned, yet very acceptable response to how I’m feeling. I’ve spent my life hoping someone would take the time to ask the right questions, and then take the time to listen to my answer. Throughout my life, I’ve found those people, and they are my greatest treasure.

The quest for emotional well-being is often a lonely one. For me, I’m convinced it will be a life-long journey with only one destination- to be better today at it than yesterday. Given how hard it is for experts to agree on the best path to be physically healthy, and the crickets in the room anytime the importance of emotional health is mentioned at a medical conference, people like me need to pave their own way. I’ve been paving my own way for decades, and, like a freak storm that takes off a newly built roof, my path has been derailed over and over. 

I’ve gotten de-railed when I’ve started new relationships, not wanting to see the truth about the fact that the relationship is bringing me straight back into the childhood dynamic I spent so much time trying to cut the cord on. I’ve gotten de-railed when my disease takes over, the pain I feel drowns out everything else, and I spend all my energy on just getting through the day. And I’ve gotten de-railed when I just don’t want to have to think about it anymore, when I just want to live. 

It’s gotten to the point that I can’t ignore what I know. I can’t pretend that my nervous system is anything but hypervigilant. I can’t ignore the gnawing anxiety I feel in my gut whenever I turn down the noise. All the reading I’ve done has proven unequivocally that a person doesn’t live with severe pain for 49 years and come away emotionally unscathed. It has shown me that growing up in a family with parents who were emotionally immature meant that I carried the emotional burden of my disease for everyone. It explains why I have a hard time expressing what I need in my intimate relationships, and how I can hide my pain in plain sight so easily. 

So, I’ve diagnosed my problem, and decided I am 100% committed to change, what now? Do I start meditating eagerly every day waiting to feel the Zen effect? Do I write in my journal every day? Do I breathe deeply? Do I move to a cabin in the woods and block out the world? As good as that last suggestion sounds to me, I know that none of these things is the answer. The answer, as with most things worthwhile in this life, will take a bit of finesse, and may not be found by following a straight line. Instead, my answer to emotional well-being starts with a deep dive into how I got here. How I got to this place of disassociation from my true emotions and my physical reality. How I got into the pattern of stress that I’ve found myself in.

Given the level of pain I’ve lived with, the number of tough surgeries I’ve had, and the life I’ve lived it doesn’t take a rocket scientist. Physical pain and medical intervention are traumatic, and push the nervous system into more arousal, which makes true relaxation nearly impossible. All the years I spent trying to ignore the pain, push through my pain, and pretend that it didn’t affect me emotionally did nothing but repress the deep grief, and anger at all of the loss and suffering I’ve felt. My happy face, my answer of “fine” may have helped others to feel better about my situation, but it didn’t help me. Growing up in a house with loving parents who just couldn’t handle my reality meant that I spent my childhood trying to protect them from the truth of my life. Pushing my body hard for years, long after it was crying out for rest, thinking that as long as I was working and active I was okay, was completely misguided. Many of the life decisions and self-concepts we adopt as adults get set up in childhood, and until and unless we start to stop ourselves and ask why, we will never change direction in any real way. 

For me, it’s time. I have all the puzzle pieces set out and I’m putting them into place. In order to break the cycle of suffering that I’ve been feeding my entire life, I need to start fresh. I need 10,000 hours of feeling safety and comfort. Maybe 10,001, to tip the scales. So, instead of blindly being spurred on by my feelings of lack, leading me to push harder in order to prove my worth, I’m closing that door and leaving it in the past. Instead, I’m spending my days consciously shifting gears. I’m learning to surround myself with people who make me feel good enough just the way I am. I’m speaking up when I’m feeling like I can’t take care of my physical or emotional needs in a situation. I’m prioritizing myself, paying attention to my body’s sensations and switching gears when my body is telling me something is wrong. I’m setting up a peaceful environment in my home. And I’m trying to be patient, both with myself, and with the people around me who are also having to adjust to my shifts. 

It’s been surprising to me just how dramatically seemingly small shifts, can change a life. By paying attention to my well-being, I’m noticing that I’m more hopeful and joyful than I can ever remember being. By speaking up, I may create small rifts in long-standing family dynamics, but because I’m trying not to be strident, only steadfast, I’m staying connected with the people I love. 

There is a reason the motto, “One step at a time,” has been uttered by so many and adopted as a common idiom. That is all we can do in life, taking each step hoping that our lives change in a positive direction. I’m not sure exactly where I’m walking to, but I do know that my days of looking back are over. It’s time for real change, because emotional well-being feels too good to give up. 

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