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. In part, because I am struggling to write anything cohesive at the moment, and in part, because it’s impossible to turn this into a “things I was grateful for in 2021” post to wrap up the year.

I don’t think 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

Admittedly, our 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, 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, what I want to talk about today is several personal challenges I faced last year – that started with a serious health scare in February and was followed by a problematic transition into semi-retirement.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe how optimistic I felt back in January.

But our situation was different 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.

On a personal level, I was so blinded 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 very much other than watching back-to-back episodes of New Amsterdam, the year started to unravel.

Was my lack of motivation caused by menopause or some greater force at work?

Was I suffering from a case of minor PTSD on the back of 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, achieving very little.

The difficulties that some people experience during the 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 under the permanent threat of a pesky virus that morphs into something even scarier each time it mutates.

Then there’s the overthinking that accompanies one’s approaching mortality. Don’t get me wrong, I am inordinately grateful to be still be here with such 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.

I’ve lost count of the number of conditions ending in itis I’ve suffered from this year

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 my purpose now. I have days when I feel guilty about not being productive enough and days when I feel guilty about taking too much on and not making the most of this wonderful privilege of free time.

Honestly, if someone asked me what I do right now, I would struggle to answer them.

I mean I’m 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 attempt to live vicariously through the lives of my children – albeit, they don’t seem as keen on the idea.

But what am I actually achieving? And do I need to achieve anything?

I have concluded that my main accomplishment this year has been my clearer understanding that LIFE IS HARD for everyone.

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. I never quite got the “pain makes you stronger” theory because I allowed the traumas of my own childhood to define me. 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.

For a long time, 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, and that increases your predisposition to mood disorders. As I discovered this year, difficult transitions like middle age or retirement – 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, because my anxiety-induced perfectionism and hypersensitivity ensured that the knocks hit me harder.

But this year, I had 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 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.

And those maxims may sound ridiculously defeatist to you, they seem to 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, in many ways, my pain has shaped me for the better. 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.”

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.”

Good stuff did happen to me this year: I caught a potentially life-threatening Melanoma in time, I watched with pride as my children continued to grow, I discovered 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.

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