It was Christmas Eve, 2012. I’d been at work all day, watching happy customers come and go, arms amply filled from shoulder to wrist with bags full of gifts for their loved ones. It had drizzled the night before (this is Los Angeles, after all, so there’s no snow here), so the parking lot was wet with leftover puddles. People walked arm-in-arm, stopping for coffee or cups of hot chocolate before finishing up their holiday shopping. Eagerly, my co-workers clocked out early as business slowed down and they left the store, excitedly telling each other their holiday plans.
I clocked out around 5pm and went to my car as the last bit of sunlight receded behind the hills near my work. I could see my breath in the air and my boots made wet, squishy sounds as they crossed through the puddles. The leaves on the trees, wet and shiny, caught little iridescent fragments of orange light.
It was so, so beautiful.
And. I. Couldn’t. Breathe.
I can tell today is the most beautiful day, I texted my friend Marianne. But I swear to God, I can’t feel it.
C and I had been broken up for just over two months. I’d been telling myself lies, that the holiday season was going to bring him back to me, but so far, no dice. The thought of going home to my family and having to fake holiday cheer while we opened gifts felt like the most exhausting thing on the entire planet. I didn’t care about a single gift because there was only one thing I wanted, and the chance on that one happening wasn’t looking so great.
No one was coming to save me; no holiday miracle was in store for me. Inside my house, my family was anxiously waiting for me and my mom had made all of my favorite dishes. But the only thing I could think about was going home and going to bed.
How do you do it? How do you muscle through the pain when everyone else around is so happy?
You can’t. It’s impossible.
“I JUST FEEL PAIN. A LOT OF PAIN. I THOUGHT I COULD IMAGINE HOW MUCH THIS WOULD HURT, BUT I WAS WRONG.” –HARUKI MURAKAMI, SOUTH OF THE BORDER, WEST OF THE SUN
“PAIN DEMANDS TO BE FELT.” –JOHN GREEN
Get rid of the pain 2x faster. Numb the pain. Stop the pain. Cool the pain. We’re all about it — getting the heck away from the pain. We are pleasure-seeking creatures and we’re wired to seek safe, stable, and happy conditions. But as anyone who’s been through it can tell you, there’s nothing stable about grief, heartbreak or loss.
It’s a rollercoaster. And there’s no getting off till the ride is done.
If you’re wanting exact steps + an action plan to take you from ground zero to happiness again, I’ve written about that here. The rest of you, stay put.
It’s not easy, it’s not fun, and I won’t say it’s even pleasurable, but there is a distinct beauty to pain that simply isn’t present during times of joy.
When I think back to the pain I was in then, I have a reverence for it. Like a difficult teacher, but extremely wise, that pain burned down acres of overgrown weeds and dead brush inside of me so that happiness could bloom anew. (Though it took so, so very much longer than I wanted it to.)
I go back and read things I wrote at that time, and the thing that stands out to me is how incredibly present I was! I described every sensation of achiness in my chest, how my ribcage felt bound up my wire, how my insides felt hollowed out by a melon scooper. I wrote that I felt I’d been left for dead and that vultures were shredding up my flesh. It’s painful to go back and read those things, but I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t think that was some of the best writing I’ve ever done.
Joy speeds by in a flash; pain is slow and excruciating and it is happening RIGHT NOW. There’s no getting around it — wherever you are, that’s where you are.
I have these incredibly vivid memories of certain days — the entirety of them — when I was in that pain. Days I spent sitting on curbs in parking lots smoking cigarettes (don’t worry, I stopped that a long time ago), looking up at the sky, or watching crows do what crows do, or counting the number of cars that drove by. Or sitting on my balcony as night gave way to morning and suddenly, the stars were gone.
I remember entire passages of books I read, and how little by little, they began to crack the exterior of bitterness around my heart (some of those books: When Things Fall Apart; A Course in Miracles; Eat Pray Love; The Fault in Our Stars). I can remember (and this was years ago!) detailed conversations with my cousin I had over the breakup, and I could probably tell you every single text C sent me in during the six months we were apart.
But ask me to tell you about the day I got engaged. Or my wedding day. Or my honeymoon.
I barely remember them! I was so happy, I barely remember a thing. And everything has a fuzzy haze to it.
Pain is as clear as crystal. It’s etched into your mind.
Pain can make you present in this really heartbreaking, really beautiful way. You may notice the way cars rushing by sound like the ocean sometimes, or how your dog looks at you in a way that intuitively expresses his understanding that you’re suffering. You may be able to see the tiniest bug you’ve ever seen walking on a leaf, like I did one day.
This is going to sound really weird, since we live in a culture that is so anti-pain. But here goes:
This time in your life that you’re in this excruciating pain is actually extremely precious.
I’m not bullshitting you — I really believe that.
It comes bearing gifts and it absolutely serves a purpose.
Don’t miss it.
What are some ways you can find the beauty in your pain?
Go for walks and take note of what you see. Pick an object, really look at it, and write all about it. Read a book about someone WAY worse off than you, or better yet, someone who went through exactly what you did and triumphed over it. Watch a cloud traverse across the entire arc of sky available to you. Zoom your vision into a single blade of grass and consider what it took for it to grow there. Buy a cheap plant from a home goods store and marvel at how it grows. Paint your nails and do a really good job — really take your time (soak them in soapy water, brush the surface, file & buff them). Listen to that song — you know the one — over and over and over and over, until you can sing it as though you wrote it. Watch music videos and imagine how the camera had to be set up to capture the shot. Write about the way your body feels when you can’t eat, can’t sleep, and can’t relate to anyone. Research things — the ingredients in shampoo, why jellyfish can survive without brains, hearts, lungs or blood; when the last dinosaur disappeared; what it takes to get a Ph.D. Notice things about people that they’re moving too fast to notice — the way they hold their pens, the way they walk which actually is revealing how anxious and rigid they feel, or the big smile that crosses someone’s face after a child runs by.
Notice all of it. Because soon you’ll be feeling better and you’ll be back in the world of reality. And then, you know what? You won’t notice any of it anymore.
The sound of the cars rushing by will be lost on you; you’ll be back to living in your head and you won’t ever watch music videos at 2am or marvel at how a blade of grass grows.
You’ll mean to take the time, but you won’t.
You’ll be living.