Thursday, May 26, 2016

Pain, Depression, Heartache, Suffering

Original painting by William Blake (1757 - 1827)

Seeing the title of this post, you may think, "those aren't the same thing." I get that. Many people believe that being depressed just means being "really sad". They may give worthless advice like, "just cheer up. Play some mini-golf. Have a beer." Someone who actually experiences depression may point out that things like pain and heartache are transient. Things that eventually go away.

Depression is a specter. Sometimes it hides, but it's always nearby.

But the reason I grouped these things together is because they all represent suffering. Human suffering. And we all suffer. All of us. Some to a lesser or greater extent. But the fact is that nobody else can ever really understand or appreciate what you're going through. Suffering is always personal.

We go through it alone.

You may have lost someone you loved. You may have failed at achieving an important goal. You may feel that no matter what you do, your goal is always just out of reach, whether it's happiness, success, fitness, or something else. Or, worst of all, you may have no clue why you're suffering, but you are anyway. Sometimes you get over it after a while and move on.

Sometimes you never get over it.

Sometimes you don't even know what the thing is that you're trying to get over. It shifts and morphs and attacks when you least expect it.

I exercise to deal with my suffering. Because emotional pain is a little more tolerable when I cause myself physical pain every day. Part of it is to remind myself that I can handle pain, and that I heal. Part of it is to punish myself for whatever past wrong I'm feeling guilty about (of which there seem to be an ever-growing supply). Sometimes it's to replace an unknown or unbearable pain with one I'm thoroughly familiar with.

I also eat and drink, sometimes (often) too much so. I write. And I make jokes about my suffering. Stuff like, "oh, guess who's going to be hung over at work tomorrow. Haha." As if trivializing the pain makes it less painful. I'm not sure who's benefit I'm doing this for.

And sometimes I hang stupid banners like this on my wall.

I may not want to burden others with it. I may feel that they won't understand, and watching them try irritates me in some irrational way. I may feel that I deserve to agonize, that I shouldn't let someone help me feel better.

But ultimately this is selfish. By never talking about my pain; by never letting others know that I feel it as much as they do; by never letting them help me deal with it; by keeping it to myself I make them feel that they can't share their pain either. I make them feel that they are totally alone and that nobody can appreciate their pain. By holding my pain within myself, I encourage them to do the same.

That just makes each of us more alone.

I often portray myself as super-human. Constantly pushing myself. Running and lifting every day no matter how sore or tired I am. Staying up late and getting drunk on the night before a big race like it's no big deal. Telling folks that a broken foot is no excuse to take a break from running, suggesting that a mere fracture wouldn't stop me. It's all a f@&king lie.

Oh, not the part about me breaking myself. I do that. Not the part about me pushing myself beyond my limits. I do that too. But I don't do those things because I'm amazing. I do those things precisely because I don't believe that I am.

That's what depression feels like.

To feel utterly helpless. No matter how many successes you enjoy, and no matter how much people tell you that you're a rockstar, you still feel like the putrid bottom of a swamp. That's terrifying, to know that there's no way to fix how you feel. You feel it no matter what. Despite your best effort, and all the kindest efforts of your friends and loved ones, you can't pull yourself out of the mire.

That makes the whole thing worse. You come up for air every now and then, and then get sucked down even deeper. All those helping hands trying to pull you up can't seem to overpower the tentacles dragging you down. Those hands get tired. Those tendrils of despair seem to have infinite strength.

Yet we keep on going. Somewhere there's a strength. That suffering is what drives our creativity and passion. It's what pushes us to create art and music, to pursue challenging goals, to smash past obstacles we never thought we could overcome. Without suffering, we wouldn't be the powerful species that we are.

That's what pain is. It's our power. This may sound bizarre to someone who feels like they're perpetually drowning. They may not feel powerful at all. Quite the opposite in fact. I can't alter that feeling with a few pretty words. I apologize for even daring to understand.

It may just be another lie, something I tell myself to keep going. But reality is shaped by what you say and what you believe. You say something often enough, you believe it. And your reality is just a matter of your perception. What you see is what exists. And you convince yourself that you see something else.

It can be hard to change your worldview. Very hard. Where do you even start? I do it by acting like the person I want to be. I act like I'm strong. I act like I'm talented. I act like I'm successful. I act like I'm loved. But at some point it stops being an act. I don't know how or when, but one day I wake up and feel like it's my life now. My worldview has changed.

I felt like trash in this photo. But I grinned anyway.

Sure, some days I still feel like I'm lying to myself. Some days I feel amazing. But I've experienced enough amazing days that I know it's possible, and it motivates me to keep pushing myself.

There are some - perhaps even some of you reading this - who have had very few "amazing" days. And without having tasted that, it seems an illusive figment. Something I'm just telling you to trick you into a pointless struggle. A lie.


But who cares.

What do you have to lose?

I know what it is. If pain is all you have, you find comfort in it. It's the one thing you have. And you don't want to lose the one thing you have. Or to have the pain you're familiar with be replaced with a pain that you're not. Perhaps you're used to the guilt of never attempting to reach your goal. You're comfortable with it. But the pain of trying and failing is new and different, something you're not comfortable with.

I get that.

And there's no way around it.

It's why I run. It's why I lift. It's a different pain. A new pain. One I force myself to engage in, so that I learn how to handle everything life throws at me. And the more demons I conquer, the less intimidating all the other demons seem.

For some folks, they don't even want to battle the first demon. It's just there, staring at you and mocking you. Belittling you into an infinitesimal nothing. And even if you beat it up, you know there's just another bigger and nastier one right behind it.

But you know what? F*%k those demons.

F*@k depression.

F%$k suffering.

It's there. It's always there. But it doesn't own you. You control your own life. You own your destiny. It may not feel like it, but you do.

Maybe I'm lying to you.

But maybe, just maybe, it's the demon of suffering who's lying to you.

Because guess what, it's just scared as you are. Scared that you will finally find the strength to fight it. Find the strength to defeat it. And then it will be nothing.

And once you defeat one, once you've tasted its blood, the other ones will fear you too. Those fights won't be easy. No. But you will know that you are not powerless anymore.

And those demons will cower before you.

"One down."
Ikon of St. George and the Dragon


  1. Wow Peter, just wow!
    I don't have the gift of using word pictures like you are able to, but the way you so eloquently described the f&cking demons is brilliant. I didn't choose to fight my demons the way you have, but now I'm using running to get rid of the remnants still left on my body from my battle. And the added bonus is that running gives you those extra depression fighting endorphins. Keep running & lifting you crazy-ass-kilted-man :) I don't know if you've ever seen this Ted Talk, "Fake it until you become it" but I think you'll like it!

    I look forward to lifting a pint with you at Wineglass

  2. This is an amazing post. Thank you so much for this!