The Power of Pain

Ten years ago, I had a bad thing happen. Something one might classify as a “personal tragedy” – which I always thought was a strange word. What tragedy isn’t, on some level, personal?

Anyway, this thing happened, and in the same way you avoid looking directly at the sun, I mentally avoided looking at it and instead I compartmentalized it. Logically, I thought that if I kept telling myself it was no big deal then it really wouldn’t be, and I could just move on. Painful stuff was super uncomfortable and I just didn’t want to deal with it, and I figured no one else would want to either.

Up until this point I had never been a truly confident person. Using sarcasm as a shield (as I believe most true sarcastics do), I leaned heavily on that skill to project a false confidence so that my super squishy sensitive insides would remain intact – something I learned after enduring bullying in my early years. I like to think of it as an evolutionary skill; some animals develop camouflage for protection, human’s develop sarcasm. I buried my sensitivities underneath the sarcasm shield, not knowing at the time that a sarcasm shield is about as sturdy as a storm shelter built out of popsicle sticks.

The initial blow came about a month after the bad thing. I can’t really remember what triggered it, but one moment I was fine and the next I was literally in a pile on the floor. It was a massive emotional collapse. Unchartered territory for someone like me who was used to conveniently emoting in private. I was blown wide open and my super squishy sensitives were everywhere, exposed. The pain was constant, yet undefinable. Being in college, where most of the people you’re surrounded by are either drunk, hungover or just plain emotionally immature, this was not the place to fall apart. I needed to retreat, and with one phone call my parents were in a car en route to rescue.

I spent the next five years in “rebuild” mode. I met with a handful of different therapists until I found the one I knew wouldn’t tolerate my sarcastic bullshit. I don’t think I can accurately describe the feeling when, for the first time, someone looks you in the eyes and mirrors back your deepest insecurities. Maybe akin to standing completely naked in a crowded public place with nowhere to hide. For my adult self, this was the first time that I had a completely authentic, personal and painful reaction in front of someone else.

It felt embarrassing, shameful and uncomfortable but also… incredibly liberating.

It was then that I realized I had an opportunity. I was rebuilding; I had experienced a wrecking-ball, demolition style emotional collapse and had nowhere else to go but upwards. And I could do it in a way that was more true to who I really was, without the added weight of trying to live up to some ridiculous, unattainable societal standard. I was able to take a good look around me and see my unfiltered world for what it was.

I will always be sad about some of the stuff I missed out on while in recovery mode, but I’ve never regretted for a second what I went through. What happened to me changed me forever, but in all the best ways, and that’s something I can never be sad about.  Even though I lost a great deal of relationships along the way, the ones that stayed in tact continue to be the best parts of my life. And in learning how to communicate my pain, I’ve been able to form deeper connections with people because I let them see my true self.

My aversion to the superficial inauthenticity that social media breeds is no secret. I find it so strange how some people craft themselves as perfectly manicured human beings, where it’s nothing but sunny skies and smooth sailing all the time. If that’s truly you, everyday, then that’s incredible. But human beings are so extraordinary because of our ability to connect through pain and sadness – the real icebergs of life that carve out the important pieces of you. You can’t be afraid to let people see the icky stuff. If you haven’t already, take a look at what Humans of New York is doing. They’ve taken the simple concept of communication and have showcased the profound effect of authentic human interaction. It’s beautiful and endearing, heartbreaking and tragic – but completely genuine. That is real life.

I don’t believe anyone has mastered the art of authenticity, and anyone who knows me knows I am nowhere close. Any time I’m hit with moments of sadness I internally struggle with whether to stay true or laugh it off, and I constantly have a hard time letting people into my sensitive world. I’m frequently told I come across as caustic or acerbic, which hurts my feelings everytime, but it’s a great reminder to soften the shell. Life’s too short to waste your energy building superficial walls or chasing the validation of strangers. Expose the squishy and if you need company, I’m always available for a good ugly cry.

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Megan Conway

A 30-something Cleveland native who writes better than she speaks.

11 CommentsLeave a comment

  • To name and explain pain is such an extraordinarily brave thing to do. I hope this powerful piece gives others hope that something good can come from the ashes.

  • There is something truly special and freeing about becoming your true, honest, authentic self. Most of the time it takes a hard road to get there. Great article. Very moving!

  • I feel like you just described my twenties. I can relate so much to everything you wrote, especially the continued struggle to not hide behind sarcasm and be vulnerable. Writing this was vulnerable. Kudos to you and thank you for sharing.

  • Megan,
    Your ability to describe the pain and express the struggles working through it takes great emotional maturity and it’s a real eye opener to read. Working through your “personal tragedy” and communicating your experience so powerfully and eloquently is an inspiration. It takes a special courage to lay it out like you’ve done. You’re a gifted writer. Thank you for sharing.

  • So beautifully expressed. I admire your courage to speak this story. Stay the course, Meg and when it gets too tough to go it alone, now you know how to ask for support. Knowing your family as I do, you are surrounded by love. Lots of it!!
    “Kearns”-your Aunt Kathy’s friend

  • Loved this. Wise beyond your years. On point. Then you wrote “soften the shell” and I thought, I wonder if soft shell crabs are in season. So I called your Uncle Sean, the fishmonger. They are! Bonus! God is good. Every day. Peace out.

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