Knowing Your Pain is Power: Finding Strength In Light of Trauma
“Have you been feeling depressed at all?” I was almost 16 and it was 2001. I was in the dermatologist’s office with a male doctor and his female nurse. They were asking me about my first ‘magic pill,’ Accutane. Was I depressed? I didn’t fully understand what depression meant. And even if I did actually know, I wasn’t going to tell him. I just knew I had always been a generally sad girl, who also knew I’d be a whole lot less sad once the zits (and any teasing that came along with them) went away. I told him “No, nothing like that. I feel normal.”
I’m a tall, thin, white, able-bodied female. Okay to look at. I come from an upper middle class home. My parents are truly good people, who dedicated their lives to the well-being of their children. They have done everything in their power to provide for and protect us. And even with all of that privilege on my side, bad things still happened. That’s life, I suppose.
When I was about nine years old, my cousin molested me while he stayed with us for the summer. It altered my whole way of being—both with myself and with the world at large. It planted feelings that were too intense for my younger self to process. From then on, I would “zip out of my body at the first sign of trouble,” as Geneen Roth describes dissociating. A few nights after it happened, I overheard my mother crying to my father, “He stole her innocence! And she can never get it back!” I was crushed. I had lost something I didn’t even know I had, and there was no way of getting it back. I felt ruined. Slowly, I began to close off.
It was my sophomore year of high school. Taking Accutane, praying clear skin is the cure, and meanwhile, most-likely exacerbating my depression. It became increasingly clear to my parents that life was a lot harder for me to manage than it was for my older brothers. I was tested for learning disabilities, diagnosed with ADHD, and introduced to my second magic pill. I was hopeful this was the one. This would fix me.
Adderall XR promised to streamline my chaotic brain, and it did. I loved being able to read more than a page every 20 minutes. I very much enjoyed not being screamed at for my forgetfulness. This new world of remembering tasks and staying organized was filled with relief. I’m not dumb! Or, I was, but this pill fixed it.
In the beginning, I felt more organized inside. Generally, smoother. This was how I imagined most normal people felt all the time. But what became the most notable side effect of this drug was the hey, I don’t have to eat or sleep anymore. I can become a machine and machines don’t have feelings. I imagined this would be my neat and tidy solution to feeling too much all the time. In reality, this would actually be the perfect fuel for depression and anorexia.
Instead of tangible nourishment, I filled up on people’s praise.
“You look so skinny!”
I ate it up. Meanwhile, my inner critic worked tirelessly to assure me I was trash and anyone who thought otherwise was either lying or stupid. I channeled this hateful energy into becoming obsessively protective of my appearance. Working out compulsively. Getting ready for hours, unable to leave the house until I felt visibly perfect.
Anorexia’s control over me eventually spiraled into frenzied nights of bingeing and purging. And drinking too much. And chain smoking. And letting boys treat me poorly. And any other self-destructive vehicle I could find to jump in, hoping to ride fast and far away from my pain. This cycle of self-abuse repeated itself in varying arraignments and degrees for the next 10 years.
About six years into this cycle, I’m back on Adderall and “happily” living in the anorexic part of the cycle in NYC. (Anorexic me I could manage, but bulimic me? Forget it.) A girl from my dorm at FIT invites me to yoga. I figure, why not. The three of us go to a small, packed Yoga to the People studio on St. Mark’s. In these classes, there is a lot going on at once. People moaning, loudly, expressively sighing “HAAAA,” sweating, crying, moving in ways that were both foreign and also quite literally too close to me. I was uncomfortable at just how comfortable these people seemed to be with their overt expressiveness and free flowing feelings. All I could do to manage the intensity was giggle with my friends and wait for it to be over.
But then, right at the end, it happened. I experienced a moment of passive surrender without my mind automatically associating the stillness with the paralysis I felt all those years ago with my cousin. No mean voice. No inner firefighter rushing in to drown the feelings with food, booze, boys, or cigarettes. No need to get right up and run out of the room hoping to elude my pain. I could actually feel myself lying there, really feeling what I was feeling, and it didn’t ruin me. I didn’t die.
I met a new vehicle by chance. (It’s any vehicle by the way—doesn’t have to be yoga. It just has to be the kind that’s fueled by self love and compassion, and brings you toward yourself instead of away.) And, it didn’t free me entirely. (Wouldn’t that be so nice though? I started practicing and teaching yoga and now I’ve up-leveled out of pain!) I’m still a temperamental, sometimes depressed girl with (unmedicated) ADHD, and a mean self-destructive streak. But it’s helped me slowly, lovingly untangle a lot of the gnarly parts. And it’s given me the confidence to trust my resilient nature and keep on untangling and healing.
After Adderall, there were a handful of other pills I had hoped would fix me. They landed me in the office of my psychiatrist at my wits end. The new pills were making things even worse. He told me he could recommend one last option, I was on the edge of my seat, yes? “No more pills. Get out there and get a life.” And, he was right. There was no magic pill that fixed life paralysis and self-loathing. There was only finding the right vehicles for expression and connection. Teaching and practicing yoga give me those things. Sharing my story gives does, too. These are ways to constantly remind myself of the things we all have: resilience, inherent goodness, and a “no matter what-ness” as Gregory Boyle says. No matter what, you are enough, you are worthy, and loved.
Magic pills don’t exist.
You can’t numb or control your way out of pain.
Knowing your pain is power.
Feeling your feelings won’t ruin you.
Find a vehicle for expression and connection.
This will be a way to constantly remind you of your resilience, your goodness, and your “no-matter-what-ness.” No matter what, you are enough, worthy, and loved.
Featured image by Taylor LeopoldA Monthly Experience Unlike Any Other. Shop Cora.
Author Bio Erin Gilmore is a yoga and meditation instructor. She grew up in Cape Cod where she coached swimming and dancing before discovering her true calling: yoga. Through her own struggles with an eating disorder, Erin has developed a healing practice of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. She has made it a mission to spread those tools to bring wellness to the world.