“Blessed are the cracked for they shall let in the light.” ~Groucho Marx
In 2008, after ten years of marriage, my former husband and I decided to divorce.
It came as a shock to those who knew us. We were living what most would consider the American dream: two healthy children, beautiful home, great friends, strong careers, two incomes—the works.
Though my ex-husband and I got along well, the marriage was missing an intimate, heartfelt connection.
Loneliness and longing grew with each passing year until I could no longer ignore them. I knew the kind of intimacy for which I yearned was not possible in my marriage, so I asked for a divorce.
Because my ex-husband and I led mostly separate lives, I assumed the transition through divorce would be fairly smooth. Boy, was I in for a rude awakening!
Divorce, like most significant losses, takes the safe and familiar contour of our lives and blows it to smithereens, leaving us vulnerable and unprotected until the new shape forms. It is easy to underestimate the comfort we draw from what is known; I sure did.
Shortly after the separation, much like a Ficus tree seems to all but die when moved from its familiar spot, I went into a state of shock.
It was as if my nerve endings were relocated outside my skin, perturbed at even the slightest agitation. Once-routine tasks, like getting out of bed or going to the grocery store, seemed barely doable.
I spent the days toggling between two modes: “about to cry” and “full-on blubbering.”
I told myself it was not okay to feel the pain because it was a consequence of my own choices. My emotional suitcases were so heavy with fear, shame, and self-doubt, I thought these feelings defined me.
One night, the struggle reached a crescendo. Sadness and dread filled my entire body, from the inside out, until I was heaving with sobs and howling like a trapped animal. I was convinced the pain would either not stop or that it would kill me. I secretly wished for the latter.
It was in this moment I realized that some pain is, quite literally, unsoothable: there is no one, no place, and nothing in that moment that can make it better.
The only way out of unsoothable pain is to go straight through it. Even with this awareness, however, I still wanted to run.
At first, I tried to numb the pain with limerence. The new relationship went about like any would go between two wounded people lacking awareness; like a train wreck. What’s more, I convinced myself I needed that train wreck to work to prove I wasn’t a failure.
When we tell ourselves that we need something, we inadvertently look for it in places we are guaranteed not find it.
This is life’s clever way of showing us, again and again, what needs our own loving attention. If I kept numbing the pain of loss with romantic love, I would keep choosing unsustainable relationships.
At the base of every true heart connection is acceptance. We cannot offer acceptance to others until we can accept ourselves, wrenched heart and all.
Three years and two failed relationships later, I decided it was time to stop trying to soothe the unsoothable, to face grief, and to build a solid life on my own.
I eschewed romantic relationships for well over a year, devoting that time to friendships and long-neglected passions, like skiing and music. I felt lonely and frequently got scared, but fear was outmatched by a deeply held conviction to stay the course.
Though I once hoped it would, I am happy to report unsoothable pain did not kill me. In fact, the willingness to push through its contractions has increased my confidence to handle life’s loss and uncertainty. The same can be true for anyone willing to face his/her own darkness.
If you are experiencing unsoothable pain, you may be tempted to reach for something or someone to numb yourself.
Avoidance is a way of inviting into your life more of the very thing you are attempting to banish; resistance is futile. Your feelings are intense because something important is happening, so keep going!
Sometimes unsoothable pain presents itself as fear, telling us the struggle won’t end.
Sometimes it assumes the voice of self-doubt, convincing us we can’t do it.
Sometimes pain is accompanied by shame, which cajoles us into believing there is something fundamentally wrong with us because we are hurting.
Fear, self-doubt, and shame are the normal, temporary emotional byproducts of significant change. Do not believe their stories; they are untrue. Unsoothable pain is the threshold over which we must cross to access more love and more light within ourselves.
While masking its symptoms won’t cure the disease, taking good emotional, spiritual, and physical care of yourself goes a long way. Here are a few things to consider:
1. Slow down and breathe.
It may feel like you are dying when you pause for a bit, but I encourage you to do it anyway. When we slow down and sit with hard feelings, we are taking a brave step toward showing ourselves that we are stronger than pain.
2. Create small goals.
During the darkest times, the idea of getting through an entire day felt like a lot, so I broke the day into small chunks to make it more manageable. My goal list looked like “Shower and put on makeup” or “Make it to lunch time.”
3. Celebrate achievements.
When I reached each milestone, I would sometimes say, out loud and in my goofiest cheerleader voice, “Woot! You made it to bedtime! Another day is history!” (Sidebar: always laugh at yourself—the alternative is too unpleasant to consider).
It may feel silly to celebrate events that seem otherwise unremarkable but, when your nerves are inside out, even the simplest of tasks can feel like a big deal.
4. Trust more and confide often.
Make a short list of the people in your life you feel safe falling apart with and let yourself fall apart with them.
There is nothing shameful about unsoothable pain—it is our vulnerability that allows us to create meaningful bonds with other humans. Sometimes a supportive comment or gesture from a trusted friend can be the encouragement you need to keep going.
5. Move around.
You don’t have to qualify for the Boston Marathon, but please do move your body at least once per day.
Whether your preferred movement is yoga, walking, running, dancing, hiking, or biking, remember that emotions are physical events—we can literally move through them sometimes. If this idea seems like too much, start with your mailbox and work your way out from there (see #2).
6. Do something that scares you.
Keeping health and safety in mind, figure out two or three small things you can do that are outside of your comfort zone.
I wanted to reconnect with my musical side, so I joined a group of singers and songwriters. It wasn’t easy (I cried in the car all the way to the first gathering), but it eventually got easier and the strangers in that group eventually became friends.
7. Speak kindly to yourself.
We are more likely to advocate for people we like so, when you are in pain, speak to yourself as if you are a valued friend. It is when we are hurting that we are most deserving of tenderness. Gently remind yourself that you are doing your best to take care of you.
8. Be patient.
Building a new life shape takes time, so give it the time it deserves. Acting hastily merely increases your chances of having to start over later.
Building a friendlier relationship with discomfort can eventually diminish its strength and frequency.
In the meantime, it may help to remember that unsoothable pain is often the sign of a well-lived life—it proves you were courageous enough to risk, to love, and to be affected by loss. After all, it is when the shapes of our lives are wide open that the most light can get in.