Breaking bread with Pain
8-minute read. (Also found on Medium)
Note from the author:
I wrote this short story as a reflection on my mental health journey over the past two years, and in honor of Mental Health Awareness Day this month. Apart from the obvious personification of emotions, this story is pretty honest. I haven't written a story in probably over a decade, nor have I felt inspired to. But this story just flowed out of me....so I rolled with it. While emotions play out uniquely in each of us, I hope this story helps even one person converse with their emotions just like this, to reach a deeper understanding of themselves. If this touched you, please let me know in the comments (even if it's anonymous). It took quite a bit out of me to share something this personal--the feedback would go a long way. Happy Reading!
She stumbled into the bathroom at 6:15am and splashed cold water on her face, hoping for a miracle when she looked in the mirror. No such luck. Her eyelids were so swollen she could barely make out her face. Her skin was somehow translucent and red at the same time, the corners of her lips tugging down ever so slightly in dismay as she continued evaluating her appearance. She had gotten the overnight anxiety makeover yet again. Willing herself to not stay frozen as Numb stirred in its sleep, she splashed another handful of cold water on her face. Glancing at the mirror again, she couldn't help but smile at what she saw looking back at her.
"Welcome, Resilience. I've been waiting for you."
24 hours earlier..
Her eyes shot open at 6am; heart pounding---doom---doom---doom.
She could feel Dread rearing up its ugly head inside her before she was even conscious, like it was her alarm clock. All the old familiar sensations it brought every morning set in fast and furious, right on schedule. Dread coiled its way up into an uneasy twist in her stomach; shooting up to form a lump in her throat before returning down to nestle into its home--the knot in her chest.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she wished Dread away. But Dread didn't like being ignored. It rose higher, seething.
"Do you feel the doom yet?" Dread asked.
Her eyes started coming into focus but she couldn't quite unravel dream from reality just yet.
"How about now? Are you awake? Have you remembered yet this is your real life and not a nightmare?" Dread pressed on impatiently. This was Dread's favorite part, the imminent rush of gratification.
"Yes, I do." she admitted, defeated. It was just easier if she gave in.
"Much better." Dread sat back, satisfied. "How did it happen again? Never mind, I have the transcripts right here — let’s review them. Oh perfect timing, What If is here!”
What If and Dread had always been close. They had the kind of connection where they finished each other's sentences and never kept the other waiting.
She dug her fingertips into her palms, bracing herself for a walk down Memory lane with an agonizing twist of choose-your-own-ending.
What If cleared its throat. "Remember back when you had that Instinct? What if you had listened to that instead of Faith? What If it's totally your fault? What if you really brought this on yourself?"
She sat up, rubbing her eyes in frustration. "We've been through this, What If. This isn't helpful. This isn't real."
"Sure but what if it was? See, we just need to start at the beginning. It will all make sense if we just go through it again. Now, what if...." What If faded into the background as Numb walked in.
That was her cue. When Dread and What If really got going, she could always count on Numb to cover for her long enough to move her meat-suit out of bed and get started with her day. It hadn't always been this way, but at some point she built nooks in herself for her new friends, since it seems they didn't plan on moving out anytime soon.
Over the years she had broken herself into bite sized pieces, making herself easier to digest, easier to love. But she--well, she was left to choke on whatever Life gave her. She bent into every shape possible and stretched herself through Time, but it was never enough. In fact "it was nothing", to some. At times she simultaneously felt like a burning, billowing fire of Anger and also like she was immobilized beneath a gravity-defying tsunami of Sadness. Their competitive dynamic and animosity exhausted her.
She met Pain sometime during this great war between Anger and Sadness.
Pain was an excellent mediator. Pain didn't care whether Anger or Sadness came out on top, Pain just wanted the depth of feeling that resulted. And Pain always got its way.
Pain often told her, "I'll never abandon you like the others. Not like Joy, that flirt. Or Security--everyone knows Security will go home with anyone that winks at it. And don't get me started on Numb. What has Numb ever done for you? Numb is no better than a bottle of whiskey. No, you don't want any of that. I'm the real deal. I'll make you stronger than ever."
She didn't think she needed to be any stronger. How strong could one person be, anyway? Wasn't it important to be Vulnerable too? She was tired. She wanted to lay down. She yearned to lean on something stronger than herself. Yet even thinking this, she felt ashamed. She knew there were others more vulnerable than her carrying much more than she was. She even knew she could bear much more. She had survived this long after all, with the conditional help of Hope, Faith, and Optimism. We'll get to those pesky bitches later--they tend to keep their secrets hidden in the fine print. Make sure you read their Terms and Conditions VERY closely.
Regardless, this wasn't what she had in mind when she dreamt of abundance as a little girl. She envisioned an abundance of Security, Equality, Protection, and most importantly--Love. Certainly not an abundance of Dread, What Ifs and Pain.
In fact, she denied Pain's existence altogether for a long time out of protest. She angrily quieted Pain's nudges and pleas. When she felt cornered, she cozied up to Pain with a bargain--it could stick around if it introduced What If to Hope. One day the future seemed bleak, so she sat in a corner and allowed the weight of Pain to depress her into the floor. Eventually she realized she could either accept her new reality or Pain would hold her hostage forever.
Soon after she found herself painstakingly gluing her broken pieces back together. Each time Pain visited her, it gifted a new piece of herself to glue into place. She noticed that some had a rougher texture than before, and others were heavier. A few had lost their vibrancy but were mesmerizing in a strange, new way. Some pieces had shrunk, while others were suddenly so big she needed two hands to hold them. One was molten and morphed every time she touched it, conforming itself perfectly to wherever she placed it. They were all her, but unfamiliar still.
"Why are these pieces so...different?" she asked Pain. "They fit together like a puzzle, but I don't recognize the picture they all form together. They don't stay still long enough for me to see."
"Take Hope, for example. I swear Hope used to take up almost the whole space in my heart." she began, fervent with curiosity. "But now Hope is smaller and translucent. I can see right through it to Doubt...and this Doubt is denser than I've ever seen it before. Didn't it live in my stomach before? Why is it here now?"
She continued without pausing for breath--"Security! That used to live in my heart with Hope and now it sits so low in my stomach. It's so sticky. Why does it cling to everything so tightly? And this little clump of Trust trembling in a corner of my brain! It used to be so large and attached to Instinct. Just look at it now...pathetic."
Pain interjected, laughing. "Did you happen to notice what happened to Compassion? That nearly liquid piece right there, the one that now moves so freely within you---that is your new Compassion. It used to be buried so deep and would only pour out if someone else needed it from you. Now you get to have it too."
"Yes, Trust is small right now and lives in your brain. So does Optimism--observe how rough and weathered it has become. Optimism cannot stay shiny and new forever. Doing so would gravely endanger Security, which is temporarily masquerading as Insecurity--that's why it's so clingy. Your new Optimism is equipped with a state-of-the-art system that can detect risk of harm. I ran the old Optimism through countless simulations (you can thank What If for this) in order to properly calibrate the new system."
She was baffled. "You did this to me? You were puppeteering What If this whole time?"
"Not always. What If has always been in you, and always will be--even when I'm not. It's in your DNA." Pain continued. "However, if you peel away the layers of Fear in What If's inquisitions, your Awareness is revealed. This Awareness is a solider. Your Optimism is a soldier. Your Trust, though it trembles with fright, is a soldier. These soldiers together form your army - Resilience."
What Pain was saying sounded ridiculous. How was some scuffed up Optimism going to shield her through the war between Anger and Sadness? Would this flimsy Awareness suffice as her armor? Was Trust going to shoot an arrow through the enemy's well-disguised Red Flag?
Only one part of Pain's seemingly nonsensical agenda gave her a glimmer of hope. Resilience. She indulged herself, wondering what her Resilience might look like. Maybe she would be like bamboo. It is strong and durable, and simply replants itself when it gets chopped down. No friction, no struggle. It just...tries again. It doesn't suddenly stop believing that the earth will be there to support it. It is innately Resilient. Or maybe her Resilience would be less dignified, like weeds that find a scrappy way to grow in between the cracks of a sidewalk...
Pain needed to tell her something important before it left. "You'll see me again the next time you are hurt in a new way, or the next time you hurt someone--you're certainly not devoid of faults, you know. But you will be more You after each of our conversations. I only ask one thing of you--please make room for Patience to join us. Patience and I have a critical bond and it's very difficult for me to do my job without it. Humans are so quick to swat me away because I make them uncomfortable. When Patience is around, my company is somehow tolerated and everyone sees that I have good in me too. Until we meet again!"
Tremors jolted her throughout the day as her emotional tectonics shifted. Security tried with all its might to reach up and adhere to her heart, but it quivered and failed--this time. Optimism stretched its legs and went looking for Faith, returning after catching a glimpse of it somewhere too volatile to stay for long.
Her tears guided Compassion like Kintsugi to fill in the cracks where her emotions had broken new ground.
She wasn't quite whole, but she wasn't broken either. Every so often, Numb would come sit next to her in comfortable silence.
Finally at nightfall, she called out for Gratitude. "Tell Pain thanks for me, would you? It may be awhile before we meet again, and I want it to know that I see the good in it." With that thought, she closed her eyes and pulled Patience in close before drifting off into a dreamless sleep.