Experiencing emotional pain is a necessary part of life. Emotional pain often contains valuable lessons to help us on our journeys. I believe that love is the greatest healer and pain is the greatest teacher. The problem is, this country has institutionalized ways to escape emotional pain. Providing avenues of aversion is big business. I attended a workshop last year where the presenter, who identified as an eco-psychologist, environmental activist and a Buddhist, described three unhealthy (when done to excess) avenues people pursue to escape emotional pain. Here are the three he mentioned:
- Sensory pleasure – examples include: alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, sex and food. People wanting the same experience of pleasure over and over.
- Self-making – examples include: power, fame, titles, and certain physical appearances.
- Destruction – examples include: anger, violence, self-harm and suicide.
This teaching resonated with me. I had used most of the methods mentioned in unhealthy ways to escape pain. The workshop also made me realize just how much these means of escape are woven into the fabric of our society. Some, like self-making, are even celebrated. 80% of the painkillers, and 60% of the psychiatric drugs prescribed in the world are prescribed in America (we have less than 5% of the world’s population). There are so many television shows – too many people spending their lives watching others live. There is rampant materialism. There are thriving industries around adult entertainment, alcohol, and video gaming.
Gambling in America is a prime example of the notion that escape is being institutionalized. It garners extra attention from me because I wasted so many years running from my emotions in casinos and at racetracks. Gambling was illegal everywhere in this country less than 90 years ago. President George Washington said of gambling (then called gaming):
“Avoid gaming. This is a vice which is productive of every possible evil; equally injurious to the morals and health of its votaries. It is the child of avarice, the brother of iniquity, and father of mischief. It has been the ruin of many worthy families, the loss of many a man’s honor, and the cause of suicide. To all those who enter the lists, it is equally fascinating. The successful gamester pushes his good fortune, till it is overtaken by a reverse. The losing gamester, in hopes of retrieving past misfortunes, goes on from bad to worse, till grown desperate he pushes at everything and loses his all. In a word, few gain by this abominable practice, (the profit if any being diffused) while thousands are injured.”
Today, gambling is legal in 48 states. Casinos are popping up all over, lottery is at most corner stores, keno is in family restaurants and participation in fantasy football is popular with children. State politicians view gambling as a way to balance budgets. There is little concern for the social costs – which are mounting rapidly.
Most of the activities above are effective at numbing troubling emotions. I found out the hard way that they are also good at numbing what are sometimes called divine emotions: joy, empathy, sympathetic joy, gratitude and love. Many people gamble, drink, take medication, or engage in other potential means of escape without any problem. The problem rests in excess and I believe at the root of excess is emotional pain. We live in a country where people are going to extremes to numb their pain and in the process are numbing the most beautiful aspects of being human. Is it really surprising that with all these avenues of aversion our country is getting more violent? Is this just a coincidence? Or is it an outcome of systematically numbing our love, compassion and empathy?
If we are unwilling to face our own emotional pain, can we show up in real ways for others that are hurting? I know that I could not. When I was going to extremes to escape my feelings, I was unable to be there for anyone.
De-Stigmatize the Struggle
The most concerning piece of all of this is that people that are reaching out for support in dealing with troubling emotions are usually given a “diagnosis” of “mental illness” and often given large amounts of psychiatric drugs – this is furthering the societal habit of institutionalizing escape. Then we are told that we must “de-stigmatize” the labels we have been given.
Prior to escaping my pain through sensual pleasures, self-making and destruction, I reached out for help from various psychiatrists. I was never asked during my many sessions about traumatic experiences I had endured. The thought that emotional distress could have been the result of my body’s natural response to extreme stress was never discussed. Instead, I was diagnosed, and offered psychiatric medications. The goal was to stop the emotional pain I was having. The goal should have been centered on healing.
My personal experiences and my experiences as an advocate have showed me that we support those in emotional distress by providing methods of escape far more than we provide ways to heal. I am deeply grateful that some compassionate people took the time to teach me how to sit with emotional pain. Through connections to people and nature, and through practices like meditation, qigong and yoga, I have learned to stop running from my pain. The part that I am most grateful for is that once I stopped numbing myself I found my heart opening in ways I had never experienced. I also found that practicing healing arts raised my awareness to other areas of my life that needed some adjustments – and I will find more as I continue on my healing journey.
I share parts of my narrative because it is the one I have the right to share. I have seen many other people’s lives transform when in their darkest hour they are provided with warmth, compassion and choice. I have seen people’s lives transform when, instead of numbing pain, they explore pain with openness and curiosity. I know many people that discovered that transformation avails itself in our darkest hour.
I hope that we create more spaces and programs that support people healing from emotional distress – not aid people in the process of masking emotional pain. Healing and recovery involve much more than the reductionist medical model offers. We need to find better ways to deal with strife and struggle. We need to find ways to turn toward our own emotional pain so we can turn towards others who are suffering. Amazing things happen when people have the tools necessary to open their hearts to the world.
This a challenging time in our nation’s history – there are a lot of problems to solve. At the root of the solution to the problem lies love and compassion. We need to make sure we are not numbing our hearts to those that are hurting. We need to de-stigmatize the struggles, joys and pains that come with being human. We need to not just mindlessly pursue happiness – though we might think of that as an inalienable right – and avoid pain. We need to do the only thing that brings true joy: embrace all of life and each other, as we experience together all that makes us human.
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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.