2020 has been a trying year. I have been working very long hours on the computer, and as a result, I developed a pain in my right shoulder and neck that had become relentless. In an effort to relieve some of this pain, I sought out professional massage therapy. After a couple months of treatment, my regular massage therapist quit. I was offered a spot with a different therapist and I took it.
Part way through the massage, as she was working on my upper chest and shoulder, my eyes flung open. Intense pain flooded my neck and throat. I felt like I had been choked. I later discovered that in her attempt to release the tight muscles, she had torn the fascia along my clavicle. The pain has been almost unbearable. At times my right fingers go numb. The muscles surrounding the damaged area have seized in effort to protect the tear, resulting in almost constant throbbing. If I move my arm or shoulder the wrong way, sharp pain shoots up my neck. I have a headache on most days.
I’ve learned a lot about pain through my life. Because of my abuse history, I have a pretty high tolerance for pain. But this pain, in particular, brought me back to a memory I had carefully tucked away in my mind.
The tolerance of pain
I was laid out on a cold metal table. My hands and feet were both restrained; firmly held in place by leather straps with metal buckles. The man at the head of the table had his hands around my neck. He used both of his thumbs to repeatedly press my throat, closing off my ability to breath. I closed my eyes, wishing to simply float away. But as I would start to leave my body, he would press his thumbs closer together and, against my will, my eyes would rapidly open and my back would arch away from the table. He worked his fingers along the length of my collar bones and back to the little indent in the center of my neck, pressing firmly. Attached to my head, chest, arms, and legs were a variety of wires.
I didn’t know exactly what these wires were telling the men, but there was one man whose sole job was to watch the machine that was connected to these wires. This process with my throat had begun at the other end of my body. Torturing my body from the soles of my feet to now the small of my throat. Needles stuck beneath my toe nails, a stinging substance injected into the soft area above my ankle – resulting in a fire like burn that raced from my feet to my groin with each pump of my rapid heart. All the while, the man watching the machine intently to see what I could and could not handle. How quickly and how high could they take my heart rate? How much could I endure?
Almost all of my abuse involved pain at some level. But this time was different. The sole purpose was pain. The sole purpose was to see how much pain I could tolerate.
The man at my right-hand side repeatedly told me that if I could control my reaction, they would stop. I wanted so badly to figure out what I needed to do to make it stop. The torture continued up the length of my body, my body continuing to react. Jerking muscles, vomitous bile escaping from the corners of my mouth as I wretched in pain. I just wanted the pain to stop. How could I make the pain stop? I needed to control my reaction. That is what he said. I was only 10 and yet I knew this was a lie. I knew no matter how well I controlled my reaction, they would keep going until I could not control it anymore. I was in a lose-lose situation.
I remember grasping frantically for a solution. I knew that I had no control over my outer world at this point. Nothing I did or did not do would change what was happening. So, I turned to my inner world. I knew that was where I had control. This was a truth I had learned long ago. No matter what was happening outside of me, I had control inside of me.
Then, by God’s grace, I found myself gently floating into a state of serenity. My consciousness left my body.
I began developing an understanding that would deepen over the next many years of my life. I realized that I was not in a “lose-lose situation,” but a “whatever happens, happens” situation.
I realized in that moment that if I controlled my external reaction, they might stop the torture. But more likely, they would increase the pain until I reacted or died. Either way, it would be ok. Pain is a sensation. Pain is momentary. In the middle of pain, it seems that it will never end, but it always does. The ironic thing about severe abuse is that pain becomes predictable. It is always present – daily, hourly, or by the minute. I may not have known its interval, but I always knew it would be there. Just as I also knew that it would go away. Even if just for a minute, an hour, or a day.
The acceptance of pain
Severe abuse gave me a high tolerance for pain, but it also taught me acceptance. It taught me patience. I realized that unpleasant experiences have a time limit. I also knew that with the right mind-set, all things became bearable. Pain is inevitable, suffering is a choice.
Pain is a series of moments and it is what we believe in each individual moment that makes the difference.
While part of me just wanted this recent pain in my shoulder to stop in order to get on with my life, the clarity from 36 years ago came flooding back to me. I began to see the similarities between that time long ago and this year of 2020. It may seem bizarre to say but having a lifetime of tremendous abuse has made 2020 tolerable. There really is nothing that can happen now that will be any worse than what I have already lived through. I recognize that even extremely painful experiences are temporary.
The lessons of pain
Right now, the outer world is in turmoil. Chaos. Confusion. We have no control over that. What we have control over is how we respond to the turmoil, the chaos, the confusion. We have control over our inner world.
I see so many people right now struggling with depression and anxiety, so many with anger towards those who have beliefs that differ from their own, and so many who have stopped living in a futile effort to avoid dying. 2020 has been a year that has triggered many emotions and memories for me. When you have truly faced death over and over, even wishing for it at times, while it continuously eluded you; you begin to realize that death is not something to be feared. Similarly, it is not something that will come to you until it is your time. You begin to see that the real pain does not come from dying. It comes from not living. The real pain is in creating a tortured inner world, because unlike the outer world, you can keep that pain going indefinitely.
This year, I have watched countless people turn away from lifelong friends over differing political views. I have watched hatred spewed and angry words hurled like flame throwers. It has been a fascinating time to be a survivor of extreme abuse because I am in a unique place to understand the massive emotions that people are caught in. I know what it feels like to try so desperately to control your outer world, and yet at 10 years old, I had already learned that my efforts would not impact the actions of others. Pain had taught me that the only thing I could affect was myself. How was I going to deal with what I was going through? How was I going to BE in that moment? The only thing I could change was my inner world. There I had a choice.
2020 has been a tornado of emotions – fear, anger, depression, anxiety, pain. I feel very blessed that my experiences with extreme abuse have afforded me the skills to be relatively unaffected by the 2020 twister. I learned 36 years ago how to take shelter from the craziness of those outside of me by resting comfortably inside of me. I would never wish to take 2020 away from anyone. If 2020 has been your tornado year, then it is also the year that you can learn how to turn inward. It is the year that you can discover why your emotional responses are creating inner suffering. It is the year that you can learn how to reach a place of acceptance for both yourself and those around you. 2020, with all of its experiences, has the potential to be the year that provides you with the chance to embrace and learn from pain. You are being given the opportunity to find inner serenity, which is all you will ever need.
“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” -Viktor Frankl
Have you ever wished you could break the chains of fear and step fully into love? Shanon and Kim share their journey of healing from trauma, abuse, and programming through acceptance and love. Do you want to step out of fear? Subscribe and follow their journey.