- Janyne McConnaughey, PhD
All Healing is Painful
As I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, I saw a post from a friend who had just had major surgery. She said something to the effect that it was a rough night, but the nurses all said she was doing great. She was in a lot of pain, but that is part of the healing, right?
We all accept this truth when it comes to our bodies, but when it comes to mental health, experiencing more pain in order to heal seems so counterintuitive. I can hear myself saying, “No, you don’t understand. I came here for you to help me feel better, but I feel worse after 'x' number of sessions.”
Think about it though—all healing follows the same pattern. For the most part, some discomfort or symptom indicates that we need medical attention. We may or may not even look or feel sick, but there is something wrong and we know it. We can often walk into the hospital on our own volition. If surgery is necessary, within a few hours, we are barely able to move ourselves in the bed without excruciating pain. All we care about is that the doctor will tell us everything looks good. We understand the pain is not an indicator of something bad, but of something that was intended to make us better.
The day I walked into therapy, I looked and felt great--but I knew I needed help. A month later I was filling every trashcan in the office and my house with tissues and prowling in the night in mental anguish. There were times when I thought my eyes would simply fall out of my head from crying. My therapist was compassionate and told me that it wouldn’t always feel like this; but it was necessary if I wanted to heal. I had been holding a lot of pain for a very long time, and it was finally being released.
One day I sat and wrote for thirteen hours. I wrote and I cried and then I wrote some more. There was no end to it. It just poured out of me. I felt pretty good at the end of that day. It was a turning point, but it took a lot of pain and tears to get me there. I was healing, but I had a long way to go. There were plateaus and valleys, then deeper valleys, and more plateaus. It was just like any healing process.
We all want both therapists and medical doctors to give us a magic pill that will heal us instantly. Sometimes pills make us feel better by taking care of the symptoms, but then sometimes we need surgery. Sometimes the pills make us feel worse before we feel better! There is no easy button. It is very likely that healing is going to be painful. I wish that wasn’t the case. It just is. You have to be willing to accept, that if you are suffering mentally, it is going to require some pain to heal, but when healed, you won’t have to limp through life dragging painful baggage behind you.
I broke my elbow the year I turned 60. I had never, ever broken a bone. I tripped over a landscape border and landed in rocks and then hit my head on the concrete. I waited all night and then went to work and worked half a day before I gave up and went to the doctor. Did I think it was going to hurt less when it hurt more with every passing hour? That is so human. I really wasn’t making good choices about getting help when there was clearly something wrong.
Many are the same way about going to therapy. If not going hasn’t made what you are experiencing any better, then waiting another month, year, or lifetime probably isn’t going to help either. In fact, it will only get worse. Medications may mask the symptoms but they will never heal the pain that causes them.
My arm felt so much better in a cast, but it was only a half cast because I needed to take it off to do exercises. “WHAT????? That is going to hurt!” Exactly. I was never going to gain full motion unless I did the necessary work to heal. Never once did I consider that healing shouldn’t hurt. Something bad had happened to me and it was going to require some painful work before it felt well enough for me to not be consumed by thinking about it all day, every day. Therapy is work. It is called therapy for a reason. When you go to a physical therapist, they expect you to work in between sessions. Psychotherapy is the same way.
Sometimes people tell me they don’t want to go to or stay in therapy because it is painful. I have to give them hope. I have been down that road. I have prowled the house in the night and cried until my eyes were raw and red. I asked my therapist, “Will there ever be a day when I don’t cry?” She smiled compassionately and hugged me. She knew there would be. She also knew my tears were necessary for my healing. (A therapist really can't help you much unless you are willing to cry. This is a painful truth.)
The day for which I hoped has finally come. Except for an occasional wave of sadness, I seldom cry. When I do, it is a wave that passes quickly. There may always be ‘pieces’ but I am now able to process on my own. Just like with any other type of pain, time heals the memories of those very dark days when I so desperately needed help. My story was so extensive and held so many layers—most would never have to do the work I did to heal. If I could heal from the severity of my trauma (in my 60’s!) then, believe me, it is possible.
There have been several whom I have had the opportunity to encourage. I decided this blog needed to be written so I could refer to it. It is easy for me to not fully remember how hard it was to go to therapy, deal with the pain, and do the work to heal. I can’t encourage others to begin their healing journey without being honest about the fact that it is going to be painful. Healing is painful, but so is living everyday with the pain. I can say that it won’t always be so difficult. To everyone who knows there is unresolved pain deep inside them, I say, “Don’t let the pain and tears frighten you. You will never understand how much better life can be unless you follow the path to healing.”