Turning Distress Into Joy

For those who survive, they are able to find a way through each day that comes, but past trauma still exerts significant control over their life.  But with those who transcend, there is a sense of rising above the ordinary physical and psychological state.  Although traumatic experiences themselves may remain as definitive and directive circumstances in a person’s life, transcendence provides an escape to a more meaningful, and often joyful existence.

– James Schroeder, in his article “Turning Distress Into Joy: Meaning and Transcendence”. It can be found on one of my favorite websites, Mad In America.

A theme in my life lately is forgiving the past so that I may live more fully in the present. Acknowledging things that have happened in the past– things I have actively done or things that senselessly happened near me or around me– and letting myself feel all the intensity of those experiences: the grief, the anger, the shame, the pain.

And then there is a calm.

It appears that in the journey towards transcendence there first comes a growing awareness that something more exists beyond the palpable struggle.  In the study mentioned above, awareness was generally followed by a sense of resiliency, of fighting back and persevering against the many restrictive forces, including self-blame. 

I’ve been in fairly intensive therapy for the past two months. It is intensive because I am willing to be fully present and engaged in this process. I’m channeling my tenacious stubbornness to not quit into therapy right now. We say “Play to your strengths” – so instead of throwing myself into a job or school, right now I’m prioritizing my energy into therapy. I do have a small red flag of compulsiveness in the whole thing, but of course, I wouldn’t be me if I weren’t at least a little compulsive about anything that becomes a priority in my life. I want to put a lot of energy here, now, so that soon I will feel more free to move forward with other dreams.

I haven’t told a lot of people that I’m in therapy. I told a couple close friends. This morning I shared my being-in-therapy fact with a former coworker who I truly thought would benefit from my sharing this fact. It’s not a confession. It’s not really a secret, it’s just personal. I’m doing this for me and quite frankly it’s nobody’s business.

Dar Williams on therapy:

Okay, so this is kind of a bizarre song to make a music video out of — and it’s OH so dorky and beautiful and yes I adore Dar– and here are the lyrics that cinch it for me:

And when I talk about therapy, I know what people think
That it only makes you selfish and in love with your shrink
But Oh how I loved everybody else
When I finally got to talk so much about myself…………
And I wake up and I ask myself what state I’m in
And I say well I’m lucky, cause I am like East Berlin
I had this wall and what I knew of the free world
Was that I could see their fireworks
And I could hear their radio
And I thought that if we met, I would only start confessing
And they’d know that I was scared
They’d would know that I was guessing
But the wall came down and there they stood before me
With their stumbling and their mumbling
And their calling out just like me….

“Oh, how I loved everybody else when I finally got to talk so much about myself.” Yes. I am finding that to be more present with my friends, with my family, with my– dare I say it– Real Life– I do need time for me. Therapy is this time currently. I am grateful for some wonderful, wonderful friends in my life– yet there are parts that just don’t make sense, parts that I don’t understand, triggers that still come out of nowhere and drain me… and it is this turning distress into joy and a coming to understand the past so that I see the present as it is, not as it is with past-rose-colored glasses.

I feel like East Berlin with the walls- the emotional protective walls. Grief and joy lately have broken down my walls and it is a terrifying, necessary thing. I had this wall. And the more I share with others– honestly, not confessionally- the more I am willing to be my authentic self with others, allow myself to be vulnerable… these processes turn distress into joy.

This means challenging the voice of self-blame. The doubt, the shame, internalized stigma, internalized homophobia- disjointed parts of my self…. I believe in a whole, and I feel a sense of determination and resiliency in myself that I have not felt for several years. This means giving myself the gift of time and self-care (both in therapy sessions and out) so that I can be more fully present and authentic in my life.

Schroeder’s article continues to say that we make meaning of suffering, and the act of forgiveness often leads, altruistically, to the service of others. I am currently not sure what that path may look like in my own life, but I am open to different possibilities.

Although trends suggest stages towards transcendence, the reality is that “making meaning” of suffering runs a varied course.  However, three themes (e.g., Grossman, Sorsoli, & Kia-Keating, 2006) seem to apply:  meaning through reason and understanding, meaning through action, and meaning through spirituality.  For those who find meaning through action, a “survivor mission” often involves creating purpose by channeling negative energy they feel into actions that matter, and can help save others from perpetration.  Some find meaning in slowly removing the intrapsychic barbs.  Some even find meaning in creative and artistic endeavors.

Meaning through reason and understanding: Writing, this blog and in my journal; processing and digging intellectually before emotionally; logically analyzing events to come to an understanding of how my emotions work, even when sometimes this is completely futile; psycho-educational research of my own choosing- learning what I want to learn and allowing my thoughts to evolve.

Meaning through action: Spending time with friends and family; therapy; writing a testimony to share at an eating disorders organization; using any opportunity, however how small, to practice using my voice and acting as a responsible adult. Action is currently minimal in my life and this is a small source of distress, but I also know that action happens in waves.

Meaning through spirituality: Acknowledging that I am a religious, spiritual person, for one; grounding activities, stretching, spending time outside; spirituality often feels like a similar high to when I understand things on a high intellectual level.

We are all turning distress into joy. It is both a process of longevity and in every small moment that passes.

Joy is here.

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