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When Pain Isn’t Harming You, But it Still Won’t Quit

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When I was little, my father determined that I was going to continue the family traditions and learn to love spicy foods. He had a very specific approach. When I wanted a pickle for a snack, he would give me a bite of jalapeño before granting the pickle. I will never forget the feeling of biting into a jalapeño for the first time! A burning sensation spread from my mouth to my whole face, and at the age of four, I asked myself, “Is this what death feels like?” I downed a whole lot of water in search of relief before my father laughingly told me milk would be a better fix. 

A green jalapeno on a white background, sliced with each piece laying in a line.
Now these aren’t so spicy to me, but I will never forget that first bite.

The thing about eating spicy food (if your digestive system can handle it, and please don’t make yourself suffer here) is that while your mouth is on fire, there’s part of your brain that is wondering if now your mouth will always be on fire. Learning to eat spicy food when you weren’t gifted with in-born tolerance requires learning that this pain is only temporary. Once your fight or flight reflexes no longer kick in so strongly when you take a bite of hot pepper, you can have an entirely different experience with the heat. It can become an intensely enjoyable experience. 

I’m thinking about this today because I recently went home, and now my emotions are all over the place. I’ve spent most of my life feeling like a bit of an alien no matter where I am. To be surrounded by people like me, to hear my own stories come out of someone else’s mouth, to finally determine where I get my own unique brand of social awkwardness, to realize that none of us look alike and yet we all do… it was both profoundly comforting and deeply uncomfortable. I met many people like me, who feel things in a similar fashion as I do.

To be surrounded by people like me, to hear my own stories come out of someone else's mouth... it was both profoundly comforting and deeply uncomfortable.

I have always been a deeply empathetic person. I shut that part of me off because it was too much to handle. The funny thing to me is that I didn’t think I was disassociating with this aspect of me until all of the walls I’ve built to protect myself came crashing down in one instant as I stepped foot onto the park where my family reunion was being held. All of the sudden I was on an entirely different stage running lines I’d never read. I didn’t know what to say, how to hold myself, where to sit, how to behave. It was like being a kid again.

This has been terrifying because I am not just a controlling person, I like being a controlling person. It makes me feel capable. It makes me feel like I can design my life so that I can be safe. It doesn’t matter that I don’t believe any of those statements are valid or true in the way that truth should be true. What you think you believe often differs greatly from where you have actually placed your faith, and if you want to see where you’ve placed your faith, observe your reactions when under pressure. When you feel uncomfortable.

speedometer with the words You're in Control illustration design
Unfortunately, you are not actually in control. (I don’t like it either.)

I’ve spent so many years working to heal, to grow, to mature. To build wisdom. So when those walls came crashing down I immediately felt like a failure. Feeling such intense rawness (and the instant accompanying fear) made me question if I’ve healed at all, because the last time I felt that raw I really wasn’t okay.

But then it occurred to me to interrogate my own response. Was the crumbling of those walls actually a sign of failure? Or was it simply that the walls held as long as they could while I needed them there, and now I am actually progressed to the point where I can learn to live with this rawness?

That question is also both comforting and discomforting. Comforting to know that perhaps I’m not so broken. Discomforting because if I’m right, this is not something I get to control or push away. This is something I have to face. It’s painful. But this pain itself won’t harm me. In fact, by listening to the pain, I might find greater joy in my life.

Fortunately, I began learning how to eat raw jalapenos when I was four.

This rawness probably isn’t permanent. Once my fight or flight reflexes stop kicking in every five minutes, I might even learn to enjoy the sensation while it lasts.

Maybe. Possibly. Hopefully

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