distressed woman holding head while a hand unravels her mind

The Lessons of Mental Illness: What to Do with Our Pain

During my first hospitalization in 2013, under the influence of mania, I wrote more than one hundred pages in a notebook. Upon discharge, I gained courage and read the notes. To my surprise, they were a goldmine of wisdom. They encompassed a mixture of frightening delusions, profound observations, and the most exquisite reflections. Those notes taught me how to deal with pain.  

How to Manage Chronic Pain & Mental Health 

Mental illness can bring very real physical symptoms to its sufferers, too, but today I want to focus on the pain we can’t see – the aches that plague our minds and emotions. 

What can we do with our mental pain?  

Do we hide it deep in a dark corner of our psyche? Not a great idea. In moments of weakness and distress, the pain will resurface from repression to deeply hurt us.  

Do we hate it? Reasonably so. But like a boomerang, it will hit us back as devastating self-hate.  

Do we blame it on others? At first, that may feel liberating. But little by little, the world will reject us into isolation and an unbearable silence.  

But then, how should we handle our pain?  

We should face our pain with a question: “Pain, tell me: what can I learn from you?”

Defining & Conquering Pain 

Pain is the embodiment of absurdity. Questions have the power of taming the absurd into the explicable. The lessons we extract from pain bring meaning into the insufferable. Questions reshape our existential chaos into known categories. Even more, the process of questioning our pain places it outside of us as the subject of our inquiry. Through this move, curiosity replaces victimization.  

Questioning your pain endows you with control. You establish authority over your wound.  

As you draw lessons and wisdom from your pain, you realize that not all has been in vain. We must be punctilious students of our pain and teachers of its wisdom.  

Searching for Meaning in Mental Illness 

The Bible of this approach to suffering is Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. A survivor of Nazi concertation camps, Frankl teaches that faced with the most horrendous suffering, we retain the choice between meaning or despair. Purpose, he believes, is always available. Pain may be unavoidable, but the search for meaning remains in our hands.  

Inspired by his teaching, I advocate for approaching pain with questions that lead to meaning. Ask yourself courageous questions that bring you closer to inner growth and strength, such as: 

  • Where does my strength come from?  
  • What would I tell somebody in my situation?  
  • What virtues can I learn from my suffering?  

If you can translate pain into meaning, what wisdom will you discover through battling a mental illness?  

You have wisdom to offer, earned through all you have experienced and endured.  

It must be enormous, boundless. Just imagine all you can teach about stamina, darkness, resilience after recovering from major depression. Imagine all that confronting OCD could teach about order, chaos, and ritual.  

You are a pain guru, a master life coach. 

What Can We Learn from Mental Illness? 

Regrettably, obstacles prevent the connection between the experience of mental illness and the precious wisdom that can be discovered in that experience. Our particular illnesses whisper to us, “you are disabled, you have nothing to offer.”  

This disqualification finds the most horrendous echo in stigma. 

We, the mental health community, are experiencing a hemorrhage of wisdom. Every one of our experiences that remains untranslated into a life lesson is wasted pain. We must never waste our pain.  

We should flood our pain with questions.  

Like Socrates, we must ask, and ask, until we extract the last ounce of wisdom from our depression, mania, failure, creativity, loneliness, courage, and despair. Then we should go into the world, teach and inspire. Not as we usually do by sharing our stories to educate others about mental illness, but to teach life wisdom from a place of dignity and empowerment. 

Though filled with imperfection, the notes at the psychiatric ward were my best writing. That week, I asked 100 pages of questions. I’m still answering them today. 

Now, you can begin writing yours.  

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