I watch “Mythbusters.” Maybe not as avidly as my brother, but there are a few episodes I’ve seen more than a few times. Jamie and Adam often say they learn at least as much from things they do that don’t work, as from things that do work. Adam even wears a shirt sometimes with the quote in the title printed across the front. That same expression applies to live in general, I think, and maybe especially to those hard lessons a lot of us have to repeat frequently throughout our lives. You can probably come up with a list of those for yourself without much trouble.
They generally fall into two main categories, don’t they? Lessons from “the outside,” from other people or the environment; and lessons from inside, when you listen to those nasty voices in your head, or when you have a disordered internal system. For now, I’m going to stick to the lessons from inside – the ones that make you feel like your own worst enemy, or like you’re at war with your own body. The kinds of battles it seems like so many people around you think you should be able to win in one blow and get on with your life (and stop making them feel guilty for whatever reason they feel guilty). After all, it’s all in your head, right? That’s what “everyone” says, right? So you should just be able to make it stop, right?
As if. Why do people even continue to believe that, you wonder, with all the evidence from medical and psychological studies saying that we each have a unique recipe for the biochemical soup that keeps us cooking along.
Since I’m most intimately familiar with chronic pain conditions, I’ll start with that as an example. Whatever the cause of the pain, there must be some set of chemicals – in the cells of the body as well as the brain – that act together to (sometimes) continue producing those pain signals long after the initial “injury” is healed. There’s (finally) an entire medical specialty devoted to studying and treating all types of pain, and I’m sure they understand a lot more about it than I do. I can only talk about my own experience with any degree of knowledge.
To begin with, I’ve been plagued with back pain since I was a teenager. Scoliosis tends to show up during puberty (or not “show up” – mine was so slight as to be superficially imperceptible). Yet I complained of back pain and numbness in parts of my back – and was told simply, “stand up straight.” Which didn’t make anything all better.
Of course, the generation I grew up in was only a hair’s breadth removed from the notion that a child with a “defect,” like scoliosis, was a direct reflection on the quality of the parents, or the parenting, and I think my mother would have been horrified by such a diagnosis if it had come in my youth. She would have blamed herself – for not being able to make me stand up straight enough to prevent it, most likely. As it was, she felt bad that we didn’t find out about it sooner, but by then, she realized it was neither her fault nor mine.
These days, I use a variety of pain-modification and pain-management techniques, all of which have had some pain-relieving effects, none of which has made the pain stay away for good. Whether it’s a brain chemical that causes me to “want” my back to continue to hurt, or some other set of substances that eventually counteracts all the treatments I throw at it, or just that I’m that sensitive to my own body doesn’t really matter. Apparently it’s not something I can get conscious control over, and switch off. One way or another, I have to find a way to live with this pain, just like people who battle addictions have to find a way to live with always having those cravings – even when they don’t give in to them.
I have a friend who is at risk for diabetes because of her family history. When she eats sugary foods, she has a hard time stopping. I think she hopes that if she stays away from the sugar, she’ll eventually just not even want it any more. I don’t think that’s likely to happen. I think her family members who became diabetic did so because they didn’t work as hard as she does to control the cravings. Somewhere in her personal, unique physiology, is a sugar junkie gene, or the equivalent, and it’s always going to make her want that second piece of cake, or that fourth piece of fudge, as soon as she eats the first one. But I don’t think occasionally forgetting and having that first piece, or even two, makes her a bad person. (And you need to stop beating yourself up about it!)
We all have to be able to forgive ourselves when we make these mistakes, or “fall off the wagon,” or when something doesn’t work (or doesn’t keep working). And then we need to get up and try again. Because failure is always an option. Giving up isn’t.