Pain is a strange thing.
It comes in so many different shapes and sizes, and it comes from countless sources—aging joints, a misstep onto an uneven surface, accidental wrongdoing on someone else’s part or even mistreatment from other people. It can be small and inconsequential (like a papercut that doesn’t even bleed) or it can be huge and life-altering (like a heartbreak that tears a family apart).
And usually, we don’t like to talk about it. Many times, our pain isn’t exactly visible—and I think most people appreciate that. When we do have something to clue us in to someone else’s pain and ask if they’re okay, we’re usually just kind of brushed off. “Oh this? It’s nothing. I just broke my collar bone in two places and cracked 4 ribs… It really only hurts when I breathe…” You know how it goes.
Pain isn’t the kind of thing we share often. Maybe that’s because it’s not a part of the story we want to tell about ourselves. Maybe it’s because we don’t want to be judged as weak or less-than. Or maybe we don’t want to be pitied.
But sometimes the best way through pain it is to share it. And, no, I’m not talking about the kind of reciprocal “you hurt me so now I’m going to hurt you” sharing that siblings or neighborhood kids might have inflicted upon us as we were growing up. Stay with me here…
Remember waaaay back when I once said that building a community of Misfit Toy parents was important? This is part of why we do that. Our Island of Misfit Parents tends to be a pretty safe place to share pain, and we’re often able to help each other (and our kids) through it better than a main-lander.
A few years ago, a friend from another part of the country who has an autistic son a bit younger than Nolan sent me a message… Her son been aggressive and said some things to her that really hurt. She wanted any advice I might have been able to offer, and I wanted to be sure she had someone she could talk to about having been on the receiving end of that pain.
In that conversation, I sent her a photo. The photo was of my arm where Nolan had repeatedly pinched, scratched, hit and otherwise just taken out his frustration on over time. At this point, my arms almost always looked like this.
Yes, I'm a jerk... (and yes, it's super blurry)
I didn’t send it to make her feel bad—it wasn’t a competition and I wasn’t trying to minimize her feelings with the cliché, “some people have it worse than you.” Since it caught her off guard, I know she did feel bad, but she also let me explain that that’s not why I had sent it.
That photo was me reaching out to share some understanding. “I understand this. Sometimes our kids hurt us physically, emotionally—however… It’s not because they’re trying to inflict pain,” was my message. And we talked through our similar pain, and I hope she felt less alone in the world knowing that other people experience pain much the same as hers.
It also gave us a chance to talk through how we work through these things, and how we help our kids through them at the same time. Plus we got to talk through ways we try to prevent aggression and the behaviors that lead to it in our kids. And we got to remind each other that to our kids, we’re sort of a safe place—they may have to contain their frustration all day, but once they’re home with us all bets are off… They don’t have to hide what they’re dealing with, their emotions or any pain associated with it because we love and support them. So it’s really no surprise if we see the worst of them.
As complicated as this kind of pain can be for us as parents, I know it’s so much harder on Nolan (and I imagine most kids…) than it is on me. I mean, heck, as an adult I’ve got a lot more practice dealing with stress and frustration, so it’s not likely to cause me the kind of pain it might cause him. Plus I’ve got logic on my side—I can often (not always—I’m not perfect) turn my brain to a logical explanation instead of letting emotion call the shots.
With time, though, pain often gets better. Even when they leave scars, wounds heal. And time can give us perspective and allow us to heal emotionally as well. Plus the older our kids get the more tools they have in their toolbox—or maybe the more well-equipped their first aid kits are in this case. As Nolan matures, I’ve definitely seen him get better at dealing with frustration and other emotions… and a lot of that has to do with how hard he works to understand the world we live in.
While we may carry scars with us into the future, we also carry the healing and the strength that it takes to heal. We learn along the way and gain a better understanding of how to avoid pain as we go—we walk around the debris that may have tripped us up in the past or better yet, we move it out of the way to the best of our ability. And even more important, we know how to watch for unexpected tripping hazards for the rest of our lives.
And while we’ll never live in a world completely free of pain, it’s somehow reassuring to know that other people live with the same kinds of pain—and that we can get through it. While that may not be as quick to help us feel better as ibuprofen might, it definitely helps.