Learning to Recycle the Pain Instead of Regifting It

It's a painting of a recycling symbol around a heart in red paint on the side of a building
Image by KylaBorg / CC BY

“I read today’s article, the one about recovery,” she says. “And I think you’re right about spite being a powerful motivator.”

I nod. “Especially when you’re down in it. People tell you that you need to love yourself to be healthy. But when you’re emotionally unwell, it isn’t like self-love is all that accessible. In fact, it’s in pretty short supply. But spite? That’s everywhere. At least it was for me.”

“Me, too,” she says. “Although in my case, it’s mostly towards myself.”

“I get that,” I say. “It started out that way with me. At first I mostly hated myself.”

“Yeah?”

“I just felt so worthless, you know. Like I was always in the way. A total loser who did nothing but drain other people,” I say.

“You aren’t worthless and you aren’t a loser,” she says.

“I know that now,” I say. “Well, most days anyway. Everyone’s allowed to have a bad day. A day when they doubt themselves, right?”

“I think so,” she says. “Although I think I’m way over my allotment.”

“Honestly?” I say. “I think you’re right. You’re way too hard on yourself. But you know that already… and I’m sure you’re beating yourself up for it.”

She laughs. She doesn’t have to tell me that I’m right about this. Part of why our friendship has stayed healthy over time and distance and large shifts in our social circles is that we’re so much alike. Especially in the way we’re hard on ourselves.

She sometimes compares our lives and feels bad that she’s not quite in the place in her recovery that I am. But I think she really shouldn’t. She just hasn’t had the best support system over the years. Recently, she found a good one, and a lot is falling into place for her. Because she’s finally gotten to a place of emotional safety, where she feels like she can talk about things with the people who are important to her. Where even if they don’t understand, they at least won’t be a jerk about it in response.

They’re the kind of people who understand that you don’t have to 100% get what another person is going through in order to be there and be supportive. And they get that you certainly don’t have to know that you’d make the exact same choices they’d make were your roles reversed.

You know. Good people.

It’s Not About Never Feeling Pain, It’s About Learning to React to It Differently

We talk for a while longer. “How did you manage to take that spite towards your crummy psychiatrist and make it into something productive anyway? I read the essay, but… I feel like there’s more there. Like there’s something I’m missing.”

“I always miss something when I’m writing,” I say, sighing.

“That’s not what I meant,” she says. “It’s a big topic for a blog post. I bet you could write an entire book about recovery and still not cover everything. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

“Okay,” I say. “Although that’s rich coming from you.”

She laughs.

“It wasn’t easy,” I say. “In those days, I was in a lot of pain. Basically all of the time. And pain makes a person act terrible. I was constantly fighting the urge to lash out. To make my social situation worse. It was pretty exhausting.”

“Did you learn to block out the pain or something?” she says.

I shake my head. “No, I learned to recycle it instead of regifting it.”

When Your Abuse Turns You Into a Version of Yourself That You Don’t Want to Be

Over the next hour, we talk about the part of my abuse history I never like to discuss. Not the acts that were inflicted upon me, the traumas that got me to a place of being deeply wounded. People always think those are the hardest things to discuss — and for some people, maybe they are — but for me, the hardest part is talking about how much of a miserable person I became in the earliest years of recovery. How much I let other people down.

In those days, I did good work, but I was incredibly unreliable. I would literally have a front page story as a journalist one day and the next assignment I’d be nearly fired from the paper I worked for because I failed to show to cover a story. I did too many drugs. And I also seemed caught in an erratic dance of attachment that was entirely inappropriate: Falling in either romantic or friendly love with a perfect stranger who treated me like garbage one day and then detaching like Velcro the next.

It’s hard for people who know me now to understand, but at one point, I was a total mess. A compass that couldn’t find north and instead just spun and spun, any sense of direction obscured by strong interference coming from within my own brain.

Unable to control my emotions, I unexpectedly blew up at people who were good to me and alienated them.

I was incredibly unhealthy for several years. Living a self-punishing and stupid life. One that only served to reinforce the low self-worth I was struggling with.

Learning to Recycle the Pain Instead of Regifting It

The trouble, I tell my friend, is that I was in so much pain (from the terrible past and the way my mind tormented me in the present) that I couldn’t take any more, and so there was a part of me that just started to shove it onto other people. Horrified, I’d blow up, lash out, or be unduly critical before even knowing what had happened.

I was taking the pain inside of me and regifting it like an unwanted present.

But as soon as I’d done it, I’d realize what I’d done and have regrets. Which would result in more pain.

That’s the thing about regifting pain. If you have even a shred of empathy, you can’t. The pain just comes right back to you. You’re no better off than before, no lighter. It always gets worse.

In the beginning, I tell my friend, the only way I could seem to get away from this pattern was by running away from everyone, isolating, and maybe taking substances to help me get a bit of distance from myself.

But somewhere along the way something changed. I learned how to recycle the pain rather than regift it.

Being Motivated by Proving the Haters Wrong

“And that started with spite?” she says. “Getting better to prove your haters wrong?”

I nod. “Exactly. It was the easiest way to recycle that pain and turn it into something productive.”

“It’s funny,” she says. “Because you don’t do that now. You don’t seem like a spiteful person at all.”

“It’s because I’m really not,” I say. “Spite was a good starter process, when I had so much of it and so little of anything else. It got me through the motions when I didn’t have anything else.”

“But then you learned how to do it without that,” she says.

I nod. “It got me through. And then later I actually found supportive people, which was quite a bit easier when I wasn’t acting like a total disaster and being a random meanie. And then after several years of supportive people in my life, I stopped actively hating myself and actually started to like myself, or at least see why other people could possibly like me. Which made the recycling even easier.”

“So there’s hope for me yet?” she says.

“Definitely,” I say.

*

Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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