The Pain that Leads to Growth

I’ve been confronted again over the past 24 hours with a truism that I should know as well as anyone: you can’t move away from your problems. Lord knows, I’ve tried. Still, I should well know by now that a change of scenery in the midst of painful circumstances can provide a break, some respite perhaps, but can not make one’s pain go away. I have a friend who recently bought a new house and intended to seize the change of scenery as an opportunity to break old, bad habits and establish new, more healthy patterns. Theoretically I’m sure that’s possible. In my life, though, it’s rarely happened. We’ve moved across the country now seven times in nearly 20 years of marriage, often retracing our steps, often in an attempt to respond to a parental health crisis, but at least a time or two such moves were made in the midst of the pain of broken relationships and unrealized expectations. Sometimes those motivations for moving were mixed, of course, and this last time was no exception.

Here in MN there is so very much to like about the “scenery.” I’ve written in previous posts recently about all that the Twin Cities have to offer, what an oasis it is for progressive politics and tax policy, how we really resonate with much of the culture. MN tends to fare better economically than much of the country, and it’s simply a beautiful area too. Nature is really embraced around here. For all those reasons, we’re glad to be here. Of course, a part, anyway, of why we’re here is to care for Kirsten’s mom as her health declines and be present to her family of origin. That’s something that we’re willing to do, but in hindsight not all that surprisingly, there are aspects of it that have proven difficult, more difficult than we imagined, truth be told. The caregiving burden has been taxing on Kirsten, especially as her overnight work hours and the way they’re scheduled at her job here have proven nearly unsustainable. We live very close to much of her family of origin, but both of us work on the other side of the cities, and House of Mercy meets and much of its “life” happens some distance away as well. My commute is probably 90 minutes total every day, which is tiring.

Speaking of fatigue, I’ve found myself struggling with it in profound ways that are hard to explain. Kirsten’s sleep schedule is constantly shifting and insufficient, and the burden of working nights is literally taking years off her life before my very eyes, but I’m the one who can fall asleep mid-sentence or in the middle of typing. I’ve struggled with this before and Kirsten wonders if I have some sort of sleep disorder. I’m sure that’s possible. My dad worked nights for many years and could fall asleep standing up; so perhaps in this as in so many other things I’m trying to emulate him. Still, I know a lot of it has to do with my diet, lack of exercise, and stress right now. We’ve really struggled to establish sustainable routines here, to get into a rhythym of life that feels like it works. After owning a home for almost ten years it’s so weird to be renting again and, at the age of forty in my case, to feel so transient, so unsettled.

I’ll admit that I feel surprisingly isolated. It’s ironic because there’s so much potential here, so many likely like-minded people around. I just have to do the hard work of building relationship and, more than anything, I know I have to give it time. Perhaps I’m just impatient. Nonetheless, it’s a tough time to be isolated, as I’m challenged to do some deep psychological, spiritual, and physical work that I would feel I have better capacity to undergo in the midst of a supportive community. I alluded to one’s problems following you no matter the scenery above, and that’s been my experience, again. As Kirsten figures out how to be integrally immersed in her family system of origin, our family system has been tossed on its head, at least in my experience. There are new/old stresses placed on it (on our little family system) that are hard to endure. Kirsten is faring better at this than I am, of course. After all, it’s her family system of origin, and she’s such a saintly peacemaker that she can get along with and adapt to almost anyone. In the meantime, I’m experiencing a profound sense of loss. I’ve lost our own little family system as it was, anyway, and this only reinforces all the other losses over the past four years.

The biggest and most notable loss just about four and a half years ago now was my Dad, which I’m sure I still haven’t “dealt” with in the way that I need to. Add to that the health and identity as a new runner I fought so hard for about six years ago and it’s simply devastating to experience life now at about the same weight I was before my weight loss/running journey started, but now with chronic knee pain which I underwent the pain and expense of surgery recently in an attempt to lessen. The losses kept mounting, of course. I “lost” my long-time education job that I felt at least pretty competent at for nearly eight years until it all came crumbling down quite suddenly in the midst of painful character assaults (true or not), just about a year ago now. That job ended so abruptly, and so painfully, that I realize now I’m still reeling from the experience. This is a very familiar time of year as it relates to that job. I’d be in the middle of my busiest time of the year in that job about now, and it would all be mixed up with the holidays approaching and breaks from school and the warm feelings the holidays at least have the potential to evoke. I hated that job by the end as it had changed so dramatically right underneath my feet, but I find myself missing it. I left that job and struggled to find something for a couple of months a year ago, but did. However, the job I took meant going from the height of my earning as an adult to very close to the lowest point of it. I took a $17,000 pay cut moving from the one job to the next and had to start over as a professional.

My job here is certainly better, and pays a fair bit better than that last job in OH, but I’m still very much finding my way as something of a novice in my role now. Starting over is arguably good, but hard. On top of all that, though, there was the previously discussed on this blog loss of our former faith community in OH and all the pain that entailed. That end also came abruptly and without a “voice” or ability to exit on our own terms, and my character was again subjected to much assault, again whether true or not. No doubt, we continue to reel from that experience as well.

I should mention that “losing” our house was no joke either. I alluded to this above, but owning a home brought a real sense of accomplishment, a sense of fulfillment that, right or wrong, for good or ill, gave a sense of having achieved a part of the “American dream,” whatever our many criticisms of this “dream” and its implications might be. I’m loathe to openly praise the joy of possession, but having something that  was real and tangible and felt like it was ours in a way that other “things” are not was fulfilling. And that’s to say nothing of the process of selling our home and the stress that brought, not to mention the financial loss and burden (again, on the order of tens of thousands of dollars).

So now I have to work through all this pain, loss, and change, but have to do so while feeling as alone as arguably I ever have in our married life, not because our marriage is “on the rocks” or anything like that (though it is under duress), but simply because of the many demands being placed on Kirsten (and, to a lesser degree, the rest of us) and the resulting stress on our family as a whole. At 40 I still have to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. I have to figure out how to be a dad without having one. I have to re-negotiate my roles as husband, dad, and “in-law” while immersed in a larger system that has no vested interest in my success. There’s a lot to unpack there, but now is not the time or place. I have to figure out “community” after more than a few failed attempts at it, and I have to settle into a new rhythm of trying to follow Jesus- or not- after yet another “good reason” having been given not to.

For all these reasons, I told Kirsten last night that I was “as depressed as I’ve ever been” in a fairly depressed life so far. Depression and anxiety have been my twin nemeses for quite a while now. I’ve struggled with depression most of my life, and rightly so. Then, about eight years ago, anxiety suddenly became my primary challenge and that has largely been the case ever since. Last night I told Kirsten that I’d let nearly debilitating anxiety rule the roost for a while and it was time to let (serious) depression have its way for a while.

I was joking, sort of.

Perhaps more than anything, I’m at a crossroads. Down one path I’ll find lots of hard work leading to growth, development, insight, and perhaps maturity. Down the other no doubt lies ever deepening depression and anxiety, conflicted and ultimately poor choices, and more broken relationships in their wake. Pain is the common denominator. Physical, psychological, relational, vocational, and spiritual work hurts, but these are obviously growing pains that result in my good.

That said, I know that protecting myself from further pain will in the end simply bring it about. I just have to transfer this knowledge from my head into my heart and find the strength to choose the pain that leads to growth.

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