“Pain can change you, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a bad change. Take that pain and turn it into wisdom.” ~Unknown
Ten years ago my life changed in a dramatic way. What I experienced in 2004 seemed like a major disaster at first, but it turns out that sometimes what seems like the worst life experience can actually be one of our biggest blessings.
In 2004, I was in graduate school, working toward a PhD in history. When I graduated from college in 2001, I wanted to be a professor. Well, that’s what I thought I wanted, but the truth was I was scared to “grow up” and get a real job, and graduate school seemed like a less scary option.
When I got to grad school in the fall of 2001, I immediately felt like a fish out of water. While in college, I thrived and loved learning about history and doing primary source research. Graduate school was different.
I remember feeling out of place in classes where everyone read books written by other historians and argued about what they thought of the book instead of diving right into research.
In addition, I didn’t click with my advisor; we couldn’t communicate with each other, and that frustrated me. I was also a teaching assistant and realized that most of my students couldn’t care less about studying history. I quickly became disillusioned and unhappy.
When I would talk to my family about how unhappy I was, my parents kept saying, “Well, what do you want to do?” I had no answer to that question. I just knew in my heart that this was not it, but I was too scared to face the unknown.
Fast forward three years to 2004 when I was planning to have elective surgery that summer only to discover through the pre-op blood work that something was majorly wrong with me.
After several weeks of tests and a long hospital stay, I finally had a diagnosis (which turned out to be a misdiagnosis, but that’s another story). I was told that I had Chronic Mylogeous Leukemia (CML). The diagnosis terrified me.
While I was very deeply shaken by this, I attempted to continue with my graduate school program, only to feel more and more dissatisfied with what I was doing.
Then, in September of 2005, my best friend from college passed away suddenly. Her death rocked me to the core and was the final wake-up call that I needed to change my life.
After several months of grief and deep depression, I came to realize that life is way too short to be so incredibly miserable.
Since I didn’t know how long my life would last because of this medical diagnosis, and because I was well aware that twenty-five year olds do just die, it was time to make some major changes. Even though I didn’t know my path forward, I knew to my very core that the one I was on was not for me.
It took a major health crisis and the death of my friend to get me to admit that it was okay to not know what my next step was, but I needed to give up the path that was so clearly not mine.
I got a job because I needed health insurance, and I started to work on healing my body, mind, and spirit. I spent hours each week going to therapy and exploring other healing modalities.
It was through this healing process that I came to realize in a relatively short time what I did want to do. I was sitting in a biofeedback session and I had a moment where I actually saw myself in the practitioner’s chair, doing what she was doing.
The lightning bolt of inspiration hit and I knew my next path was becoming clear.
I went back to school, this time pursuing a master’s in psychology. I knew that what I had gone through was a wake-up call and a very statement of what my purpose in life was.
I knew that I hadn’t gone to hell and back to just work for someone else in a job that didn’t feel deeply meaningful and fulfilling to me.
I knew, to my very core, that I was here to help others along the healing path.
If you had told me in 2005 that I would say that what I went through in those two years was on many levels some of the best things that ever happened to me, I would have looked at you like you had two heads.
But ten years later, I know deep in my heart that without those huge wake-up calls, I might still be pursuing a path that isn’t truly mine because I was too scared to take a big leap.
If you are currently going through a tough time, allow yourself to feel and express your feelings and, as you do so, practice self-compassion.
It is okay to feel sadness, anger, frustration, grief, fear, and a whole host of other emotions. By allowing yourself to feel those feelings and letting them move through you, without being self-critical in the process, you allow the energy to shift instead of getting stuck and bottled up.
Spend some time reflecting on whether there’s some kind of hidden opportunity in what you are experiencing.
For example, if you have been laid off, perhaps you are being given the opportunity to find more meaningful work. Getting sick can be the opportunity to take a break, rest, and to heal yourself on deeper levels. A breakdown can be the chance to heal pain from your past that hasn’t been fully resolved.
Lastly, remember that you are not your tough time. For me, not identifying as a “cancer patient” was crucial because if I identified that way, then my whole life was seen through that filter. Don’t attach to any labels that don’t feel right to you.
Sometimes an experience that seems incredibly horrible can actually have hidden gifts inside it. Just be patient with the path you are on, take it one day at a time, and know that sometime in the future, you will likely gain incredible insight on the gifts of what you are going through.