"The difficult times we fear are the very ones that can break us open and help us blossom." Elizabeth Lesser
Lori* came to see me shortly after she had miscarried for the second time. "The first time," she said, "it was a public event. I'd told everyone that I was pregnant. I was so excited." So when she lost the baby near the end of her first trimester, she got lots of sympathy. "But it was so awful. Nothing helped. I hated everyone, even my mother, who told me that she'd had miscarriages between me and my siblings." After a short silence, she added, "Actually, that did help. It made me feel like there was hope that I'd get pregnant again and this time that I'd have a baby."
The doctors told her that the baby had not been viable, but that it was not a sign of a genetic problem. There was no reason that she could not have a baby, if she wanted. She and her husband waited until they got the green light, then tried again. And got pregnant. And shortly before the end of the first three months, she miscarried again.
This time, she told no one about the pregnancy. "I just couldn't go through this whole thing publicly again," she said. But it did not seem to be any better this way. "I finally told my best friend; and she told me I needed to go for therapy, not that you could help me get pregnant, but just to get some help dealing with all of this."
I could empathize with Lori's pain. I had never miscarried, but my husband and I spent six painful years trying to get pregnant. The monthly cycle of hope and despair was miserable enough; but so were the feelings of not being normal, of being outside the circle of friends and family who were having children with seeming ease, of tension between me and my husband. I imagined that getting pregnant and then miscarrying would magnify the feelings of despair and helplessness.
According to adult trauma theorists, there are two significant components to traumatic experiences in adulthood: one is that the vision of life as you have always believed it to be true has been exploded, turned upside down and inside out. Your basic trust that everything eventually will be alright has been damaged, maybe permanently. Things are not okay and may never be okay again. Life is not good, and people are not kind. And that's the second part: you feel that you're the only one who has gone through this. You can't trust anyone else, even someone who has experienced some part of what you're going through, to know what it feels like. You feel alone, isolated, frightened, helpless and hopeless.
For as long as she could remember, Lori had planned to be a mother. The possibility that she could not have children was almost unbearable. She and her husband talked about the idea of adopting, perhaps a special needs child. "At least we would be doing something good for someone who needs us," she said. But then she began crying. "But it wouldn't be the same. I've always dreamed of having children of my own. I can't go there right now."
Lori wasn't being selfish. She was struggling to make sense of the pain and disappointment that, in fact, is part of all life. We tend to highlight happiness and see unhappiness as something to avoid at all costs, or something to fix quickly when we accidentally encounter it.
But there is another way to think about unhappiness. It can be a time of learning and growth that simply cannot happen when we are feeling content with life. It can force us to move into territory we never would have entered otherwise.
Years ago the field of trauma was broken open when a social worker, Dr. Howard Parad, wrote the now classic book Crisis Intervention. Dr. Parad said that it was important to recognize that there was a positive side to the pain of traumatic experiences. He was not suggesting that we ignore the sadness and hurt that accompany tragedy, but he wanted therapists to understand that these are often the moments when we are most capable of changing!
Most of us become stuck in familiar and comfortable patterns, whether in the ways we act or how we see ourselves or others. In times of crisis these comfortable patterns are disrupted, which, while unpleasant, can also make us more willing to learn new ways of being and even change directions forever.
Elizabeth Lesser writes about this phenomenon in her book Broken Open, from which I quote at the beginning of this post. "How strange that the nature of life is change, yet the nature of human beings is to resist change," she says.
For me, the years of infertility led to a greater understanding of some of my clients' struggles. It gave me a powerful insight into what it's like to try and try and try...and fail again and again. It brought me closer to my husband and, surprisingly, to my mother. It deepened my writing. I was also lucky enough that it led to the birth of my child, and I think the years of waiting actually made my husband and me better parents.
Lori's path went in a very different direction. After yet another miscarriage, she and her husband decided that they cared too much for one another to spend all of their healthy years pursuing something that seemed to be destroying Lori's physical and psychological health and their time together. They reassessed their goals, did some serious soul-searching and decided to rethink their future. If they were not going to have children, what would they like to do? They decided to quit their jobs and travel for a year. And then re-evaluate.
Six months later they decided to join an international aid group. "We weren't really happy wandering without a purpose," Lori told me. "But we loved traveling. And we realized that we both had skills that we would like to put to use to help other people. I'm not sure where this will take us. But we've learned to live one day at a time. I know it's a cliché; but it's the first time we've lived without a longterm plan. And since the plan we had isn't going to happen, we'll wait and see if something else comes along. Meantime, this is an incredibly rich and fulfilling life. We're supposedly helping others, but we're so happy that it feels like we're just being selfish!"
In psychotherapy one of the things we learn is that very difficult times of crisis, tragedy, loss and unhappiness can actually open the door to new places we might never have otherwise visited. This knowledge does not lessen the pain, but it does give us something to keep living for in moments of darkness. And it can make happiness seem a little less like the Holy Grail.
*Names and identifying information have been changed.