If You Could Change Your Past, Would You?

Sometimes it’s the dark moments in our past that can point us toward the light.

Posted May 19, 2015

Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.
Source: Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.

Whenever I hear stories from those who have overcome great difficulties in their lives, I’m struck by how often I hear this phrase: “I wouldn’t change anything.”

Sports legend Herschel Walker used just those words a few years back in an ESPN interview announcing the release of a documentary about his life:

"I wouldn't change anything about my past, because it's made me who I am today. You have to remember: You need to crack some eggs to make omelets. And I did crack some eggs."

Walker was not just talking about the hard road to sports stardom. His is a life beset by more than ordinary obstacles. One of seven children in a rural Georgia family, Walker was bullied as a youth for a severe stutter and for being overweight. He responded with an intense training regime (5,000 pushups and sit-ups daily because he couldn’t afford equipment) that helped lead him to athletic stardom as a college and pro football player and to the Olympics as part of a bobsled team. But the achievements were shadowed by mental health struggles that were eventually diagnosed as Dissociative Identity Disorder, what most know as multiple personality disorder.

"I had a personality that won the Heisman Trophy, one that went to the NFL, one that went to the Olympics and one who wanted to kill me," Walker told ESPN. "But I sought help and I received it, and I'm much better today because of it."

Like so many others who have struggled and persevered, Walker sees his past anguish as forging him into a better version of himself. It’s a philosophy I’ve heard often from those I have helped deal with addiction and mental health issues over the years. Although the road they traveled was hard, they can’t regret the journey because it ultimately took them to a place worth reaching. Because they have known despair, they have learned to value joy; because they have felt shame, they have gained empathy; because they have experienced loss, they have found gratitude; because they have learned to accept themselves, they have learned to accept their world.

This type of perspective doesn’t come easy. In the midst of despair, the thought of finding even the smallest silver lining in the dark cloud hanging over a life may appear to be more of a sick joke than a possibility. It takes a commitment to moving forward despite what can feel like overwhelming odds in order to reach a place of hope, and that mindset only comes when we allow ourselves to feel we are worth the effort.

Stories like Walker’s remind us that it’s the dark moments in our past that can point us toward the light. Today, Walker is a successful businessman, devoted father and a mental health advocate who lobbies to reduce stigma and increase access to treatment. And, he explains, he is also "living proof you can overcome anything."

Perhaps then, what we should ask ourselves is not “If you could change your past, would you?” but “You can change your future. Will you?”

Dr. David Sack is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine, and writes a blog about addiction. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees mental health treatment programs at Lucida Treatment Center in Florida and Malibu Vista in California.