There’s a Nine Inch Nails song that was covered by Johnny Cash called “Hurt.” I couldn’t tell you who originally wrote it, if it was NIN or someone else, but that fact is irrelevant. What is relevant this evening is the first line of the song – “I hurt myself today/to see if I still feel/I focus on the pain/the only thing that’s real.”
I never really understood that line before. I thought it was poetic, and I could somewhat understand where the line came from, but could never genuinely relate before this evening. Now I’m at that point where I can’t decide if the “hurt” hurts more than the emptiness that would replace it.
When you’re in the throes of the darkest pain of your life, the only thing you want is for it to end. After someone close to you dies, or a horrible breakup, or any kind of misery, you generally try to press on through until that one day when you wake up and the pain is not so bad anymore. When I’ve ever had any kind of horrible pain to deal with in my life, I’ve tried to face it one day at a time, just trying to make it through day by day until that pain starts to lessen.
For the first time ever, I’m at a point where I think a pain has started to lessen, and I truly don’t know what to do with it. I’ve been carrying around this horrible weight every day for the past decade. Every day, no matter how much I’ve pressed forward, no matter what happy feelings I tried to dupe myself into feeling, I’ve always felt this taint in the back of my mind. Every time an ambulance drives past me, I still get chills. Every time I see a Ford Bronco, my chest tenses up. Any time I hear a particular name, my very soul aches. Certain songs still make me cry when I hear them, specific phrases still give me a pang of guilt, certain people still dredge up horrible memories that I can’t quench even if I try. Every July, I spend the month in a funk. The strangest things can prompt me to have a painful memory – watching a play, driving fast with the windows down, going to graduation ceremonies.
At no point over the past decade has this pain diminished much. Maybe incrementally, but never to the point where I thought I’d actually “get over it.”
Tonight, I’m in a situation where that pain should be exponentially greater than ever, and I keep waiting for the familiar hole in my chest to start bleeding, for the edges to start feeling raw. I am terrified of that moment when reality is going to smack me so hard across the face that I fall to the ground short of breath.
And yet, I’m still sitting here, still breathing. Yes, I have that familiar lump in my throat, and my heart aches. But I’m still standing. I’m not wrapping my arms around my chest to keep the pain inside, and I’m not burying the pain beneath some false sense of momentary security.
And I don’t know what to do.
I’ve been waiting and waiting for the moment when this pain would cease, when I could move on with life without thinking about certain events every night before I go to bed. And, while I’m certainly not going to bed without thinking about those events, I’m not feeling the pain I expected to.
So instead of feeling a sense of release, like I expected, why do I only feel guilt? Instead of feeling a little more free, a little lighter, I feel guilty for not feeling the pain that I should. What if I’m not supposed to be moving on? What does that say about me? Am I heartless for not feeling the same pain I’ve felt for so long? If healing is supposed to be good for you, if moving on is supposed to be “healthy,” why do I still feel terrible?
I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve spent staring at the sky, asking questions to the stars and the heavens about why things have happened the way they did. Tonight, I spent more time staring at the heavens, took yet another long walk in the dark. The reminiscence was too powerful to absorb – I’ve been wandering in the dark for so long, looking for answers from above for so many years… I still don’t have those answers, so I can’t help but think that it’s wrong to keep moving on.
I’ve been pushing forward, putting on a happy face, “faking it until I make it” for so long, that I don’t know what to do now that I might actually be happy. What do you do at this point where grieving is still in process but lessened? I feel so guilty for moving on with my life when others can’t. I see all the cars in my driveway tonight, all the happy faces around me, and can’t help but look in the spaces for the one that is missing. I keep seeking the voice that should be chiming in to the happy shouts from the next room, the car that should be in my driveway, the friend that should be here with me through each and every year.
Yet, for the first time, instead of seeking that face out and being angry or grieved that it’s not here, I feel empty… like after so many years spent looking for it, I’m either exhausted with the search or just accepting of the fact that it’s not here. Neither of these options seems right. How can I give up the search, even if it is just because it’s what some say I “should” do? I can’t accept that I won’t see that same face at my table again, yet for the first time, I understand that I won’t. It’s not a good feeling, like I expected it would be. It’s hollow. It’s empty. It’s lonely.
If I give up on her, if I stop hurting when she’s not here, how can I still remember her? If I don’t have that ache inside me, I might forget her. And that loss, that emptiness, scares me more than the pain does. At least the pain is familiar, almost comforting after all this time. Releasing the pain means releasing that piece of my heart, and I don’t know that I can do that. I’m afraid that it’s happening whether I want it to or not, and that terrifies me. If I can’t hold onto this memory, no matter how painful, what do I have left???
So I think I can finally understand the poignancy of “Hurt.” I can see how someone would hurt him/herself just to see if they could still feel pain. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t agree with “cutting” or any of those physical pains that people put themselves through just to see if they can still feel pain.
But the psychological kind – I get it. It’s more worth it to feel this pain every day than to feel an emptiness, a bottomless void that can’t be filled through any amount of false substitution.