Photo by Li Yang on Unsplash

Pain is like a wave, she told me, although she almost certainly wouldn’t have used that word.

“Pain” has no place in the universe that is childbirth, even though it is so often affixed to it. Or, if it does belong, you have to re-examine what the word means to you. What is pain when it’s only currency for something miraculous? Pain as the gateway to life. Pain as mother. A wound opens, a dragon scale plucked from an armored underbelly, unearthing a sort of smoothness that will forever be tender to the touch.

She still wouldn’t have chosen that word. She would have said “pressure,” not pain. Bringing her first child into the daylight, in a pool at the birthing center, summoned an intense pressure, she told me, and when it swelled, she dove in. She didn’t ride the wave, she fused with it, a ripple in the same thrumming current.

It’s natural to assume the metaphor was inspired by the fact that she was having a water birth, but I don’t think that actually had anything to do with it. It’s the shape of any life-altering thing. Grief, injury, heartbreak, falling in love. They each surge and wane, rock you and ease back. It certainly isn’t a road. There is no destination.

It’s not your job to push it away, or even to let it go. It will simply roll out to sea.

Since that day, now some years ago, that she told me it was pressure not pain, and the way to survive was to dive in, I have held the metaphor close. It’s useful.

It was a couple of years after that conversation that I saw a psychiatrist for the first time, finally acknowledging that my anxiety, my obsessions and compulsions, were no longer weights I wanted to bear alone. In was in that very first meeting that the doctor told me the way to escape anxiety is merely not to fight it, and those words changed my life.

Anxiety is energy, she said, and energy is finite—it can’t be created or destroyed. You can’t kill it, and trying will only make a Sisyphus of you.

You acknowledge the thing that is haunting you. Witness it. But it’s not your job to push it away, or even to let it go. It will simply roll out to sea.

I believe that if I were to give birth I would refer to the feeling as pain, although I appreciate the philosophy behind avoiding the word. Pain is what gets you from one place to another. It’s the chrysalis we must wrap ourselves in, to be melted into an unsettling soup, before we can emerge as something new. A catalyst for metamorphosis.

Pain is rarely without purpose. Sometimes, you have to dive in, just to see where it takes you.

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