Why We Must Stop Believing Pain and Illness Are Punishments for Our Mistakes

Person in mustard-colored coat, against a brick wall, looking pensive

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In my early twenties, I fell passionately in love with a woman who, shortly after our first anniversary, began to physically, emotionally, and sexually assault me into submission.

We eventually broke up and, after a gruesome and extended period of mourning alongside several years and thousands of dollars of therapy, I hit the dating scene – heart wide open – ready to fall into the queer partnership of my fantasies. Only this time, violence free.

It took me forever to realize this, but that was where I made a naïve, yet critical error – one that I know I’m not alone in making.

I internalized this idea that because I had done the tedious labor of, and spent a ridiculous amount of money on, healing from my trauma and abuse, I was finally ready for the healthy, till-death-do-we-part, communication style-aligned relationship that self-help/self-betterment/romance-driven/popular media literature told me I’d achieve.

I swallowed the subliminal pill that a loving, easy partnership would be my guaranteed reward for doing the hard work of getting better and getting ready.

But I neglected to consider how that healing process and paradigm wasn’t even created for people like me, or the sort of relationships I wanted, in the first place.

In my reaching this supposed place of being “healed and partner-ready,” I didn’t know to anticipate the different traumas my partners would bring, the traumas I didn’t even realize I had, and how all of those traumas would collude.

I neglected to consider how most of my therapists were white, middle class or wealth, monosexual cis women with graduate school degrees from institutions covertly practicing principles steeped in white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal, heteronormative, cisnormative, and other status-quo centered models of thought.

Meanwhile, my partners were Black – like myself – sometimes mixed-race and intercultural, predominately poor or working-class, non-monogamous, AFAB queer and gender non-conforming, and politically radical as fuck artists and intellects.

And, like me, they were trying to figure out how to love themselves and others when models of non-traditional, queer, Black love are still so limited.

Basically, I was using a system that inherently informs our collective marginalization to facilitate healing, wellness, and a readiness to romantically partner – and didn’t even realize it.

Nor did I realize that played a significant role in perpetuating the hurt and confusion I felt when things didn’t work out the way I was taught to believe they would.

And believe me, things were definitely not working out.

In fact, after a few stumbles and hurt feelings too many, I decided to sit my lovelorn ass down and examine some of what I perceived to be the bruises I gathered along the way. 

There was what I, at the time, thought of as the spirit-rash left over from the woman who told me she didn’t actually find me attractive or desirable – after living in my house, letting me take care of her, and boning the heck out of me for darn near a year.

There was the still lingering blood gush from the radical feminist of my dreams who, in her attempt to practice anti-oppression, unintentionally used her wicked smart tongue to highlight every rhetorical mistake I ever made, compare me to the most deliciously gluten-y bread in existence (she was gluten intolerant), and slice me into a few fresh shreds of heartache.

And there were the many missing chunks of gut left over from that beautiful bawse, the one I loved like no other before, who rode through my life like some warrior God/dess of hurricanes and, probably with the intention of fixing my faults, painfully picked at all of the trauma-scabs I thought I addressed and healed ages ago.

But after an exhausting period of finding and naming wounds, pointing fingers, reliving over and over again every single way I had ever felt harmed by a lover, and forgetting all the sweet times we shared in the face of my heartbreak and disappointment, my hands got cramped and gnarled with a resentment so unfamiliar, so bitter, that I stopped recognizing my own reflection.

Y’all know that Erykah Badu song, “Bag Lady,” about the person who folks run from because of all the bags from yesterday they were still carrying? Yep, that was me.

Rather than being able to recognize that sometimes, people are just incompatible and things don’t work out, I perceived myself to be someone who was being repeatedly harmed by people who hadn’t done their healing work – like I supposedly had.

And as a result, I was angry. I was full of blame. And I was a drag – even to myself, perhaps especially to myself – and I wanted my life back.

I knew something needed to change, immediately, so I started asking questions:

What was going on internally that led me to continue not only to choose, but actually go out of my way to wine, dine, and romance people who, after the point, seemed so clearly incompatible with me?

What led me to passionately desire partners who, at best, didn’t truly appreciate who I was and, at worst, were actively antagonistic, hostile, and violent towards me?

And while those were great questions to look inward and ask myself, I didn’t yet trust myself so I accepted outside answers – answers that I didn’t actually solicit.

Acquaintances that barely knew me, a few occasional friends, and (sometimes) even relatives had the solutions to my spiritual pain and disconnection – all of the answers: beautiful, wise, brilliant advice sooo generically one-size-fits-all, I encountered them a million times, over and over again, on every single Facebook post, Tumblr meme, and country western song ever created about why hearts break, what makes relationships go astray, and why some of us take a long time to heal once they’re over.

Supposedly, those deeply painful partnerships were reflections of what I thought about myself. I had to learn to love and cherish myself before any one could actually love and cherish me in return.

I obviously needed to learn to become the woman I wanted to attract. Intimate partner violence and toxic relationships take two to tango, so, according to this pop-psych advice, it was time to stop acting like a victim and acknowledge that I was a co-creator in my own history of abuse.

And according to a few, I needed to make Jesus Christ my personal Lord and Savior and trust him to take the wheel (inside of my vagina) and steer me to greener pastures.

The answer was clear. I, through the power of Christ (or Ayanla, depending on who I was talking to) needed to go inward and fix what ever was broken inside of me so that I could be a happier person, attract a happy person, and have the kind of partnership that happy people have.

While I completely agree that, outside of the abusive dynamic, I shouldn’t have spent so much time pointing my fingers at what my exes did wrong, the problem is with the ultimate theme underlying the above advice: that I needed to spend more time looking at myself and what I did wrong, and that peace would come once I made the choice to create peace.

Of course it had nothing to do with the fact that we live in an fake-meritocratic, hierarchal, victim-blaming culture dependent on capitalist myths of individualism that my partners and I had internalized and harmfully projected onto each other and our relationships, even while identifying as conscious queers who were attempting to untangle ourselves from those violent messages.

It had nothing to do with the fact that so few of us learn vulnerable, compassionate, and accountable truth-telling strategies to process through moments of confusion, hurt, and disconnection.

And you know that all those toxic, compulsive trajectories of monogamy and what partnerships are supposed to look like have absolutely no role in influencing how I treated my partners, how I allowed them to treat me, and what I believed that I deserved.

So ultimately, these conversations and suggestions led all of my internal-brain-fingers to, once again, point back at me and what I needed to change. And even though I could recognize the subtle and overt victim-blaming a mile away, I still swallowed those messages whole, making myself even more emotionally despondent.

I didn’t know what other healing options I had, where else to find a sense of power and agency, and how to create a dynamic that would not only eradicate the pain, but make sure it never returned. So I took the deficit way out that society and pop-psychology spoon-feeds us all and looked to myself for shame, blame, and punishment.

I told myself that all those people and their writings were correct, that I was manifesting pain in my life. I convinced myself that every romantic failure – including the ones ripe with violence and abuse – was a result of my not loving myself appropriately, of my not being the best version of myself possible.

And suddenly, under the guise of healing, growth, and so-called-accountability, I started to pick at myself with even more vicious venom and toxicity than any of the people who had hurt me before.

In fact, I began to actually center their opinions of me and used their critiques as a basis for what I needed to change, fix, and shift about myself.

I was trying to figure out what was wrong with me and fix it, looking to outside advice for my own spiritual medicine and making myself more unwell with each external message I took in. I felt stuck, foreign in my body, and terrified that there was no way out of the loneliness and rejection I was incessantly experiencing.

That is, until I started paying attention to the people around me and realized that I wasn’t the only person feeling this way. I wasn’t the only one struggling with incessant feelings of intense melancholy, abandonment, and hopelessness.

All around me, people were in hidden and muted agony as a result of feeling disconnected, deprioritized, and consistently violated by both systemic oppression and the loved ones they wanted to trust the most.

All around me, people were attempting to find some way to be more slender, more “attractive,” more economically successful, more fun, more articulate, and more accomplished to experience a sense of social validation, desire, and inclusion.

I watched people perform their hurt and pain in films and television, heard them wail it out on the radio, listened to comedians turn self-loathing into jokes, and witnessed people reveal their fears and insecurities over and over again in conversations on and off the Internet.

I mean, come on, now. As beautiful as her voice is, we love Adele so much because she sings about our romantic scars with a vulnerability and passion that we’ve spent a lifetime being told to repress and deny.

I watch all these brilliant, creative geniuses use all of their art magic to find new and innovative ways to unpack all the pain in their lives and then validate that they were deserving of that hurt by addressing what they need to fix in themselves in order to relieve themselves of the pain and then keep it at bay.

And that value system, my dear friends, is intensely contingent on one big, major, dangerous whopper of a lie: that we are deserving of our pain and that we can control pain we encounter.

It’s the same sort of lie that has been used to validate colonization and slavery (they’re lazy, ignorant savages, and we’re civilizing them), rape (they shouldn’t’ve been wearing that outfit around those people at that time of night while drinking all those beverages), fatphobia (if they don’t change their lifestyles, they’re going to die from obesity-related diseases), xenophobia (our economy will increase if we rid ourselves of all the “immigrants” and put up giant walls everywhere so no more can get in), and Christian supremacy (if they don’t give the steering wheel in their vagina to Jesus Christ, they will not only spend eternity in hell, but they will be lonely until they get there).

The truth is, however, like death, pain is inevitable, natural, unavoidable, and inescapable.

And similar to death, we need to stop attaching pain to morality – We need to stop treating pain like a consequence.

By telling ourselves that our pain is a repercussion of our failures, mistakes, shortcomings, and by morally stigmatizing pain – whether emotional, spiritual, or physical – we’re encouraged to constantly, and solely, focus on and seek out what’s wrong with us.

Hence, we’re creating, extending, and exasperating the pain; we’re turning our lives into productions and factories of pain; and we’re becoming the overseers in the very angst we’re trying to combat.

And, of course, there are a million industrial complexes (beauty, medical, prison, religious) fueled by systemized prejudice (racism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, sizeism, ableism, classism) that are all economically and culturally dependent on our thinking that something is wrong with us for being exactly who we are.

For example, way back when I was dating my abusive partner and working as the only Black person in a predominantly white company that paid super well but strongly conflicted with all of my ethics, I had these horribly long and heavy periods, high blood pressure, a thyroid disorder, migraines, ulcers, and eventually developed a form of cranial hypertension called Psuedo Tumorcerebri.

Doctors told me that it had everything to do with my weight, that my illnesses were only treatable through drastic weight loss, and that I should get gastric bypass surgery since I wasn’t effectively losing weight on my own. 

People who weren’t medical professionals were there to support me. But they also responded to my ailments with “You need to take better care of yourself,” “I told you that you needed to eat healthier and exercise more,” and “I want you to stay alive so I bought you a gym membership.”

I developed an unwavering shame, guilt, and a constant sense of psychic failure. I kept telling myself that if I could do better, then eventually my periods would be normal and my illnesses would fade.

Until one day, due to a temporary loss of medical insurance, I could no longer access my medicine. So I stopped taking it for a couple of months and threw my prayers into the universe wishing for the best.

The best thing did happen: The symptoms never came back. It’s been seven years, and they still haven’t come back.

In the time between then and my diagnosis, I never lost any weight – from my body, at least. But one might say I lost the best sort of weight, however, and that was the weight of being in an abusive and toxic relationship and working at a job that I hated.

My healing had everything to do with escaping an immediate and direct source of external oppression, and nothing to do with fixing myself or loving myself better.

It did have to do with unconditionally accepting myself though.

I left my partner when I finally accepted that the things that she complained about and used to justify her constant abuse were a genuine and authentic part of me. Because I wasn’t going to change the parts of me she didn’t like or approve of, she wasn’t going to stop attacking me. So, as difficult as it was and as much as I loved her, I left.

While pain and sickness are absolutely unavoidable, it’s not a result of something we could have, should have done better. It’s not our pittance, something we can grow out of, or something that we earn. Rather, it just is.

We get hurt. We get sick. And we die. It is a part of the human experience, and it is sometimes something that it is done to us. But it’s not a result of our not loving ourselves enough.

That right there is the lie. That right there is the violence.

Part of my being okay with me was accepting and acknowledging that hurt would always be there. But choosing to remove the voices and people who constantly tried to figure out what I did to deserve the pain and what I could change to eradicate it – especially when those voices came from outside of me – was critical in learning to enjoy the experience of being me without judgment and shame.

When we spend so much time trying to live up to the standards of our naysayers, people who behave like our naysayers (doctors), and systems that functioned within the value systems of our naysayers (medical industrial complex), all we have left is blame and criticism.

Like my experience with getting sick and then getting better taught me, if my lush body wasn’t so stigmatized by this culture and the medical industrial complex, and if pain wasn’t so attached to morality and consequence, my doctors would have examined the actual problem – instead of trying to make me the problem.

Similarly, my abusive ex-partner would have, instead of assaulting me when she felt hurt or angered as a result of my behavior, looked inward, realized that she didn’t like the way it felt to be with me, and went to create a life that amplified the most beautiful parts of her personality – instead of shaming and critiquing me into being someone she was more compatible with.

And in recognizing that, I learned something else very critical, something that I had barely heard anyone in my life say to me: There ain’t nothing in the world wrong with me other than these horrible messages I have internalized about myself and others.

There is nothing about who I am that is making me more attractive to pain, to violence, to hurt, or to abuse – other than the systems of oppression that teach me, and others, that we deserve to experience pain and hurt because of what our bodies look like, the ways we refuse to assimilate into hegemonic society, and how our different identities intersect.

In other words, I didn’t need to fix, change, or alter myself to become the type of loveable, attractive, or healed person who does not experience heartbreak or abuse.

I just needed to accept myself. Because if I learned to accept myself and I was steadfast in that intention, I would make the sort romantic choices (and other life decisions) that were rooted in celebrating, cherishing, and amplifying all the gorgeous, magical beauty that is me.

I’d do the work to create a world and personal sphere where I could shine and sparkle and glisten and glow – without chopping and scratching at my already gorgeous heart (and body) in order to be a different (or “better”) version of myself for someone else.

Because self-acceptance teaches me to be okay with who I am, and to not search inward to justify the pain I experience, it forces me to extend the same ethic of compassion to every one else around me. Self-acceptance interrupts my inclination to judge, make fun of, and be prejudiced against other folks for their differences.

It helps me recognize when I make a mistake and how to address it without defensiveness and shame. And that when the problem is an external situation, that I don’t have to emotionally and spiritually take it on – even if I do choose to combat it (for example, my battle against white supremacy and racism).

So please stop moralizing pain. It’s not only completely unhelpful, it also stems from the basic foundation of victim-blaming that upholds systems of oppression.

When people try to convince you that all your pain, heartbreak, and illness is your fault, they are lying. They are buying into a system that thrives on victim-blaming, and they are projecting all the toxicity of that system onto you.

It might feel more empowering to try to fix yourself instead of recognizing that sometimes horrible things just happen, and that those horrible things are a result of something much larger than you (like our economy, our legal infrastructure, religious institutions, and more).

But in the long run, it’s simply self-flagellation for the sake of being accepted by a cultural regime that will never, ever accept you in full.

It’s a covert form of punishing yourself for the impacts of oppression, when you could be loving yourself in the face of oppression.

Instead of trying to fix yourself, just be your magnetic self, surround yourself with people who recognize your glory, and enjoy as much of your life as you can. You

deserve to feel as good as possible. We all do.

Vanessa Rochelle Lewis is the Senior Editor at Everyday Feminism. She is a queer, lush-bodied, Black, femme performance artist, writer, actress, educator, and Faerie Princess Mermaid Gangsta for the Revolution. She loves romantic songs, romantic films, romantic books, romantic conversations, romantic friendships, and writing long, vulnerable Facebook statuses (about romance). Speaking of Facebook, please add her here.