If It Bleeds, It Leads (Why You Need to Listen to Your Pain)

If you begin with the brutal, you can find the beautiful.  That’s what journalism taught me.

When I took a course in journalism at Michigan State University in 1997, I heard one phrase almost every week.  “If it bleeds, it leads.”  It’s a common phrase, one that most Americans have likely heard before, and it simply means that the most shocking/violent/heart-wrenching news is the most newsworthy to report, and those bloody stories should be told first.  We were also instructed to never, ever “bury the lede,” or fail to report on the most essential portion of a given story.

I learned a lot during that particular class.  Writing had always come pretty easily to me, but journalism was TOUGH, and in my eyes, my professor was a tyrant, relentlessly pounding lessons on truth and clarity into our impressionable young brains.  She emphasized the importance of saying what needed to be said rather than beating around the bush.  “If someone died, you say that someone died, people.  They didn’t ‘pass away.’  They aren’t ‘at peace.’  If they’re dead you say so, and if someone killed them you better make sure that’s in your lead.”  As a shy and well-mannered girl, it was hard for me to get over my gentle, beat-around-the-bush, euphemistic ways, but her emphasis on precision certainly helped me improve my writing’s clarity.

With a few more years under my belt, that phrase has once again entered my life – “If it bleeds, it leads,” – and this time, the phrase has a little bit different of an application.  I am no longer trying to find the newsworthy elements of a story for my journalism course, or even selecting the most important stories to present to clients in our annual report.  Instead, I’m prioritizing the curriculum of my life.

I’ve heard it said that pain is a warning sign.  Yet, for far too much of my life I’ve tried to avoid pain.  I’ve sugar-coated my pain with flippant smiles and a bull-headed willingness to ignore reality.  I’ve drowned pain with alcohol, excess TV viewing, social media, busy-ness, exercise and chocolate lava cake.  When I have felt overwhelmed with family pressure, I have poured myself a glass (or three) of wine and let the drama float away.  When I’ve felt work stress invading every fiber of my being, I’ve holed myself up in my messy house and curled on the couch for a mind-numbing Netflix marathon.

The hiding has never really worked, though.  The avoidance has simply served as a “pause” button to my pain or fear.  Whenever real life resumed, the same pain and the same fears were present – and often, they had grown in intensity.

Maybe ignoring my pain was the problem.

I’m starting to see that pain should be approached with reverence and respect, not by running away.  Pain, whether physical, emotional or spiritual, is a signal that something is wrong.  If we see a blinking red light on our car’s dash, we definitely don’t ignore it and pretend it isn’t there, because if something is seriously wrong with our vehicle we could crash and die.  The same is true of heartache, abnormal headaches, frequent stomach problems, debilitating disappointment, unmet (or un-sought) dreams and overwhelming stress.  These particular pains are the blinking red lights of our souls.  It’s not enough to dismiss them or ignore them or pretend they aren’t there.  We have to investigate the source of the pain.  That’s the only way the pain might actually stop.

I have had many struggles in my life, but one recent example comes to mind.  I was feeling pretty great with life when I was pregnant with my second child, Huck Finn.  Just months before he was born, I started a work-from-home job with a company I highly admired, working with people I greatly respected.  I loved every second I had with my firstborn, The Professor, and I felt balanced and fulfilled.  Then, when Huck was born, things started to fall apart.  Having two young boys at home was much harder than I had imagined.  I felt fatigue like nothing I had ever felt before.  My body and head constantly ached, my veins felt full of cement, and my brain was as scattered and fuzzy as a dandelion spore.  I went for days without showering or eating a complete meal and felt nothing but guilt for providing sub-par care for my two children and ignoring my supportive husband. I tried to keep up the pace at my new job, often working four or five hours in the middle of the night to double-check my work or get a jump start on new projects I was excited about.  Still, the headaches continued.  I was at the brink of tears at every moment.  Yet, I held all that pain in.  I pretended I wasn’t hurting.  I smiled and told everyone how much I loved having a newborn again.  I asked for more assignments at my new job.  I cooked Lancelot his favorite meals and spent extra time with The Professor to make up for the time I was ignoring him to care for Huck.

I thought I could keep going on like that, pretending that everything was okay, and that magically it would someday get better.  I was wrong.

One day, I just broke.  I went to my post-partum checkup with my doctor and I laid all my pain and fear at my poor doctor’s feet.  I admitted I needed help.  I was scared and confused and overwhelmed with shame.  I was sure I was the world’s worst mother, wife, employee and person.  I felt like a total failure.

As it turned out, I wasn’t all that different from thousands of women all over the world with newborns or new jobs or new responsibilities of their own.  I had simply taken on too much, and my fatigue and headaches and heartache were trying to tell me that I needed to take a step (or two) back.  I was in pain because something was wrong.  I needed to find the source of the pain (I had taken on too much!) and address the issues (medication, sleep, asking for help, and eventually quitting that job).  If I hadn’t eventually listened to the pain inside of me, I am afraid of what might have happened … maybe I would have dropped one of my children out of sheer weakness, or taken an incoherent argument too far and said unalterable things I didn’t mean due to sleep deprivation.  I don’t know what could have happened, but I’m darn glad I finally listened to the pain and let it lead me toward solutions.

Yet, the most important thing about finally listening to my pain was not simply erasing the sadness.  The beauty was that my pain led me to the most fulfilling and serene moments of life I had yet experienced.  I was able to enjoy my children in a new way, with clearer focus and a heart made more tender and therefore better able to love.  I was also able to love myself in a new way.  My compassion grew.  All that pain led to incredible growth and discovery – growth that wouldn’t have happened if I had kept ignoring my pain.

When I was suffering from PPD, I was bleeding.  I tried to bury the lede of my life by hiding from the pain and fear, and in doing so I committed a breach of journalist truth.  I should have remembered that old adage – “If it bleeds, it leads,” – and I should have honored my pain and found the source before I broke down.

This pattern has repeated many times in my life, in both big and small ways.  My instinct is always to slap a band-aid on my wounds, not investigate the source of the bleeding.  I often try to soothe my pain first, and sometimes I forget that finding the source of the pain is more important than pacifying the pain.  It always catches up to me, though.  The pain, like Glenn Close, will NOT be ignored.

What is bleeding in your life?  Let that take the lead.  Let it show you what you need to work on.

Pain has a way of sticking around no matter how much we ignore it.  Listening to the pain and finding the source is intimidating and often scary, but in the end it’s the most empowering tool we have.

“If it bleeds, it leads.”  Let your pain lead you to growth.  I promise you, it’s worth it.

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