The Sweet, Sweet Memory of Pain

There must be a word for this feeling. I haven’t been able to find it yet — not in English nor in German nor in any other language — so I guess I’ll have to spend a couple hundred words describing it instead. The feeling I’m trying to describe is the one you get when you remember a time in your life that was challenging — if not outright hellish — but instead of the memory giving you pangs of residual despair, it makes you oddly happy.

Is that a universal feeling? I have no idea. It’s certainly new to me. But I swear: there’s got to be a word for it.

Maybe an example will help clarify what I’m talking about. Here’s one: I keep finding myself nostalgic for early quarantine. You know — those first days in March when life was upended, everything was scary, and nobody (including me) knew if they were going to have a job the next day. I wasn’t well even before this started, and now here we all were, isolated and scared. I suffered a series of crippling anxiety attacks and my insomnia was as bad as it’s ever been.

But. But! Those were also the days when I first listened to the band Bonny Lighthorseman, and when I watched Devs, a miniseries about a tech-dystopia that makes San Francisco look as gorgeous as it’s ever looked. I was writing constantly; I started doing yoga. I read book after book after book. I even journaled a bit.

When I remember those days, I’m not unhappy.

Here’s another example: In 2019, I had myself a little bit of a nervous breakdown. I was struggling to recover from a long period of depression and suicidality, and I was still quite vulnerable when I was slammed with a series of personal crises — injury, medical bills, divorce, bed bugs, a motorcycle accident. I was deeply, deeply ill for much of the year. I was unhappy, unhealthy, unfocused, confused, angry, obsessive. After discovering bed bugs, I accidentally poisoned myself with pesticides. That experience was made worse when a song came on the mix I was listening to while obsessively over-sanitizing my bedroom. The song was Jason Isbell’s cover of Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic. Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s version of that song had been my first dance at my wedding. Bleary-eyed and suffocating, I fell on my floor and sobbed.

It was awful in the moment, but I feel some warmth remembering it. (Even though I still can’t stand to hear that song.) As hard as that period of my life was, I did some cool things, like running a marathon, driving the Big Sur Coast Highway on the Fourth of July, making and cementing new friendships. I listened to the band Cigarettes After Sex a lot that year, and when I hear their song Crush, I remember sitting at the little table in my kitchen in Los Angeles’s Koreatown, a purple sunset settling over the palm trees, a torta al pastor in my hands. And, bad as those times were, I’m happy.

There’s a phrase I remember hearing when I lived in Louisiana: Il y a de beauté dans l’entropie. There’s beauty in the decay. Maybe that’s part of it, but I have another idea what causes this strange feeling:

Maybe this is what resilience feels like.

I don’t know if I would remember those times as fondly if I wasn’t doing so much better now than I was then. Thanks to great friends and family, a good therapist, and effective medication, I’m beginning 2021 feeling better and healthier than I have in years. I’ve sustained that improvement over several months and feel confident that my life is, once again, on the upswing.

Those memories contribute to the person I am today. They’re things I went through, struggles I had, internal battles I fought and won. They’re the memories of threats I survived, of struggles I overcame.

We are, in any moment, the sum of all of the moments we’ve lived before. These were my moments, and I am grateful for them.

So yes, maybe there is a word for this feeling: Resilience.

Writer, runner and reluctant technologist.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store