During my junior year of college, I interned at Shriners Hospital in Sacramento. At the time, I wanted to be a Child Life Specialist (Child Life Specialist) and did my internship in this department.
Shriners specializes in treating children with severe burns (among other things) and my duties included reading to, playing with, and checking up on, several children that had third degree burns over 90% of their body.
Excluding fourth degree burns (which are rare), third degree burns are the worst type. They burn all skin layers, and sometimes make their way into the surrounding muscles, tendons, and nerves. The irony is, that while these burns are the worst type (they can be life threatening, leave the individual severely disfigured, and often require months of rehabilitation), they’re not always the most painful. If the burn chars the nerves, there is no pain.
What is painful though, is the healing process.
In third degree burns, the body’s entire protective barrier (the skin) is removed, and thus, the burn victim is susceptible to infection. This susceptibility compromises the healthy skin layer which begins to regenerate under the damaged one. To prevent further damage or infection, debridement is a necessary, but excruciating evil. During debridement, old, charred tissue is removed to reduce infection, and allow the healthy tissue underneath to flourish. This debridement process is extremely painful because the nerves in the new, living tissue, are alive and well.
I was reminded of my time at Shriners this past week, while reflecting on the paradox that healing is painful. At least initially.
I think this paradox can be applied to emotional healing as well.
All of us, at some point in our lives, have or will, experience emotional burns. Sometimes these will be first degree, sometimes third. In third degree situations, emotional nerve endings are often destroyed. Sometimes, they’ve been so compromised, we don’t even feel them anymore. It’s only when they begin to regenerate, when the process of healing begins, that we start to sense, feel, and experience again.
And like with physical debridement, emotional debridement is a necessary, but excruciating evil. Cleaning out dead, unhealthy emotional truths, memories, and frameworks, in order to make room for new ones, can be agonizing. Sloughing off old, charred emotional trauma to allow for new emotional health can be painful. Emotional debridement can make the healing process feel like anything but healing. The irony though, is that this process is crucial to prevent further emotional damage, infection, and destruction.
In my experience, we seemingly want this emotional healing process to happen instantaneously. We expect it to occur with the same rapidity as the wound. And, not only do we want it to be quick, but also pain-free and effortless. When it’s not, when it feels more damaging than curative, we question, run from, and give up on the process.
However, what my time at Shriners showed me was that physical healing is very much a process. One often accompanied by tremendous pain, and one that can’t be rushed. As such, recovery requires tenacity, perseverance, and tremendous courage from the burn victim.
The same goes for emotional healing and emotional burn victims.
The reality is, pain accompanies the beginning stages of emotional healing. If we truly want deep, abiding emotional change, we must endure the initial, and temporary, discomfort that comes with it. If we truly desire emotional health, we must be willing to peel off old, smelly emotional layers, allowing the new, undamaged tissue beneath to flourish. If we want lasting transformation, we must embrace the paradox that healing can, and does, stem from pain.
When we do this, healing is on its way.
*Thank you to Jennifer Guidry and Senior for inspiring this post. Senior, thank you for reminding me that there is growth in pain.