Why So Much Pain?

"The roses rarest essence lives in the thorns." ~Rumi

“The rose’s rarest essence lives in the thorns.” ~Rumi

Last week I spent close to four hours trying to prevent a student from harming herself. She was a college freshmen with a history of depression and suicidal thoughts. Three days into the new semester, she decided to withdraw from school. The decision was wreaking havoc with her fragile emotional state. I kept her with me in my office until we could meet with the dean of students to discuss the process. She cried almost nonstop the entire hour we were alone.

After our meeting with the dean, I walked her over to see a mental health counselor because she’d admitted to us that she had thoughts of harming herself. As I sat in the waiting room while she met with a counselor, the space began to fill with students, all going through some kind of personal pain or challenge, all wearing masks to cover it. It reminded me of a doctor’s office during flu season.

Why so much pain?

The student’s mother was waiting for her outside of the building when we exited. The older woman opened her arms; the daughter melted into them. It was clear the two shared a strong bond. As I watched the mother hold her child with so much love and tenderness, listened to her say all the right things, relief washed over me. I don’t know what I’d been expecting. Someone harsh and demanding? An enabler? A hot mess who would make things worse?

I left them and walked slowly back to my office, my thoughts turning to my third born son. Of my four boys, he’s the one I worry about most, the one I think of when I think of pain. He started smoking pot in high school, then progressed to drinking cough medicine. Yes, you read correctly. There is an ingredient in some cough medicine called dextromethorphan that can get you high if you drink enough of it.

I remember the day I found out. I’d been away at a conference for three days and was excited to tell my husband about it. Instead, he told me that he’d found a bunch of empty cough medicine bottles hidden in the attic crawl space. He’d brought one to the drugstore it came from and asked the pharmacist why a teenager would have this. That’s how he learned about dextromethorphan. My husband then went to the police station to report that the pharmacy was illegally selling cough medicine to minors.

My poor husband was crazed, desperate, didn’t know what else to do. He’d grown up watching his three older siblings turn into alcoholics while in their teens and early twenties. His household, led by a hard-working father and a kind, but enabling, stay-at-home mom, neither of whom drank, was filled with chaos and dysfunction. Somehow, my husband managed to avoid this fate, and became so anti-drugs he refused to even take a drag off a cigarette. Now the disease of addiction had entered his own home, his own son.

Why so much pain?

For my part, I was desperate to know why our son was doing something so dangerous. We’d done everything we knew how to be good parents and raise him right. My husband is one of the best fathers I know. Had something bad happened to him that he never told us about? Was he in some kind of emotional pain and seeking to self-medicate? I begged him to tell me the truth. He shook his head, rolled his eyes, and said nothing had happened, that he was fine.


We contacted the school drug counselor, our son’s guidance counselor, and put him in a drug rehab. We went to family counseling. I told our adult sons, who no longer lived at home, and our parents. It was imperative to me to not let this become some dirty little secret that we kept hidden away. We needed to shine a light on the problem if we were going to solve it, and our son needed all the support and love he could get.

At the time, I couldn’t help but wonder what all these school staff and drug counselors thought of my husband and me. Did they assume we were bad parents? That we had some deep, dark family secret that drove our son to despair? That we were hot messes who’d damaged our son? Were they surprised to learn that we were ordinary people who’d been married many years, that we owned a home, had good jobs and educations, that we loved our child?

Then why so much pain?

This is why I do my best not to judge people. No person, no family, is immune to pain and suffering. There are kids from good families who go astray, kids raised in horrible conditions who find their way, and anything and everyone in between. The student I worked with last week has a sister at the university who is a stellar student, a tough and determined scholar who volunteers to mentor other students. She refused to leave her sister’s side to go to class until I assured her that I wasn’t going anywhere. I’d already told the student I was staying with her until her mother arrived; whether she liked it or not, she was stuck with me.

In the world of higher education that I inhabit, the increase of students in need of mental health services is a hot topic. It’s happening at campuses all across the country. What is driving all this pain? Is our obsession with technology, which leaves us too disconnected from nature and each other? Is it the constant exposure to violence on TV, in video games, and in music? We think it’s desensitizing our kids, but could it actually be making them more sensitive? Is it the high divorce rate? Social media? Or is it none of these things? Perhaps it’s always been there, but students are simply more likely to seek help now.

I wish I knew the answers so I could help make it better. As it stands, all I can do is love, listen, care, and empathize. When I need to process it all to save my sanity, I write. Sometimes even that’s not enough.

Image of rose with thorns via: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/406098091372548906


25 thoughts on “Why So Much Pain?

    • I completely agree, Svet. Family and societal expectations can put so much stress on everyone, students included. The majority of students I work with are from low-income backgrounds, and they are often also the first in their families to attend college, so they have tremendous pressure placed on them both to pursue majors that will lead to big money (i.e. engineering, biology for pre-med, business) and to be examples for their entire families. If the realty of these majors don’t align with their natural strengths or interests (such as the heavy calculus and hard sciences), they feel pressured to stay put and often do poorly and are miserable as a result. I think regardless of socioeconomic background, many parents pressure their children to succeed, and many students place the pressure on themselves. They don’t realize that you simply cannot succeed in life without experiencing failure from time to time. As the saying goes, if you never fail, you’re not taking enough risks.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. What a raw honest snd heartfelt post. I don’t know what the answer is either Kim. All I know is that I don’t judge people either, we never know what others are going through. It’s a hard world now but all we can do as parents is our best and to be there for our kids, no matter what.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m so happy I found WordSisters, Ellen. I really enjoyed your piece on Brevity and I look forward to exploring your blog. I also thank you for following mine. I get Brevity in my WordPress reader vs. email notifications, so I don’t get on it as often as I do other blogs, but I’m glad your post was on there when I did.


  2. Thank you for this post, Kim! It sheds light on so many things that we need to acknowledge, and all to often, cover up instead. The fact that there is so much pain in our world, and that there is nothing wrong with asking for help when it gets overwhelming. The fact that kids raised in terrific families are not immune from drugs, alcohol or depression. The fact that we need to stop judging people based solely on the behavior we see, because we don’t know the back story. But mostly, how important it is to react with compassion, understanding and honesty when we know someone is hurting.
    Thank you, again, for your honesty in this post, and also for the compassion you show towards those who are struggling. It’s a good example for the rest of us.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Ann, that’s also another lesson I learned from my good friend and former boss, the one I referred to in a comment on your last blog post. She was so nonjudgmental of everyone, and once when I commented on it, she said that she always adheres to the saying, There but for the grace of God go I. I’m not quite as far along as she is. In all honesty, I felt so guilty about my son. I was so busy working and getting a master’s degree, and my husband was dealing with mid-life job issues, that we didn’t realize how lonely he was when our other son, his older brother, moved out on his own. He idolizes his brother and it was such a void in his life not having him home every day, especially because he used to work from home for a tech company so there was always someone here after school. This is part of the reason why I’m so determined to get out of the 9 to 5 life and have more control over my time and schedule, so I can be home more, like I was for my two oldest sons. Ultimately, it was his choice to drink that crap, so I’m done beating myself up about it, but as a mother, it was hard not to feel I’d failed him. I’m doing my best to be better.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I do understand why you feeling guilty, but I also truly believe it wasn’t your fault. No matter what we did or didn’t do when we were raising our children, part of motherhood is second-guessing ourselves and believing that we could, and should, have done better. I did stay home with my kids, so I was certainly there, but I was also very stressed about my writing career not taking off, the fact that we were struggling financially and my guilt at not helping out more in that way, and the result was that I was far too quick-tempered and not as calm and understanding as I wanted to be. So that’s what I beat myself up about.
        The important thing to remember is that you did the best you could in the circumstances you were in, and that no matter what, your son knew you loved him. And that we are honest enough to look back and say, “here’s where I need to improve,” and then work at it. If you think about it, that’s a good example to set for our kids: that we aren’t perfect, we’re willing to admit it, and we’re trying to improve.
        You’re a terrific person Kim! Always remember that….

        Liked by 4 people

  3. Kim, I work in higher ed too. I used to work for an R1 institution and prepare future teachers. I’ve never seen so many profs AND students on so many different meds. I believe, as someone else mentioned, everyone is under quite a bit of (made-up) pressure to succeed and be the very best. It eats at your core and then surfaces as something else.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Katherin. The number of people on meds is definitely scary. I’d say it’s reaching epidemic proportions. It’s so much easier for people to pop a pill or smoke a joint than go for a jog or a yoga class or take time before bed to meditate. Then there is making the conscious choice to be happy and healthy. My wish is for everyone is to be happy, healthy, and whole and not feel the need to numb themselves. I used to put so much pressure on myself to be successful so I could prove to my family that I wasn’t a big, fat loser just because I’d been a teenage mother. Now I don’t care about that. Now I just want to be happy and love my family.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. This is powerful stuff, Kim, and written from the heart, I can tell. It is also, if I may say so, beautifully written, and eloquently expressive. As your friend Katherine has noted, and as you have confirmed in response to her, drug usage (both prescription and otherwise) are a huge societal issue. I think perhaps we ought consider this far more a reflection of society as a whole rather than attempting to narrowly relate the matter to upbringing and familial circumstances. Of course, poor or abusive parenting are almost bound to lead to certain personal issues arising in offspring, but the problem is far too widespread for that to be universally causal.

    I wouldn’t pretend to know of any kind of global palliative to the issue, yet suspect causes reach back, at least in part, to the competitive nature of society, and as promulgated by what’s come to be known as Neoliberalism – or in other words a ruthless obeisance to the efficiency of markets. This ideology, so strongly promoted first in Thatcherism and later Reaganomics, has pervaded the public sector too, and our politicians and legislators judge the suitability of public services based on their efficiency. That seems reasonable on the surface, but what’s disregarded is the fundamental aspect of humanity which is the subjective experience of users of those services.

    I am from England, and the public education system here (along with our public health service) has increasingly been driven towards efficiency at the expense of experience. How efficiently can the requisite number of factoids be transferred to the student’s brain? It almost seems as if our children are schooled for the primary purpose of being a good fit for the corporatist culture, as against ensuring, as best we can, their psychological and emotional development as rounded individuals. On top of this, here in England at least, we disenfranchise the younger generation from the outset by all but pricing them out of home ownership and burdening them with massive debt for their higher education. Where is the hope for them, one wonders? It hardly can be a surprise that many feel this disenfranchisement, this sense of societal alienation, and carry it forward into their adulthood.

    I should leave it at that for falling at risk of drawing this into the arena of politics, and in offering you my thanks for this powerful and well-wrought article.

    With all best wishes to you and yours,


    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Hariod! Thank you for stopping by, reading, and for your thoughtful comments. You raise so many excellent points here looking at the problem at the macro, societal level. There is much truth to what you say, especially as it pertains to the education system. One of my biggest regrets is keeping my son in the public education system in my town, which is in the bottom thirty in my state. In short, the school system stinks. My son is an extreme introvert and he was lost in that giant high school of almost 2,500 students, where everyone is shoved into a tight box and expected to conform. He is very bright, per his test scores and teachers’ assessments, but he was bored out of his mind and couldn’t seem to find his tribe. The experience was so negative for him that I pulled my youngest son out of public and put him in Catholic school, where he is thriving in the new setting and what a difference in the quality of education. As for college and student loan debt, I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you 🙂 Suffice to say it’s causing me to question whether I believe in what I’m doing for work anymore. Thanks again for reading.


  6. I hesitated liking this post because it’s so much more than that. You have taken honesty and raw to a different level. Powerful stuff, Kim.
    We never know what goes on in the lives of others. The very best families have difficulties others wouldn’t expect. Judgments are never ours to make.
    As you explained, there isn’t one answer to these problems. Society plays its part in this on so many levels but that answer alone would be too simple. There’s never one reason or one answer to issues this complicated.
    What you and your husband did to help your son and how you were so open with those in your family is brave and admirable. I pray he has the strength to remain strong. With the support of your entire family, I trust he will.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. George, I wouldn’t expect anything less from you than the most thoughtful comment to a post like this, or none at all. I totally get the not being sure about liking this. I hesitate sometimes, too, to like some posts I read for the same reason. Thank you for your prayers. My son does seem better. Getting out of high school and working full-time has made a huge difference in giving him a sense of purpose. He’s doggedly responsible about his job, showing up on time for every shift and he’s been slowly moving his way up in just a short time. He’s making some new friends there, too. But the truth is that once you go through this, there is always the worry of a backslide, though I try not to dwell on it for fear of my thoughts becoming reality. Every so often my husband still checks the attic, and once and a while I clean his bedroom and openly go through his things and I don’t apologize for it. As for posting this for the world to see, my one saving grace is that my husband, kids, and most of my family don’t ever read my blog. They know I do some blogging hobby thing, but haven’t a clue what it’s about and don’t care. When I started blogging I used to share it on my small Facebook community, but I don’t even do that anymore. I think that’s why I feel safe sharing personal things, and if I can help even one person going through this or help one person gain the confidence to open up in their writing then I’m glad about that.


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