Imagine this: you’re a young, healthy person whose career is taking off. Everything seems to be coming together for you.
Then, out of nowhere, you develop pain. You assume it’s going to pass. Instead, it gets worse. And worse. You spend your days lying on the floor praying for it to stop. But it doesn’t.
Unable to function, you have to move back in with your parents because you are too disabled to function on your own and flat broke—something you have never needed to do as an adult. You turn to alcohol and overeating, ending up obese. And miserable. Lonely and afraid, you’ve lost everything.
This is author and health coach Tom Seaman’s story. In his new book, “Beyond Pain and Suffering: Adapting to Adversity and Life Challenges” he explains how he worked his way through the devastating disease of dystonia, learning how to manage it and live as full a life as possible.
I first discovered him when I myself was diagnosed with Dystonia. His book, “Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey” was more than just a guide. It gave me hope that with the right tools, attitude and support I could get to a better place, just as he had.
The new book, “Beyond Pain and Suffering” is for anyone experiencing it, whether emotional, physical or both. Reading it, you feel like there’s a helpful friend or coach sitting next to you, giving you tools to get through the worst times.
The part that stood out the most to me is his advice to, as he puts it, “embrace the suck of life.”
It’s a refreshing and funny thing to say—to come out and admit that yes, life sucks. Reading that, I felt relief. And I laughed. Two good things.
I got in touch with Tom to learn more about what he meant by that, and his advice about what to do about the many other ways that life can suck. Here’s our interview:
Sunshine Mugrabi: I’m intrigued by your idea of “embracing the suck of life.” Can you tell me more about it—what it means, how you came to it, and anything else?
Tom Seaman: Thank you for asking. This is one of my favorite topics.
One day I was speaking to a coaching client who has several health issues and other challenges in her life. She routinely mentions how everything sucks.
While her venting can be therapeutic, it borders on being self-destructive—which she admits.
Never having said it before, I told her that it would help if she learned to embrace the suck of life.To not fight that which will only fight back and increase our suffering.
I later found out that “embrace the suck” is a common phrase used in the military.
SM: Well that makes sense!
TS: In a nutshell, “embrace the suck of life” means acknowledging that life is hard and filled with pitfalls, and not resisting the bad things that happen to us.
If we resist allowing ourselves to feel things that hurt, it messes with our mind and our identity. That plunges us further into despair.
SM: Sounds true, if counterintuitive.
TS: Yes, I like to tell people “we have to face it to embrace it to erase it.”
It helps to remind us that it isn’t what happens to us in life that matters most. It is what we do about it that matters most. This dictates how much we can increase or decrease the sucky parts of life.
If we allow ourselves to see the darkness, feel it, touch it, and ultimately come to terms with it, then the things that suck no longer control us. In fact, if we learn to use suffering and adversity correctly, it will buy us a ticket to a place that we could not have gotten to any other way.
SM: I love this. And, it sounds hard to do.
TS: Yes. We have to take it easy on ourselves. There are times we’re not in a place to embrace their “suck of life” issues and that’s okay!
Just wait until you’re ready.
SM: Okay, then what? What’s the next step?
TS: The key is to understand that the way to dig ourselves out of any hole is to first get in the hole. Not deny that we are in the hole, despite seeing darkness all around.
What people often don’t realize until they do this is they have a strength within them that far exceeds what they might believe. This is true even if it upends your life like dystonia has done to mine.
SM: The book is different from your first one, which was focused on dystonia. What drove you to do this more general book?
TS: I always knew I wanted to write a book that was for a broader audience about how to work through tough times in life. What really motivated me was the feedback I was getting from my first book.
To my surprise, I’m often told by people who don’t have dystonia how much that book helped them. By replacing the word “dystonia” with what they were dealing with, it was as if it was written for them.
For many, it wasn’t even a health condition they were coping with. I heard this from people who were going through all sorts of things—divorce and other relationship issues, difficulty with work or work-life balance, stress, and life transitions.
So for this book, I wanted to reach the broader audience for whom much of the information was intended in the first book (without me realizing it at the time), with fresh, new information about what I have learned since my first publication.
SM: You do an excellent job getting to why physical pain can make life unbearable. If you had to sum up your thoughts about this, what would you say?
TS: Living with physical pain can make life seem unbearable, especially if it’s chronic/persistent. But most of us, even when we don’t feel like we are, find a way to get through every single day. We need to acknowledge these efforts that we make.
The mistake that many of us make is that we don’t focus enough on all of the things that we have in our lives. No matter what is wrong with us, there is more right with us.
Just think about your body… the number of incredible things it does on a daily basis is mind-boggling. This is hard to do when faced with severe pain because pain becomes our only focus, rather than all of the things our body is doing so well for us.
SM: How do we get out of the cycle of focusing on our pain?
TS: This is where practicing mindfulness can become an ally in our lives. I use a few examples in the book about how much we take for granted, along with strategies for how to become more mindful and grateful of things beyond our pain.
For example, there’s a technique called “pendulation” where you focus on a part of your body that is not in pain and then mentally move that same feeling of peace and calm and “no pain” to the area where you are experiencing discomfort.
SM: The book isn’t just about physical pain but also mental pain and suffering. The two are related, but can you break down the differences and similarities? How should people deal with each of them?
TS: Here’s a fact most people who are suffering aren’t aware of: our bodies don’t know the difference between physical pain and mental pain. They both produce the same inflammatory chemistry.
When we live in a chronically stressed, anxious, or depressed state, our body is more prone to experience pain and other physical health conditions. Vice versa, when the body is in a chronic state of physical pain, it is more prone to stress, anxiety, and depression. Thus, separating physical pain and mental pain is difficult to do.
To answer your second question, each of us finds different things to help soothe our pain and suffering, so there is not a specific prescription for what a person should do regarding various medical treatments or therapies, or self-care activities. It boils down to finding what helps you as a unique individual to reduce the adrenaline created when we emotionally react to our pain.
That’s why it’s important to be mindful of our emotions. They feed all sorts of different pain and suffering.
The book teaches you how to respond to life events versus react.
SM: What’s the difference between responding and reacting? And why should people be aware of this?
TS: Responding to something is a thought-out activity and a reaction is usually quick, emotional, impulsive, and often irrational.
Responding is taking a step back, letting it set in, finding perspective, and then acting with our rational mind. Reacting is immediate (visceral/gut) and often fueled by emotions. There is nothing right or wrong with responding or reacting. What matters most is when and to what we respond or react.
I try to remain in response mode when tough times happen. To help me with this, my working phrase is, “how do I make the best of a difficult situation and what can I learn from this challenge?”
This removes drama and reactionary, emotional thinking, and puts me in an objective, proactive mindset immediately. The alternative is becoming a victim of circumstance and playing the “why me?” game, which makes us suffer much more than necessary.
SM: For someone who has just been hit with pain or a major life event that’s causing them suffering, what would you tell them?
TS: Having lived through pain and major life changing events that have thrown me off kilter, the first thing I would tell someone is that they aren’t alone. Help is available to them.
The next thing I would tell them is to allow yourself to express every emotion you feel. We need to release it without shame or any other self-judgment.
So in most cases, I find the best thing to say is to let themselves process it without resistance the best they can. Don’t run from it. Don’t hide from it. Allow yourself to feel every single feeling that comes with it without resistance.
We humans are good at thinking about our pain and other problems. This can cause us to hold in or restrict the expression of emotions about the experience/event. This can lead to what is called somatic/tissue memory, or body memory.
The event/circumstance/trauma stays with us and causes further problems as time goes on. Thus, the importance of allowing yourself to feel everything and then let it out (i.e. being present with our pain and suffering).
SM: How have you managed your own pain and suffering?
TS: For most of my life, everything pretty much came easy for me. When I hit the age of 30 and was stricken with chronic pain from dystonia, everything changed and nothing was easy.
In the last 20 years, I have found ways to improve upon my symptoms, but my life is nothing like it once was. I am not involved in many activities that I once loved or the same social and business circles.
My body can’t handle it like it once could. Along with many time-consuming self-care activities, treatments, and therapies I would prefer not to do, I have to carefully plan my day so the activities of the day do not cause an aggravation of symptoms. Despite these daily challenges, I love my life.
Rather than try to change the course of events, I’ve learned to work with the flow of life changes. I use my challenges as a springboard to learn more about myself and use what I learn to create a meaningful life.
Now, helping others create a life of meaning and purpose has become my passion, which was my objective with this book and what I do in my work as a life coach.
So be in the mindset of a student when it comes to your pain and suffering. This is how we grow and get better at managing all of life’s challenges. Many of us are familiar with Post Traumatic Stress DIsorder (PTSD), but there is also something called Post Traumatic Growth (PTG), which I go over in detail in both of my books.
To sum this up, the key to handling suffering and hardship of any kind is the belief that in all of life’s obstacles is an opportunity to practice patience, courage, and humility. When we recognize that something could not have been otherwise and learn to accept it with dignity, everything that was once dreadfully painful will lose its power.
Tom Seaman is a Certified Professional Life Coach in the area of health and wellness, and author of 2 books: Beyond Pain and Suffering: Adapting to Adversity and Life Challenges and Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey. Tom is also a motivational speaker, chronic pain and dystonia awareness advocate, health blogger, volunteer for the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF) as a support group leader, and is a member and writer for Chronic Illness Bloggers Network, The Mighty, and Patient Worthy. Tom was also featured in Brain and Life Magazine, Pain Free Living Magazine, and Pain Pathways Magazine. To learn more about Tom, get a copy of his books, or schedule a free life coaching consult, visit http://www.tomseamancoaching.com.
Thank you so much for this interview. I have Dystonia but also PTSD. These words are so inspiring and helpful.
I’m so glad it was helpful! I also highly recommend Tom’s book.