No Pain, No Gain.
I first encountered that famous phrase when I was 10, in the fall of 1977. It hung on a sign, just inside the entrance of the free community gym in my hometown. With a parent’s permission, kids were allowed to work out between 3-6PM on weekdays; I made it in on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Anxious and insecure about my already developing body, I wanted to get stronger. Intimidated by the weight racks, I stuck to using a pair of borrowed boxing gloves to hit the same heavy bag over and over again until my shoulders and arms ached. “No pain, no gain”, I’d recite under my breath. It was my mantra.
Nearly a decade later, at 19, I found myself in the throes of a severe bout of depression. I was sleeping with a friend to whom I wasn’t particularly attracted, largely so I could spend as much time as possible with her lesbian roommate, on whom I had a massive and utterly unreciprocated crush. My nascent drinking problem was getting worse. My grades were slipping.
One spring late afternoon, I sat on the roof of my Berkeley boarding house, smoking Parliaments and watching the sunset. I was wallowing in that familiar mix of guilt and self-pity most addicts know so well. And out of nowhere, a memory of that sign at the gym popped into my head. The thought that followed was so overwhelming, and so irresistible in its clarity that I gasped. If you burn yourself, it will be better.
I pushed the sleeve of my polo up to my shoulder, shook the ashes off my cigarette and pressed the red hot “cherry” into my upper right arm. The agony was instant, searing, clarifying. Suddenly, my world got very small; my romantic disappointments and my academic anxieties vanished in an instant. It’s working, I thought. I burned a dozen holes in my arm that evening. I stopped because I’d run out of cigarettes.
Over the next eleven years, I would cut and burn myself dozens of times. The scars still cover my chest, arms, and thighs.
It’s almost a cliché among self-mutilators: pain on the outside is the fastest way to numb the pain on the inside. What’s harder to convey is how exhilarating self-harm can be. At 19, I already knew how to medicate myself with sugar, with orgasms, with seduction, with alcohol, with cocaine. But even when I was having sex or getting high, there was a part of my anxious mind I couldn’t turn off. But when I hurt myself, that hyper-critical observer was quieted at last. There was no pleasure so intense that it could truly get me out of myself. But self-inflicted pain could do the trick.
I can’t speak for other self-injurers, but I know that hurting myself gave me a tremendous feeling of power. Just as the bodybuilder might brag about how the pain he’s endured and the discipline he’s needed to create his magnificent physique, I felt an intense pride whenever I looked at my fresh scars. No weak person could do this, I told myself. If you can do this, you have the power to do anything. No pain, no gain. When I burned or cut, I was almost giddy with a grandiose sense of control.
In my twenties, I briefly hung around the fringes of BDSM subculture. But while I could honor the pleasure that its practitioners experienced, I realized that the “fetish life” wouldn’t work for me. I couldn’t abide the thought of physically hurting another person, nor did I want anyone to hurt me. The only kind of pain that made sense to me, the only kind that worked, was what I inflicted on myself in private. My sexual life, even at its most promiscuous, was thoroughly “vanilla.”
When I got sober at 31, I also gave up the obvious self-injurying. Or, to put it another way, my search for pain transitioned to something more socially acceptable. Like more than a few recovering addicts, I became hooked on endurance sports. I started running marathons, then ultramarathons. Though the agony of a 25-mile mountain run wasn’t as exquisite as that of a cigarette burning my flesh, it came with the added bonuses of an endorphin high, and a sleek runner’s body. The “gain”—and the narcissism—couldn’t have been more obvious.
My friends and family were so thrilled that I was sober, stable (and, for a time, celibate) that they encouraged this new addiction. I made new friends in my fellow runners, and though I’d always been one of the few male self-mutilators I knew, I now had a host of buddies of both sexes who loved the sweet agony of hardcore endurance running. As far as I was concerned, I’d finally found a life-enhancing way to get the pain I needed.
But in time, I came to see that compulsive exercising came with its own costs. I watched two friends lose their spouses due to their unwillingness to cut back on training schedules that wreaked havoc with family life. I saw single friends who refused to date because dinner and a movie might affect their performance in the pre-dawn speed workouts we all did together. Being fit was great, but the kind of pain my friends and I pursued on trail and track left too many of us self-absorbed and disconnected. I wanted better for myself.
I haven’t cut or burned myself in more than 13 years. I still run with friends when I can work it in around my family and work schedules, but I log only a fraction of the miles I once did. The physical pain I experience today is the kind familiar to any man who becomes a parent in midlife—a mix of too little sleep and the soreness that comes from rolling around on the floor with an exuberant toddler. That’s a small amount of pain that brings a great deal of gain.
The worst pain I’ve known in my life has been self-inflicted. That makes me a lucky man indeed. I’ve watched loved ones die of cancer, and seen the horror of pain that isn’t chosen. I’ve watched my wife give birth, and seen how pain can be inextricably bound up with the gift of new life. I’ve learned that there’s nothing redemptive about choosing to suffer needlessly. My pain—whether inflicted with a razor blade or with a 50-miler through the mountains—never alleviated another person’s hurt or contributed to the well being of the world.
I’m grateful to have the scars I do. More than once, when mentoring a self-mutilating teen, I’ve established rapport simply by rolling up my sleeve. I’m grateful too to have logged the miles I did, as it helps establish credibility when I’m challenging another middle-aged marathon junkie whose running is jeopardizing his marriage. Pain, in the end, did give me “gain”—if only because it equipped me to talk openly and honestly with others trapped in the self-absorbed world of the self-injurer or compulsive exerciser.
There is enough pain in life we don’t choose. And I’m done adding my own self-indulgent hurt to the world’s suffering quotient.