With the right mindset, even childhood trauma can be your teacher.
I was only five weeks old when my mother realised that there was something seriously wrong. I couldn’t hold down my bottles, and I was in obvious pain, but it was the relentless nature of my sobbing that really troubled her. She brought me to the hospital, but the doctors told her that there was nothing to be concerned about.
“It’s only colic,” they said.
Several hospital visits later, they insisted that there was still nothing wrong; but I continued to vomit, and my body was getting weaker by the day. As the days progressed, the problem got worse, gifting me with an ability to projectile vomit several feet — pretty impressive for a newborn.
On my final visit to the hospital, my mother told the nurses that my nappy (i.e. diaper) had been bone dry for several days. That’s when alarms bells went off. The nurses snatched me from my mother’s arms and weighed me immediately. I was less than four pounds — half my birth weight — and the soft spot on my head had sunk deep into my skull.
It turned out I had a condition known as intestinal malrotation. In layman’s terms, my guts were twisted, and my body was starved of nutrients. The doctors quickly realised they had made a huge mistake and rushed me to theatre for emergency surgery. My fight for survival had begun.
Operated on without an anaesthetic — it was the medical practice for infants at the time — I survived the operation. But due to several complications, and the absence of pain medication — another infant practice back then — I spent the first 18-months of my life screaming in agony.
From a basic learning perspective, I was programmed to view the world as a terrifying and painful place, priming me for a life of anxiety.
Driven by an intense fear of bodily sensations, and a bid to escape anxiety, I finally found my anaesthetic in the shape of heroin. I was 17 years old, and by the time I was 20, I was a full-blown heroin addict.
This is how I lived for the following 15 years of my life.
Using Pain As Fuel For Growth
The story above is not a happy one, but the lessons I’ve learned have been nothing short of extraordinary. I’m now over 6 years clean, and I’ve fully embraced the fact that the most difficult experiences in my life have become my greatest assets.
I found sobriety on October 8, 2013, but as you’d expect, it did not come easy. Two months before that day, addiction had taken a climactic hold. I lost my job, my mind, every important relationship in my life, and my body was rapidly deteriorating.
I finally decided that I needed help, but I was too much of an insurance risk for detox. Apparently, I had too many drugs in my system? They told me to come back in a month when I was less of a risk for seizures, but I couldn’t wait. I needed to take action, and I decided to do cold-turkey at home.
Two days later, I experienced the most painful night of my life, but it was also the most important. It forced me to let go of my story, the one that protected my addiction: ‘I cannot cope with anxiety and I need heroin to survive.’
By dropping this story, I was able to write a new one. I prefer my new story:
‘I can cope with anything life throws my way, and by turning negatives into positives, adversity doesn’t stop me — it fuels my ability to thrive.’
When I went to university in 2014, a year after I found sobriety, my greatest fear was writing. I was terrible at English. I even struggled with emails. But this was a blessing in disguise. With a clean slate and no bad habits, I learned from the bottom up, and writing is now one of my greatest passions. My memoir, ‘Bonus Time:A true story of surviving the worst and discovering the magic of every moment’, has just been published.
I had to get a part-time job when I went back to college. I delivered takeaway food every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night for 3 years — for only €6 per hour. Having already lost 15-years of my life, it felt like I was wasting more, but I decided to make the most of it by listening to podcasts and audiobooks as I drove around doing deliveries. This turned into 4000 hours of learning, and the insights learned have launched the successful career I have today.
You Can Flip Anything On its Head
Addiction brought me to the very edge, but I was lucky. Pounded into submission by the most painful night of my life, I was forced to look at the world from a completely new perspective.
I learned many lessons along the way, but the biggest lesson was this: Life is full of challenges, but if you look hard enough, you can flip anything onto its head and turn it into a lesson.
Dealing with difficult people — those who like to blame, complain, and criticize — is one of my favourite examples. Being in the presence of such people is not fun, and literally sucks the life right out of you. It’s best to avoid this kind of negative energy, but if you cannot remove yourself from the situation, you can turn it into a lesson.
If someone is being argumentative, you can use it as a chance to practice non-reactivity. If someone is criticizing you, you can use it as an opportunity to practice your perspective-taking skills. If someone is acting out in unawareness, you can use it as a chance to practice compassion.
One of my personal favourites involves visualization. When someone is creating drama out of nothing, for example, visualize this energy as a beam of white light coming towards you. Instead of it crashing against you, however, picture the light flowing through you, glowing brighter as it floods your body, and then dissipating as it goes out the other side. This is a powerful technique, robbing difficult people of their ability to unsettle you with their negative energy.
Turning negatives into positives doesn’t just work for people. If you get creative, you can flip anything on its head. When a negative thought pops into your head, use it as a cue to replace it with a positive one. If you fail at something you care about, it’s a chance to learn a valuable lesson. If you receive negative feedback, it’s an opportunity to learn. If you hate waiting in queues, meditate while you stand in line.
You really can do this with anything.
Childhood Trauma: An Unlikely Teacher
In the process of writing my memoir, I was able to make sense of my earliest trauma, the one that set the tone for a life of anxiety. My infant self — operated on without an anaesthetic — suffered most. I used to be blind to this. I even refused to call him a baby. Instead, I referred to him as an organism, which was part of the detachment I created to distance myself from the pain.
It didn’t work. In reality, my infant self never stopped looking for that anaesthetic, and when I was seventeen years old, I found it in the shape of heroin. Heroin provided the numbness I craved since that operation, and it cut me off from my pain.
But it did more than that. It cut me off from my feelings, and from the people around me, as I disconnected myself from life.
Thankfully, I no longer ignore my infant self, the one who sobbed with pain. Instead, I use meditation and inner-child work to lean towards him. The latter involves visualization, as I cradle him in my arms — not to punish myself now, but to heal my inner-child. I do this ever so gently, and I’d advise anyone else to do the same.
By showing strength now, and telling my younger self, ‘Everything is okay, I’ll look after you,’ incredible healing takes place. We carry much of our pain in our bodies, and this practice helps me to soften my childhood anguish.
I no longer need heroin to escape my pain. I’m comfortable in my own skin. And when I sit with this defenceless baby, he knows that everything is going to be okay.
Take Away Message
Life is full of challenges, but by flipping them on their head, you can turn them into lessons for life. Opportunities are all around us, and if you look hard enough, you can apply it with anything, even your greatest struggles.
Maybe you were bullied in school. Or maybe you experienced childhood trauma. If you’re like most people, your current life situation will provide its fair share of challenges.
The fact is, everyone has their own set of struggles. But at the end of the day, it’s not about what happens to you, it’s about how you respond.
That’s why having the right mindset is so important. Because by focusing on what you can do, you can turn any painful event into a life-changing lesson.