The independent news organization of Duke University

What doesn't kill me makes me...what?

I am on a blue beanbag chair, looking into her eyes as she sits across from me on her couch. Actually, I'm looking mostly at her cheeks, with only the rare flash of eye contact because my friend isn't keen on looking anywhere but the walls or the floor.

As I watch and listen, story upon story just flows outward. The memories are not happy ones. The more I hear, the more I try to console, the more I try to alleviate the bitter loneliness etched in her face. I rub her feet, I flick her hair and I remain an attentive audience.

What comes pouring out are a set of succinct narratives. There are no tears, no drama, just a straightforward purging of her pain.

Throughout the late-night session I learn an array of things about her, events from which I wanted to recoil away.

I learn about a barrage of suicide attempts, both her own and her mother's. I watch as she taps the floor, diagramming how she had once laid out long, multi-colored lines of pills, debating whether she should simply swallow everything in sight. I listen as she describes how hellish life can be with full-blown bipolar disorder.

The only thing worse then absorbing each revelation is that throughout our three hours, there is one emotion absent from my collection of feelingsâ??shock.

There are so many times when I wish I could return to being 10 years old. Life was so idyllic. Even the atrocities that I learned about in school and through my own reading, like the Holocaust and the slave trade, were always historical events. My immediate life had no such cruelties. Injustice, as it pertained to me, meant not starting on my basketball team or being sent out of the class to sit in the hallway as punishment from my least favorite teacher.

As I grew older, however, I lost that historical barrier to sadness and misery. What started out as gradual dip into life's harsh reality progressed into a flat-out soaking when I came to college.

A collective list of my friends' lowlights and hardships is so unpleasant as to be almost pornographic in its explicitness.

Beaten with frying pan by father; lost mother to an agonizing two-year battle with breast cancer; regularly performed acts of self-mutilation, including cutting face and wrists; overdosed using Tylenol, resulting in permanent liver damage; nearly dying after ingesting the recreational drug GHB; woken up in middle of the night by best friend calling to say goodbye and that he was attempting suicide; endured rape and other sexual abuse by multiple boyfriends.

There's more, but... well, you get the picture.

You know, when I was in middle and high school, I thought I knew what pain was. I remember how it felt to get pushed around in the hallways, punched and kicked in the bathrooms and to cry myself asleep because I so dreaded going to school the next day.

As I got older, I felt so proud of myself as I bulked up in the weight room, developed more confidence and finally got girls to notice me. I felt as if I richly embodied the Nietzschian philosophy of hardship. Whatever hadn't killed me had made me stronger. Indeed, I was so tough, I had used pain as a tool.

You'll have to allow me to pause here, as I let out a contemptuous snort.

One moment in particular shattered my views on pain. It was during the spring of my freshman year, and I sat by the pond in Duke Gardens and listened to my then-girlfriend, who suffered from acute post-traumatic stress disorder, recount her latest flashback.

In my efforts to be the considerate person I thought myself to be, I offered this gem of advice. "Don't worry," I said encouragingly. "Now you will just be that much stronger."

Pause. Turn.

Her eyes looked into mine with a layered texture of emotions that will be forever etched into my memory, a stunning combination of disgust and fatigue crossed with a flicker of what was briefly bemusement but soon gave way to quiet fury.

Her eyes spoke more than her words, and their gist was this: True pain and true fear have no beneficial effect. They are crippling in their devastation, and rather than philosophize about their nobility, one is best served hoping that you never experience them.

The lesson from that night, one that has sadly been reaffirmed countless times since, is that so many of us are simply flat-out mistaken. We think that our own pain is so unique, and we praise ourselves for our ability to cope.

The bitter truth, though, is that we just don't know what we're talking about.

Nick Christie is a Trinity senior. His column appears every other Monday.


Share and discuss “What doesn't kill me makes me...what?” on social media.