I grew up in a really small rural town in western Pennsylvania that had has a pretty depressed economy.
It used to be where people worked in manufacturing and coal mines. All of that kind of shut down, for the most part, went to the wayside in like the 80s and the 90s. The economy got bad here. Stuff was spiraling out of control, drug addiction, alcoholism, domestic violence, and racism. So I grew up in the epicenter of that, and my family was really like, amazing, up until age eight.
They were soft, sustainable, independent, creative, and hard-working. And then my father’s alcoholism just sort of spiraled out of control.
I think just a general lack of satisfaction in life.
Anger issues, problems in the marriage, and stuff just kind of exploded.
And so from there until I left for college, things were topsy turvy, there was violence and just a lot of instability and dysfunction.
In my teenage years, I was kind of like less unattended.
So I got really into drugs and stuff for a while and was just trying to numb.
Then there’s just been a series of things that kind of snapped me out of that. And I started to focus on schoolwork and trying to figure out a way to get myself out of this community because even as a young child, I felt like out of place here. I was a very sensitive emotional kid and this wasn’t the place for me.
So I just started working hard at school. And then I ended up getting into this expensive private college that’s meant for rich kids.
I got a small scholarship and decided to go and to potentially go into a lot of debt because I thought this could get me out of the situation I’ve been born into.
And my family kind of disowned me when I decided to do that, because they have restrictive ideas about, what was meant for me, and like what I was capable of, there was just a lot of negativity.
I kind of put a really big rift with my family when I decided to do that.
It worked out for me, but it was hard.
I was in a lot of anxiety and depression and kind of using Adderall and not sleeping and just pushing my body really, really hard.
A year after undergrad, I went back to school and get my master’s degree. Furthermore, I kept pushing harder and harder. So I became a workaholic, most of the people in my hometown became alcoholics or drug addicts, I became a workaholic.
I got an internship at Pixar which took me out to California, which was, like a really big change of scenery for me because I’d really hadn’t been out of the West or the East Coast.
I worked like crazy through the night sometimes just like super feverish wanting to get that job. Because it just represented this pinnacle of success in this ticket out, and so I got the job. But the day that they handed me the job offer letter, I was in so much pain, I couldn’t move my fingers. And I pretended, I didn’t tell my boss at the time and just kind of held my breath through the whole meeting.
I went to the nurse after that I had a nurse on staff and got diagnosed with repetitive strain injury. And then that took me out. I had that for eight years total, but I kept working at Pixar for five, and just trying all kinds of different treatments and therapies and techniques to try to get better, but it just wasn’t working.
And so then after five years at Pixar, I ended up taking another design job in San Francisco where I did work for a packaging design firm and a branding firm working for a lot of big corporate brands. And the pain got worse. Are you still there?
I’m here. I tend to listen very intently.
I hit rock bottom there. There was nothing left of my life other than work in pain. My entire existence was all about pushing through the pain trying to numb the pain, just to manage.
Dealing with the pain dealing with insomnia. And it got so bad that I just started getting all kinds of random sicknesses and vertigo and different viruses and things. And I was barely making it work.
So I was thinking about filing for disability or killing myself.
And then I decided to do neither of those things and to just quit everything and take around seven months is what I thought I was going to do off of work and San Francisco and just travel and just see what happens.
And I didn’t even consider it as a healing journey.
I just knew that everything hurt and it wasn’t working.
I needed to do something completely different. And I ended up going to Bali. Because I told a coworker, I was severely sick. I needed to take time off, for now, to travel for a while and just see what happens. She was from Indonesia, and she said, oh, you’re going on a healing journey, you need to go to Bali. To Ubud specifically.
This is like the healing epicenter of Indonesia. And so I did no other research. I knew nothing else about Bali. And I just went, it took a long time to deconstruct my life and all that kind of stuff. But yeah, I just kind of went for it and landed there.
And that’s when I started getting a lot of really different information about what the chronic pain was all about and how I could get out of it.
Before that, they had told me I was permanently disabled and I would be in pain for the rest of my life and I just have to take drugs and deal with it.
And as soon as I landed in Bali, I started working with volunteers, a shaman who did, like really intense spiritual massage work where he believes that bad memories get locked into the muscle tissue. And that through really intense manipulation and sort of ceremonious massage work that you can start to release.
So he kind of put me on my track for the healing journey, but he always emphasizes that he couldn’t heal me I was the only person that could heal me.
It took me a solid year of travel and being unemployed and being focused solely on healing, for the pain to finally lift.
I was able to start freelancing.
I just decided to keep traveling because I didn’t have the desire to go back and live in the states and I wasn’t finished exploring.
Now, I’m still interested in exploring healing work, because I would love to use my life experience and my ability to communicate to help. Get information about these alternative methodologies of getting better to people who are suffering without answers.
It took me I think, seven years of, of all these, in and out the different doors of doctors, before even one person suggested that there might be a connection to unresolved trauma or to the mind to check some psychological impact.
I think people need to get that information sooner.
So that they have a choice so that they realize they have a choice to get better. So that’s basically where I’m at.
How do you define healing?
I feel like the best way to heal is by dismantling the false self to get brutally honest with ourselves. I think that’s the best way at least.
That’s not necessarily a definition of healing, but it’s the best way for us to know how to heal ourselves.
I do believe a lot of the things that helped me could potentially help a lot of other people in chronic pain, but we’re all very very different and it’s not just the physical. That’s the problem. And it’s not just the mind that’s the problem of the emotional or the spiritual. It’s all of that combined
We’re very complicated creatures in that sense because we’ve all been exposed to very different environmental conditions.
We all have different genetic codes.
And we all have different life experiences. And so it’s incredibly nuanced and complicated how to go about healing. But understanding we’re each in control of our destiny of our healing journey of our abilities to get well has been the most empowering realization for me.
And it took me a long time to get that, I think I was turning towards other people to fix it for me for a long time.
And there are reasons for that I think in some ways, I wasn’t ready to face the emotional traumas of my past in the real reality, the deep, deepest, darkest parts of myself.
I wasn’t prepared to or ready to face them.
I read something this morning that chronic pain, in a way serves a function for some people who need to, their trauma is so severe or their response to it is so severe that they need to kind of dig at it or work with it very, very slowly.
The pain creates a distraction that forces that process to be very, very slow and, and in a way, it’s like it’s making your emotional process more gentle by making your physical process kind of hellish. But the thing is that people don’t realize they have a choice.
I would prefer to have to go through some really intense and may maybe abrupt and violent emotional purging sessions or spiritual work or take up a medicine ceremony that cracks me open and spend a week crying.
I would rather do that than spend the rest of my life in physical agony.
But most of us don’t realize that we have that choice. Do you know what I mean?
You always have a choice in how you respond to the things that happened to you.
I get stuck in that trap of what society brands or deems as success and what other people think about my life as opposed to what I think about my life.
What happens to the broken pieces, in other words, is the goal to clear them away or to incorporate them into our lives?
I think it’s more incorporating it. And to develop gratitude, for the brokenness and the ugliness and the darkness. To embrace it.
It’s not like you can just relive a traumatic moment and then just be finished with it and close the book as though it never happened. You still have to carry it, but I think we can carry it in a way that feels much lighter. If we can retrace our steps and sort of seeing the beauty and the ugliness, then you’re free.
Where is the place to start to heal?
I think is to come out of denial, and the acknowledgment of the problem is the first step.
And I think that’s what’s happening.
Like with the Me Too movement and with the Black Lives Matter movement and all these kinds of big social upheavals. People are finding and admitting there’s a problem and they’re talking about it, pointing at it, and describing it in great detail.
So I think with pain and sickness, it’s the same thing you have to come out of denial and admit and acknowledge and accept the way the disease or the sickness has affected you.
There’s no way you can get rid of it if you don’t do that.
If you’re just pretending it’s not there, ignoring it, or trying to soldier forward.
Is there a right time to heal?
I mean, for every person, comes upon the place of readiness at a different time. I’ve thought sometimes when I met a particular healer or stumbled on upon a particular treatment that was effective for me.
I’ll think like, well, I wish I would have discovered this 10 years ago.
But I wasn’t ready for it.
And like I said, I think the pain does serve a purpose. that’s necessary.
If I never had had chronic pain, I might still be working at Pixar, where I was miserable for a lot of other reasons. Despite what everyone else might think of how great and grand it would be to work there. I found it to be some of the employees and I would call it the golden handcuffs.
I found the corporate culture there and in the tech world, in general, to be very dehumanizing and painful for me on an emotional level and a moral level and a psychological level.
And if it weren’t for the pain, like kicking me in the ass, I would probably still be there and be unhappy and contributing to something that I don’t believe in.
So I think this the start for every person is different.
So is there a stage in life where anxiety pain and grief go away completely? And why?
I mean, I think that all of the negative emotions are part of the function. It’s part of our hardware system that doesn’t go away completely.
It’s like breathing. You have to breathe in and breathe out and you have to have upswings and downswings when it comes to the range of emotions. To expect to be pain-free is a fool’s errand that will just lead to more grief for you and more like mental anguish.
So no, I don’t think it’s something to strive for to be pain-free or to be completely free of anxiety or worry.
I think that there are healthy levels of anxiety that you get when you’re doing something that you love or something that you’re excited about.
Or something that represents a great change or a big transformation, like moving in with a boyfriend or taking a new job. To not have those emotions would be to not be human.
And so I think that’s were the problem with like the antidepressant medication comes in, is because it’s just masking our true feelings and subverting them to the subconscious mind, where they can wreak all kinds of other havoc in our bodies because we’re not allowing them to come through.
So I think the drug companies are doing some major disservice by offering, antidepressant drugs as a solution to mental instability.
It’s normal to have bouts of depression. And you need to just allow space for that and let it be for it to transform.
How do we build the kind of communities required to nurture our healing?
I’m fascinated by the concept of community for both the digital and the physical spaces.
I have kind of been a tourist and a temporary part of various healing communities and spiritual communities around the world. And there’s pluses and minuses to every model I’ve witnessed.
I’m watching this documentary series right now on Netflix called Wild Wild Country. Have you heard of it?
No. I will check it out.
It’s pretty fascinating. I am, just a couple episodes in. But it’s about this group of people. I think about 10,000 people they were all congregating around this guru in India,
They were having trouble building the kind of community they wanted in India because of government restrictions. So they decided to buy a giant plot of empty land, 80,000 acres in Oregon in the middle of nowhere. And build their city. It’s a documentary all about history.
This happened in the 80s.
And it’s fascinating because, in some ways, it seems the community they’re building. It’s reminiscent of some of the communities I’ve lived in. The hippie communities, yogi communities, digital nomad communities that are kind of popping up all over the world. They have some similar things.
Plus I think there’s some heart in it. But there are also a lot of conflicts that pop up and arises. And so as much as individuals can have a say in their destiny, the better.
But I’m not exactly sure of the model for creating that.
How do we find healing outside of the traditional medical models that are either ineffective or that we do not have access to?
I think reading about healing online. To read books about it and kind of exposing yourself to documentaries or whatever it might be.
Then feeling within yourself, trying to tap into your gut and your intuition.
You can feel if this is for you, or if it’s not.
A lot of like spiritual medicines like Ayahuasca.
I’ve talked to a lot of different people about my experiences with Ayahuasca. I’ll describe it as little or as much as that person is interested. And be very blatant about the difficult, hard, and scary things. The negatives as much as the positives. That person often turns to me and knows, immediately, after like an hour, or 40-minutes conversation.
They know whether or not this is for them.
And I always tell them to follow that instinct.
If they say, I don’t feel called to that or I have some, like apprehension or fear around it, then I say, don’t do it.
And so, yeah, I think you have to expose yourself to a lot of different ideas and possibilities about healing. And then really tune in and listen to your body and yourself and your soul.
Now a freelance designer, photographer, and writer, Cassandra Smolcic worked at Pixar from 2009 to 2014. Her writing about chronic pain, trauma recovery, alternative healing, travel, and metaphysics can be found on her blog, the trigger point chronicles, and you can follow her on Instagram @cassandra.smolcic.