04/18/2014 02:37 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2014

Walking Through Hell

The first time I heard the 12 step concept that "Religion is for people who fear Hell, Spirituality is for people who have been there," it resonated with me. Working in the field of addiction recovery for 30 some years, I have witnessed people living a hell on earth. The substances and subsequent behaviors had them in their talon grip, breathing in the stereotypical brim fire stench that hard core fundamentalist folks would have others believe is their fate if they don't 'drink the kool -aid' and align with their beliefs. Gratifying to walk through it with them, applauding as they gratefully emerge on the other side of it, sometimes a little scorched, but surviving, even more spiritually aligned.

This role has been both a blessing and bewilderment for me. Like every human being, I have had my share of loss and pain. Had an ectopic pregnancy in March of 1992, lost our home to Hurricane Andrew in Homestead, Florida a few months later. Widowed at 40, when my husband died of Hepatitis C in 1998. Our marriage was paradoxical; both deeply loving and disturbingly dysfunctional. Raised a child solo since he was 11. Became an adult orphan in the past few years, when my father died in 2008 and my mother joined him in 2010. Major health challenges last year. Financial struggles at times. The good news is, I survived them all. The confounding news is that I use that fact to minimize what is my condition at times.

A friend commented that when I contracted shingles last year and with it corresponding pain, tingling and skin lesions on the left side of my face, I might be suffering. I responded: "I don't do suffering." I learned resilience from my parents who seemed to have mastered the art and they blessed me with that inheritance.

My denial of challenges renders me not quite human and casts me in the role of rock for many people when there are times when I want to be rocked instead. It also sets me apart from my fellow carbon based units, somehow superior, invulnerable and invincible. On Sunday, I sat with women friends at our monthly empowerment circle and was called out on my tendency to minimize my own pain since, after all, I reasoned, others don't have the resources I do and have been through much more insidious circumstances. They reminded me that I have the right to my feelings, whatever the prompting. It calls to mind the dynamics of children of Holocaust survivors. I've heard it said that many feel as if nothing that happens in their lives will ever be as horrendous as what their parents experienced, so they had nothing to complain about. I tell myself the same thing. Nothing I experienced even came close to the abuse, trauma, addictions, loss and despair that many of my clients had known. It felt incumbent upon me to continuously look up, focus higher, discount the shadows in my life.

One of the women said that from her perspective (and she and I have known each other since our late 20's) I had lived hell at times. I ask myself to look within and notice tender places that are a bit crispy from the fire and recall the quote from Winston Churchill: "When you are going through hell, keep going."