From Pain to Purpose

From Pain to Purpose

By Cynthia Toussaint.

A few years ago I decided to stop looking for happiness. I hadn’t felt that oh-so familiar, pre-pain companion since becoming ill in 1982 and it became patently obvious that happiness was not to be in my future. Instead I set my sights on meaning.

Since then I’ve given a number of media interviews where I’ve shared my mind-shift – and several hosts have expressed deep sadness that I’ve “given up.” To the contrary, while it would be best to have both, research shows that meaning and purpose lead to contentedness which is better for over-all wellness than happiness.

Happiness is a wonderful feeling, but fleeting and transient. On the other hand, contentedness remains steady, providing a strong foundation for beating back the slings and arrows life throws at us. Let’s face it, we women in pain must have resilience and peace of mind to thrive or even make it through another day.

Cynthia Toussaint

I’m on a mission to continue what I’m doing to bring my life meaning and purpose – and I’m forever on the prowl for more opportunities. What I already have has brought me much self-care satisfaction, but that didn’t come overnight.

For 15 years after becoming ill, I had no identity and my sole purpose was surviving each day. Not much meaning there. Indeed, I was drowning. I didn’t yet realize that finding and contributing to something bigger than myself would give me great purpose – and, indeed, be my salvation.

In 1996, I opened the Los Angeles Times and saw a full-page ad that read, “If you’re an HMO victim and want to speak out, please call this number.” Tears welled as I dialed because I felt a rush of passion for the first time since forever. I quickly became a spokesperson for HMO reform and against the healthcare system that failed and abused me.

In no time I was doing news interviews from my bed, speaking at press conferences and leading HMO protests from my gurney. Best of all, I was hearing from folk all around California thanking me for being their voice. WOW, that changed my life! Pain, fatigue and loneliness still dogged me, but everything seemed lighter and more colorful. Instead of trying to sleep till noon to face another tortured, empty day, I woke with a bounce and desire to make more change.

It was only natural in 2002 that I took the next step by starting For Grace, initially to raise worldwide awareness of CRPS and then to promote wellness for women in pain. Most days, my work involves endless hours of putting out fires with what feels like scant reward. But then I get invited to speak on Capitol Hill to change a bad law or Time magazine calls for my opinion about gender bias in healthcare. Or the mother lode – I get an email from someone who thanks me for inspiring them to move forward, despite their pain. For me, nothing is as rewarding as helping another!

On a local level, there’s abundance. For the last two years, I’ve been a fundraiser for my neighborhood YMCA. This place has been a god-send for my wellness, physically and socially – and it’s a humongous joy to help those who can’t afford a membership (like me when I joined) be welcomed into this healing community.

Then there are my li’l loves. It tickles me to mention that I’ve rescued two sweetest-in-the-world kitties from a nearby animal shelter. Caring for these precious souls helps to save mine every day. And I begin my nightly trek into sandman land with furry cuddles and whisker kisses.

Most personal and looking to the future, my 38-year partner, John, and I are considering adopting a little girl internationally. Though the challenges would be daunting, we have so much love to give and want to provide a warm, secure home to a child who might not have a chance without us. The love in return would be so precious and wide, our lives might well be forever fulfilled.

Yes, I’ve learned that purpose and meaning come from being a part of something bigger than myself. Pain is a wily devil because it pulls us inward and we think we’re helpless and useless. In my opinion, nothing is further from the truth because most work to help others is born from unspeakable pain. Suffering has given us lessons and empathy that others can’t imagine. When we reach beyond ourselves, we gain the opportunity to be contented, peaceful and more well despite the storm.

I’d like to say that happiness is over-rated, but that would be a lie. It’s something I yearn for every day. But it’s elusive amidst the constant pain and heartbreaking loss. Still, there’s something deeper that can bridge us moment to moment.

Purpose. Meaning. It’s out there for each of us to seize.

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Cynthia Toussaint founded For Grace in 2002. It is a Los Angeles-based non-profit organization dedicated to bringing awareness to gender disparity in the treatment of pain. She is also a frequent contributor to the National Pain Report.

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I’m glad to hear you are able to find purpose, and appreciate you giving us all a voice. CRPS has caused too many losses to count, and advocations that gave passion to life have become a memory. The saddest loss though is friends. I keep my complaints to myself after explaining once what has happened to me, but being unable to participate in activities narrows my friends down to those who remember to call once in a while. I still have some good days and celebrate that, but never know which day will be good so frequently have to cancel the few plans I make. So many “Let’s Feel Better!” articles end with reference to a spouse and kids. I can imagine having that support would make a world of difference. To those of us who live alone, life can look very bleak and overwhelming when I wonder how I’ll get the trash out to the street this week. And the house is falling apart little by little, or sometimes in big chunks and I can’t fix it or find anyone to hire. Last three jobs I got ripped off, lousy job done, charged for work not finished, but afraid to say anything due to the vulnerability of being sick and alone. If workers and the boss are fine with yelling at a frail sick woman who is holding the contract that *they* wrote up in her hand and call me a liar, and house is in a private location not seen from the road or by neighbors, it feels safer to pay and have them leave.

Having a “purpose” would be great but simple survival comes first. Then there is nothing left. Living on one small SSDI check is also limiting.

Count your blessings. From my standpoint, you have very many. I am fortunate to have understanding doctors though. And like you, my kitties give me bundles of joy.


Happiness is a CHOICE….My purpose is to choose every day to allow myself to be happy. It doesn’t always work, but I try.

Necia Saltmarsh

I have progressive MS, severe Fibro, and narcolepsy to name a few. I am 63 yrs old, and in palliative care I have been at this for 16 years now. Aside from being in unnecessary agony for most of that time, the emotional trauma I have endured is unbelievable. Constantly having to deal with the contracts, pee tests, and just dragging ourselves to these appointments every 28 days is bad enough……….BUT, where is it written that we are all junkies, we all lie, it’s OK to abuse us, lie in our medical records, disrespect us, ignore our diseases, etc. I saw one of my docs last week, and I said to her, “They wouldn’t do this to a dog.” With her eyes looking at the floor, she said to me, in a barely audible voice, “No, they wouldn’t.”


Great article. Im where you were at. Just underwent another huge surgery and the pain has been unbearable at times. I tell my husband I am sleeping until noon because when I sleep its the only time I dont feel pain. 17 years fighting pain has worn me out, physically and mentally. Then dealing with the social and financial aspects, its just stress every day. Those pain free people just dont get it. Im glad you were able to acheive so much.


This doesn’t have anything to do with your article, but I wanted to comment that while watching KellyAnne Conway on CNN this am speak on the Opioid Crisis/Epidemic, she actually said that their commission was not targeting those chronic pain patients who need their medication to live, and are not addicts. I couldn’t believe my ears. She actually stated that chronic pain patients are not being “punished”. Even though I disagree with her and I believe there has been many changes which negatively affect chronic pain sufferers, at least she is talking about this. Someone or some organization has helped our cause or our representatives are receiving our letters and emails. Whichever, I am just grateful to have heard those words today come out of her mouth. We much stay on top of this issue and continue to fight hard for our human rights to be free of pain.


There ARE many different levels of pain. There are many different people capable of doing miraculous feats of pain endurance. I advocte for those of us that are at …..the end. The fed, HHS, CDC, have been mislead by those seeking profit. WHEN an effective pain management therapy by opioid medication is sized for “one dosage of opioid medication fits all” without regard to documentation of each….persoanlly tailored dosage of medication which IS the last effective means of having some sort of meanigfullife, then Dot/Gov is out of control. or empathy by the hypocrites who have NEVER experienced lifetime, continuous, incurable pain. The entire propaganda of calling pain managment patients the instigators and cause of an “opioid crsis” or overdose issue is ludicrous. Pain IS subjective to each, individual patient and a well tailored dosage of medication CAN be accomplished through our VERY efficient data analyzing doctors. My opinion.

Kay W

Stunned. Reading this was like reading about me. Except I don’t have the purpose part. I’m amazed and thrilled that you found something meaningful. I feel very alone at home in my bed and pjs. Everyday thinking that maybe tomorrow will be better. Thank you for this inspiring story.

Lori T.

You are absolutely correct Cynthia. Love your article, very inspiring and oh so true. Please keep doing what you are doing. You are helping those who feel they have no voice. You are a REAL pain warrior and the rest of us can learn from you. Purpose and meaning are elusive but attainable for all of us suffering from intractable chronic pain. We all need your voice to ring out when silence is what many of us only hear. Thank you for your wonderful words of encouragement!


Thank you – very good post. I think it’s true for everyone that meaning is our true purpose, rather than happiness, which comes and goes. I’ve read and re-read James Hollis, “The Middle Passage: from misery to meaning in midlife”; lots of good suggestions on how to change our perspective. I do what I can every day, working around my pain, and I know I’m happier if I feel like I’ve helped someone, even if just a cheery word or a thank you.