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Is all pain really just pain?

I had an e-mail exchange with Egghunt that has prompted me to post on a topic I’ve been mulling over for a while. It’s a loaded topic that I’m afraid to write about. Probably I should post it on the awesome ALI Alias, but…I guess I’d rather offend people. This is also a topic that I know tons of others have written about, beautifully and movingly. I could track down those posts and I’m sure they’d shape my thinking and address my questions. But I don’t want to read those posts, because they will be better than anything I could write and I need the therapeutic exercise of expressing this.

Both here and in my comments to you, I tend to harp on the fact that I know I can’t understand what you’re going through and that my efforts to offer support might fall flat or even be offensive because of that fact. I try to note when I’m aware that I’m being insensitive or callous or when my complaining might be hurtful. And I’ve certainly noticed that the standard view many take here in blogland is that everyone is entitled to her (and his, but most of us are women–see, I’m trying not to offend men here!) pain, and the pain of one person is not greater than the pain of another. That it’s senseless to try to rank our experiences or create a hierarchy of which things are more horrible than others (The Pain Olympics, as some have called it).

I have no actual quarrel with that view. Empathy is so complicated that it is indeed awfully hard to truly understand what another person’s experience is like, and if you can’t really understand it, how can you know whether it’s more horrible than yours? (Indeed, a lot of research on empathy suggests people are pretty inaccurate about assessing the feelings of others.) And as I’ve said before, I don’t think better applies to any of us. But I do believe in more worse. And I find myself thinking that to say our experiences are not in any way comparable smacks a little of cultural relativism. You know, the same approach that lets people say things like, If a culture believes fem.ale ge.nital mutilati.on is okay, who are we to quibble with that? Okay, that’s a really inflammatory example, but I’m conflicted about relativism…

I also know that some of what we write is part of a social contract that makes this network of support possible and so very, very valuable. And I’m breaching it a little by writing about this, but maybe I was inspired by Leslie’s shit sandwich post.

I’ve read papers in journals that say things like the depression associated with IF tends to peak in the third year. In other words, we can quantitatively establish that some infertile women feel more worse, to use my term, than others. So why pretend there’s no difference between someone dealing with IF for six years, and someone like me? But then I think about the fact that a lot of the women who say all pain is just pain are exactly the women who have been through hell. Perhaps that’s just because those of us who haven’t don’t feel entitled to make such pronouncements. But perhaps it’s because the perspectives of these women are the result of their experiences. They know something I don’t.

I guess what I want to express is this. To me, to say that all pain is just pain runs the risk of denying the reality that some experiences are more worse than others. Maybe I’m completely wrong. Completely presumptions. But I’m not in any way denying that my pain is real pain. It hurts like a motherfucker. Lately I’ve been waking up in absolute terror and despair (and hoooooooot. FUCKING HOT FLASHES!). And the whole point of my term more worse is to stress that nothing is better. My experience isn’t better, just ’cause I haven’t miscarried or because I have gotten to do multiple IUIs while others are perpetually stymied. Or even because there may be a fix for my infertility.

I just know that there are some people’s stories that make me weep, and I can’t help feeling humbled by them.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. I didn't find this offensive at all, Bunny. Well articulated, in fact. I guess the "But!" I would like to register in response is that some things aren't really quantifiable at all, and I say that from a social work perspective, which I think gets a bit of finger-wagging in terms of being perceived as less scientific than other fields (though "they" are trying to make it more scientific every day, bizarrely, in an attempt to make it appear more legit). Anyway, what is difficult to factor with "more worse" pain is an individual's capacity for resiliency, and, from a systems perspective, who/what their supports are. Sure, a term fetal demise seems like the worst of the worst to me. But say that individual has an awesome support system (whatever that looks like) and is resilient. Could someone accurately say that this person's pain is more than somone with a "mere" early pregnancy loss, limited supports, and a history of loss in other areas of her life? It's unique to every individual. It's qualitative, not quantitative. Can you really distill the level of someone's pain without exploring the entire IF situation though a holistic lens? I don't think you can necessarily tease that out… And that's why it feels safer to say that pain is just pain. And not compare.

    April 8, 2010
  2. It's a tough topic but worth exploring. I do think that there is pain and worse pain. That this exists even in a single person's experience of things. My first miscarriage sucked. The other two sucked sooooo much more. And I experience that on a daily basis: waves of pain, waves of feeling okay. Optimism followed in short order by despair. I guess the viewpoint I subscribe to is this: pain is so very hard to quantify. It can't really be plotted on a graph (and, yeah, I know many have tried). And I also think that the border of pain is constantly shifting. After my second miscarriage I couldn't imagine feeling more pain than that. I thought I had reached the absolute frontier, but guess what? The frontier moved. But the frontier sits at different points for different people, at different times.I guess what I'm against is a hierarchy of pain. A social order in which I say that I, Adele, sit on a higher branch than you, Bunny, on the Pain Tree. Or, that someone who has been trying longer (and who has racked up more losses than I have) sits above me. For me it's just more qualitative than that. And I take empathy where I can get it, but especially from like-minded people who "get" what I feel even if they haven't felt precisely the same thing. There are women who are in the same RPL boat but with whom I just don't have that much in common. Biographically, perhaps, but not in a deeper sense. Sorry…a rambling answer to your post:)

    April 8, 2010
  3. Jinx!! I posted and then Trinity posted in the meantime, a very similar answer. Smart lady, that Trinity:)

    April 8, 2010
  4. I feel like I can un-relative-ize this right now. Worst pain: Never ever getting to be a mother2nd worst pain: All this shit in the meantime, and YES it gets worse with TIME, but NO, I don't think it matters whether you have repeated losses or just never conceive. I don't know that for sure, of course, but I can tell you that I am suffering just as much, but in a different way, over the last 7 or so months of not being able to conceive, as I was suffering over the 2 losses that preceded these 7 months. And yes, the second loss was WAY exponentially worse than the first. The third might kill me. But it would kill me just as much to never get pregnant again at all.I definitely agree wholeheartedly, all pain is NOT just pain. We need some fucking Germans in here to describe the shades for us.p.s. oops, that shit sandwich post really opened pandora's box! Sorry people! Go ahead and continue to make shit sandwiches! I do… as I said "eat it or starve", right?

    April 8, 2010
  5. Al #

    I really enjoyed this post, Bunny, very interesting and thought provoking (and not at all offensive). As both Adele and Trinity said (much more eloquently than I ever could), I think that both the situation and a person's reaction to that situation and their history shape how "more worse" their pain is. There is no way to analyze or understand if their pain is higher than my pain on the pain, or vice-versa because or past experience and our expectations of our future shape our reactions to these situations. Like, perhaps if I lost my father growing up (which I didn't) maybe IF as a whole would be so easier to deal with because of such a more vivid loss in my past or maybe it would be the opposite effect, I would feel so much more pain because I lost my father and I can't carry his gene line. I can't know because I haven't been there and maybe two people that have been through that have completely different suffering because of how they're "wired."Right or wrong, there is always a need for us to rank our experiences on a pain or how shitty the cards each of us have been given. In order to attempt support each other, we must try to understand their situation in terms of our own so that we can try to offer some words of support {however off base they might be}.

    April 8, 2010
  6. I sometimes am amazed at how kindly people have opened themselves to me in this community, when I haven't really been through the wringer (comparatively) and I may not even "technically" be infertile. No one's diagnosed me as anything at all!And then when friends ask me how I'm doing or tell me I seem like I'm coping really well, I say "I feel okay now, but check back with me in a year." Because I know already, even in my mere year of trying, how the pain expands over time, and I know it will only get worse the more time passes.And then I watch my friends deal with losing their parents, and I wonder how I can let myself grieve like this and put myself first in my own life when their suffering is so much more solid than mine.But they never say or seem to think that I've had it "easy" because I haven't had their pain. Or that I don't deserve to be as sad as I need to be.I feel nothing from them but compassion. And their pain inspires only compassion in me for them, too.And since compassion doesn't require you to know or understand someone else's experience in the way empathy seems to imply but just to carry their pain in your heart, that seems the fittest response.The longer I live with sadness, the less it frightens me and the more compassion I am capable of feeling. So that's a good thing.

    April 8, 2010
  7. I feel empathy for others based on my own understanding of pain. I find it difficult when someone thinks that any loss or lack of progress can't compare to what I go through. I also look at people who have survived devastating events and think that what they've been through has to be worse than what I can imagine. But, I know that it is comparable. I fall on the side of thinking "pain is pain." The way I think of it, if you've ever cried until your eyes were swollen shut, if you've wailed until the only sound you emitted was hiccuping gurgles, or felt the fever of grief where only the coolness of cold bathroom floor reminded you that will not simply dissolve back into the earth, then we have that in common. Of course, you never think it can get worse and when it does, you do feel the "more worse," but it's a cumulitave cut. Once it hits you, you become part of the same war with different wounds.

    April 8, 2010
  8. This was not offensive and was, as usual, very articulate and thoughtful. (Are you an academic or something, haha.) It also really struck a chord. I whine A LOT on my blog about how I'm always benched. I can't help but do it: It's my personal hell. But I do often think, as I type, do my bloggie friends think I'm being a bitch b/c I'm basically insinuating that it suuuuuucks to be me b/c I can't even get to the BFN stage? Like a BFN is something to celebrate? You know? Yes, you do. Your comments are always very sensitive and honest. I am grateful for the soothing words. It makes me feel less crushed to hear you, and others, say they think my personal hell is really quite hellish. It makes me feel less isolated and heartbroken and crazy. But that doesn't make your hell less hellish than mine. You are in HELL! We all are. In our own ways. Your brilliant commenters have given me much to think about and ponder as well, as always.

    April 8, 2010
  9. amen. very well put … i've been categorizing things/ppl's experiences as sucky or suckier, but *more worse* hits the jackpot in terms of accurate descriptions. a blog i stumbled upon last month pissed me off, bc the girl (who has had 2 miscarriages), wrote that it's far better to never be able to get pregnant, than to have a miscarriage. while i actually do believe this is true (to a certain extent), i was muy furioso bc she already has 2 kids at home, and who the hell is she to say that she'd rather be ME (someone who can't get pregnant and has to do ivf). AT LEAST SHE HAS 2 KIDS~!!!! quit trying for a 3rd, you greedy b*tch! (that was my reaction but i forced myself not to leave it as a comment). so proud of myself i am.with work being so busy of late, i've drastically cut down on the number of blogs i read bc it's starting to irritate me to read ones where ppl seem to be trying to please their readers. these ones are very obvious, as they wreak of insincerity and the writer sounds like they are in either serious denial, or they really live in a ~lalaland where everyone and everything is so cheerful. i prefer real ppl who talk about their real feelings, thank you very much.i'm tired, thus the ramblings … my apologies.

    April 8, 2010
  10. I am so selfish, I was reading your post going "uh-huh", "yep", "you say it girl" until that part about depression peaking in the 3rd year of IF. Holy shit! That's me! And I'm only at the start of my 3rd year!!! That said though, the act of making your post all about "me-me-me" drove the point home that not all pain is really just pain. Because I saw this road opening up in the coming months where it can get a lot nastier and darker. But I hold out some hope that this means things will be somewhat better (in my head if not my situation) in a year or so just because I know I will have run through a lot of options and nearing some kind of resolution – even if it's not the outcome I'm wanting.(Maybe I shouldn't put so much weight in these studies.) I should also add that for me, personally, there is one awful black point in my life that I hope I never have to live through again. (I may blog about it someday.) And when the worst of the IF hits, I keep telling myself "It's not as bad as then. It's not as bad as then." So I'm a relativist – even to myself.

    April 9, 2010
  11. I think just because we all deal with pain or stress differently, it doesn't make empathy any less valued. For me, personally, I've technically been "infertile" for longer than a lot of the others, I still feel new to the whole situation. So maybe my pain isn't as deep as others…even people that have been trying less time than me. Maybe it's the way I compartmentalize my hurt. I guess what I'm saying is that it's so personal, but the fact is that we're all in this shitty situation together, no matter how "worse" we are than someone else. I know every comment heals my heart a little bit and for that I'm so thankful.Beautiful, and thought provoking post as usual.

    April 9, 2010
  12. I don't know. I suppose I take the functional point of view that there's nothing to be gained by scoring pain, and a universal understanding that everyone has his or hers is inclusive, respectful and compassionate. And you know those people who always have to beat you round the head with theirs? AREN'T THEY THE WORST? I have one acquaintance whose headaches, upbringing, financial situation, everything, is WORSE, POORER, MORE DIRE than mine. This does not endear her to me. Ha!

    April 9, 2010
  13. Awesome post Bunny! I (as you know) have been known to say "pain is pain" and I still stick by that. But let me clarify what I mean by that…. I mean that your pain is no less real just because it has been around less time than my pain. I say those words not to lessen my pain, but to make you know that it's not wrong for you to feel pain just because you percieve your journey less crappy than mine. Thats what I meant, its impossible to compare my pain with your pain because I probably deal with pain in a different way to you, and I know the goal posts are always changing in how I measure pain anyway so it so difficult to measure. All I know is that I'd hate for someone to look at my crappy IF history and think they are less entitled to feel sad because they haven't etched up enough pain-marks as me. I have to agree with AplusB when she said that her pain always feels new. As I get further into this journey I learn new things and its not so much about the same continuous pain (although there is a bit of that) but its more about a hundred different types of pain all backed up one after each other.PS – thanks for the articles, you are awesome.

    April 10, 2010
  14. oh and by the way, if I got $10 for every time I mentioned the word "pain" in my comment above then I would almost have enough to fund an IVF cycle…. serious attack of word duplication there.

    April 10, 2010
  15. JB #

    I think it's a matter of calibration. Pain definitely occurs on a spectrum, and we all have unique set-points that change with new experiences. But while all pain is not equal, I don't think empathy needs to be rationed or prorated. It's one of those necessarily unbalanced equations in life, like unconditional love, methinks.

    April 10, 2010

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