31 March, 2012

The Pain Olympics

There’s a lot said in our community about the Pain Olympics – that there shouldn’t be a judgement about who has the most pain, who has it worse.  I’ve been hearing this for ten years.  And I will admit that I’ve never been completely comfortable with it.

I don’t agree that there are no degrees of pain, that all pain is the same.  It’s not.  My stubbed toe is not as painful as your broken arm.  Your broken heart is different from my hurt feelings.  Speaking personally, my TGN is worse than my virus, and right now, much scarier than my infertility. 

But that doesn’t mean we are not allowed to feel those feelings.  Just because someone might be grieving or hurting worse than us, it doesn’t mean that our own pain is not legitimate, and that we’re not allowed to grieve.  Anyone grieving, hurting, vulnerable and/or stressed deserves our sympathy.  

I am going to speak personally here though.  It helps me to put my own pain into perspective.  Perhaps it is easier for me to do this now, because I’m no longer infertile (ie I am no longer trying to conceive), because I’m comfortable with my life, because I can look back and see my progress.  My pain when I lost my first and second pregnancies, when I thought I was facing cancer, and when I learned I would never have children – this was real pain, and intense.  I struggled to pull out of it.  I remember being told I might have cancer.  I couldn't process it, and focused only on the grief that it would mean I couldn't have children.  That was the bigger pain for me at the time.  My doctors and nurses couldn't quite understand it - but it was my pain, and it was legitimate.  Still, even then, I knew that at least (at the time) I had my health, I was financially secure, I had my brain.  I knew that there were others worse off than me.  And I think that perspective was important.  It allowed me to pull myself out of the doldrums.  It allowed me to move on.

As our pain fades, I think it is only appropriate to be able to put it in perspective.  As new pains emerge, it is then easier to put them in perspective too.  Perspective is important.  But I’m talking about our own, personal perspectives.  We do all stand and judge other people’s pain, even if we try not to.  It is inevitable.  Other people might look at me and say “you never had anything, you never lost anything, you don’t deserve to feel pain over your pregnancy losses, over the fact you can’t have children.” We all know that’s not true.  I know what my infertility has meant to me in my life.  They don’t.  Equally, I can’t try to tell anyone that their pain is less or more than mine (even if I think it).  I can however tell myself where my pain fits on the scale.  And I will. This doesn't mean I don't let myself grieve.  I do.  (Believe me, I've cried a few times the last few weeks).  But I also remind myself when I should be grateful too.  If I didn’t do that, if I didn’t develop that perspective, I could drown in my own pain, and yes, my own self-pity.  If I didn’t put my pain into perspective, I think I’d struggle to understand that I have a glass half full, not half empty. 

Even now, after three of the worst weeks of my life, I know that I am lucky.  My TGN pain – touch wood – seems to have receded, and for now at least, I am pain free.  And I think of the others who have TGN who are not pain free, and I feel for them.  And I look out the window, at this beautiful autumn day, at the blue sky, at the setting sun on the trees on this last day before we put the clocks back for winter, and I can breathe in, and feel good.  Because I know, that right this moment, I don’t have it so bad. 


  1. dear Mali,
    I am not a native speaker, so I had to google TGN. I found it on wikipedia:

    Did I find the right one?

    Quote from wikipedia: It has been described as among the most painful conditions known to mankind.

    I am so happy that your pain went away.
    (I am touching wood)
    I hope - for good!

    I wish you a beautiful weekend!

    1. Klara - don't worry, I had to google TGN too, when I was first diagnosed. (Yes, you got the right one). I am in awe of your abilities in English. I dabble in languages, and yearn to be as fluent in one of them as you are.

  2. This is really beautifully put, and put into words thoughts I've been having. On the fertility front, I felt myself treat myself the way the nurses treated you. I actually think the medical care I got in NZ was more caring toward me than I was... because I work clinical with people who have such intense situations to deal with, and my real challenges never seemed to compare in my mind.

    And I really hope the TGN clears up for good or at least that there are tricks to manage it that works for you. A friend in Wellington has that -- probably the number one person who supported me through my darkest days -- but when she talked about the pain -- oh man it sounds really really awful. When I first met her, I asked how she had the willpower not to eat this or that, and she simply told me that if she does the worse pain in the world tends to arrive, so there truly is no temptation left.

    So hoping you find you way, and thanks for adding your 2 cents to the conversation about 'pain olympics' I think it is really good perspective.

  3. LOVE the post, Mali and your perspective...hope your pain never comes back or at least it'll never be too much for you. I don't think my pain threshold is that high, so I can't imagine experiencing such pain...

  4. First, Mali, I'm so sorry to hear that you've been in severe pain. So glad you're feeling better.

    I also want to thank you for this post. You've done a masterful job here on a complex topic.

  5. Pain in perspective is a really interesting phrase, I think. After a few days of wailing and gnashing of teeth and feeling sorry for myself, I am usually able to put things in perspective. There are some people who take ages to do so. There are some who just suppress entirely, like my husband. I think this perspective is what makes us judge others - we don't understand how other people process their pain, and so we wonder what they're carrying on about or why they're so unfeeling. Hmmm, you've really made me think here.

    The TNG sounds perfectly horrible. I don't think there's anything worse than unremitting pain. I hope you never have to experience it again, and I'm sorry you had to in the first place.

  6. I agree, all pain is not the same. Even if you are faced with the same kind of pain or loss, because everyone is different. I'm glad to hear your physical pain has gone away, hope it stays that way for a long time coming.

  7. This is a great perspective. Thanks for sharing it.

    So good to know you're feeling better. I'm sorry you had such a long bout of it this time.

  8. Very odd -- so I just wrote about the Pain Olympics and then got to this post in my Reader (yes, I'm supposed to be cooking, but I keep getting distracted!). I think we're actually saying the same thing -- we all do need perspective, but we need it with our own pain. We can't get perspective by looking at someone else's pain. We need to look at only our own and say to ourselves, "is this better or worse than how I felt during X."

    I think I have a problem with the term "Pain Olympics" because it is always pitting two people against one another. There can only be one winner and another loser. Olympics harkens the idea of one, the top, the gold medal. Whereas I think we can each have pain, each have our own summit to our pain, but not have that pain need to be compared to another person's.

    Voltaire has influenced me too much.

    Great post.

    1. They do say that "great minds think alike!"

      Yes, we are saying pretty much the same thing I think. But I do think that we can get perspective by looking at someone else's pain. Yesterday we heard that a friend has invasive melanoma. It does not look good for her. If she has a year, she will probably be lucky. In that moment, my trigeminal neuralgia, and my infertility, fade into comparison. And for me, I think that that is healthy.

  9. Lovely perspective. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.