The pain of others

This week, after a trip to London, I tweeted irritably that I’ve got so used to people commenting on the size of my (apparently ‘small’ or ‘tidy’) baby bump that I might respond by picking arbitrary aspects of their physical appearance to size-up instead. In response, I was directed to a fantastic blog ‘Mum’s Back’ which contains an extensive list of things you should perhaps think twice before saying to a pregnant lady. Amongst them was this one:

“The labour horror stories. Why? Just WHY? If someone tells you they are about to have an operation on their heart, you probably wouldn’t rack your brain to think of all the heart operation horror stories to impart on the poor person, would you? So why on earth do people do that to pregnant ladies when childbirth is both imminent and unavoidable. All it does is create anxiety and fear. Unless it’s a nice labour story, just don’t go there.”

This, of course, is a tendency I’ve noticed too. The accounts I’ve heard have ranged from extreme trauma to the opposite, slightly bizarre verdict given by my hard-as-nails gran: ‘giving birth is one of the easier things I’ve done in my life’ (she was hospitalised at 17 with TB and has had countless painful medical procedures since, so her pain benchmark is set unnaturally high). I have conflicted feelings about hearing the constant bad news about labour. I don’t believe in denying pain or hushing-up experiences that might prove unsettling to the listener – women should have an absolute right to speak loud and proud about birth, the difficulties and trauma that it can involve. Equally, the unremitting bleakness can seem temporarily unhelpful to someone who might already be struggling with anxiety in pregnancy. But, either way, these labour and birth horror stories have got me thinking about how we try to communicate experiences of pain to others, particularly when it comes to relatively universal experiences, how we bridge the gap between the individual and the cultural. 

Emily Dickinson writes of the strange dual nature of pain and grief, both incommunicable and shared:

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes – 
I wonder if It weighs like Mine – 
Or has an Easier size.

The narrator in the poem finds a perverse kind of comfort in knowing that others have suffered like her, even if she cannot guess the nature of the suffering. I thought it might be interesting to compare how people have spoken to me about the pain of childbirth to the way others have described the only two other rituals of significant physical discomfort (NB. I know ‘discomfort’ isn’t the right word for childbirth!) I have extensive experience of: running marathons and tattooing.

I’ve run seven marathons in my life, including three London marathons and my fastest was a gruelling sub 3 hour effort in 2015 – an achievement I had to train hard for, getting up at 5am to run ten miles before work most days of the week through the dark winter months. I’m so used to the psychological and physical pain of marathon running that it’s almost hard to remember how people described it to me beforehand, but I definitely recall the familiar metaphor of ‘The Wall’ being described in an ominous way. When I lined up to run my first race, I awaited my encounter with this watershed-of-pain with trepidation, a dread which grew as the miles went on. Blogger Jason Shen describes his experience of The Wall eloquently:

“That 12th mile took forever. I had my eyes closed for most of it (very bad idea, don’t do this) because I was so uncomfortable and just wanted to zone out completely. When I finally made it to mile 13, I was basically shuffling. I didn’t want to walk because I knew if I did, I wouldn’t want to start up again. I was starving and it felt like the air had become thick and resisting my motions. Every step was a struggle. Finally around 12.5 miles, I literally collapsed on my hands and knees.”

In all the marathons I’ve run – including my fastest in 2015 – I can’t say I’ve felt what’s classically described by wall-survivors. I’ve reached points in the race where I’m almost delirious, the crowd becoming distant and the landscape wobbly, where my legs have felt incredibly leaden. But it was nothing as definite and inescapable as what ‘The Wall’ implies,. Have I met The Wall but reacted to it differently? Have I never experienced it at all? Might I hit The Wall if I run another marathon? It’s difficult to know. Each runner responds differently to the singular test of endurance created by a marthon. Particularly when I was hoping (tentatively) for a sub 3, other runners would share their training programmes with me and I would occasionally panic about my much more unstructured approach, mostly based on listening to my own body from week to week. It served me well in the end, but it didn’t prevent the anxiety.

Being tattooed is a more ubiquitous (and perhaps less impressive!) kind of pain endurance (since many see it as cosmetic and unecessary) and loads of people have opinions on it, not least the late, great Michael Donaghy via the narrator of his poem ‘Liverpool’:

Ever been tattooed? It takes a whim of iron,
takes sweating in the antiseptic-stinking parlour,
nothing to read but motorcycle magazines
before the blood-sopped cotton, and, of course, the needle,
all for — at best — some Chinese dragon…

15c7bac4da56b448321309cba3d1ebaf--vintage-photos-old-photosHow many tattoos have I got? It’s fair to say there are a few, all of different shapes, sizes and in different places, some in intricate detail and colour. Before you get a tattoo, you can consult a ‘pain map’ which suggests how sensitive different parts of your body will be. People have described the feeling of the needle going is as everything from ‘buzzing’ to ‘being stung by a swarm of bees’. Personally, I’ve found that the sensation feels exactly like being carved with a juddering needle which is…..pretty much what tattooing is. And the pain can increase over time (usually about 2 or 3 hours into a session as your skin becomes more sensitive from the impact) or completely vary depending on the area the needle is close to or just from day to day. I’ve had work on the same leg / hip tattoo done over a few sessions and found one hardly painful at all and another excruciating, even though the process and location were exactly the same each time. Pain can be relative, even to the same person. One tattooist said he had a female client in Sheffield who was adamant that tattooing pain was worse than childbirth (!). Other people claim to actively enjoy the experience, finding it genuinely pleasurable. 

three poemsOne thing is clear to me: where physical pain seems incommunicable and intensely personal, poetry comes to the fore. I was extremely affected by reading Hannah Sullivan’s wry, powerful account of a caesarean section earlier this year. You can hear more from her excellent ‘Three Poems’ here.

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5 thoughts on “The pain of others

  1. Stopped me in my tracks, this post, Helen. Confirms (I think) my feeling that some things are incommunicable. Unlike fear or grief or love pain resists description. It struck me after a number of operations which have caused me intense pain of various kinds and levels, sometimes for a long time, that when the pain stops, its absence floods you with a kind of light-headed release, a clarity. And you can’t remember what it felt like. The other incommunicable thing I suffer from is vertigo. I suppose most climbers suffer it or something close at one time or another, but I’ve never in all my reading of books about climbing and mountaineering come across anyone actually describing what it’s like. Anyway…thank you for the post. The moment that draws you in xxxx

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  2. When I had a subarachnoid haemorrhage but didn’t actually get to hospital for 24 hours, I was asked how severe the pain had been at the time. The only benchmark I was given for whether it was severe was whether it made me feel like I was about to be sick. The answer was yes… for about 4 hours, before I finally fell asleep, half wondering whether I’d wake up, and being surpriusingly unconcerned whether I did or not. I was then asked to touch my toes, my agonised reaction to which confirmed the GP’s diagnosis. That pain felt far worse than when the blood vessel at the back of my head actually burst, which was like being hit in the head with hammers, simultaneously front and back, or, strictly speaking, what I imagined that might be like. Perhaps what made the pain of touching my toes worse than that was the few seconds of anticipation, after being told by the GP to be careful because it might hurt. As a man I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be anticipating pain for 9 months.

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    1. Sorry Geoffrey, I’ve only just seen a load of replies waiting for ‘approval’ to be published on my blog. This is a rather belated reply! What you’ve been through is really hard to imagine. I completely agree that a large part of pain must be to do with anticipation….. Hope you’re having a great trip to the Alps.

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  3. This made me laugh! (Yes, maybe not the aim…). With the caveat that positive labour stories can be as annoying as negative ones, I’m with Granny 🙂 Three manageable, drug-free home births, the longest 6 hours. And, for me, they came before the tattoos. All I can say is that I find the tattooing process to be a fairly zen meditation experience, almost a relaxation. Though my longest so far was only two and a half hours, so arguably easier than giving birth. You’re dead on that pain is very subjective, and a similar experience of it can vary wildly. And so much of it is in the head. You’ll be grand x

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