Monday, 18 February 2013

The "Pain Olympics" and learning from others

I first came across the term "Pain Olympics" in Melissa Ford's excellent book Navigating the Land of IF: Understanding Infertility and Exploring Your Options. In Chapter 1 Melissa indulges in a little "rant" (her word):

People of all kinds end up in the Land of IF. And whatever your actual reasons for being here, in the larger scope of things, it doesn't matter. Over here, we're all Iffers. Now, perhaps you agree with that concept in theory, but secretly, you still harbour some resentment toward certain  islanders who - as far as you're concerned - don't have it "quite so bad" as you.
Let me be very clear on  this point - I am officially declaring a boycott on the "Pain Olympics" .... (page 12, 2009) 

Melissa goes on to spell out why competing in the Pain Olympics  is a  lose-lose scenario.  Basically, competing in the "Pain Olympics" means any kind of comparing oneself to others, and/or comparing different kinds of (unpleasant) situations, with the purpose of reaching a judgment that one kind of  pain is more painful than another kind (the pain could be physical but most often is emotional pain caused by inability to conceive, miscarriage, baby loss, and all the shades of grief that colour the Land of IF.)

 When I read this chapter I hadn't thought much about Pain Olympics. I'm a recent Iffer, and although I'm working through some confusion and mental adjustment, I wouldn't say I've experienced much emotional pain. So I'm certainly not going for a gold medal in any competition. And I would  like to think I'll get off the island mostly unscathed, although I don't believe that I will.  The odds are clearly against it.

But reading the book, and later some of the more in-depth discussion on Stirrup Queens (see here; also Melissa links to here,  here and  here for more background) did get me making some connections with how we tend to react to grief, loss, and misfortune/mishap in general.

I've noticed people rely very heavily on comparisons for comfort and reassurance. "That X happened is bad, but at least Y didn't happen. The fact that Y didn't happen makes X look much better." This is OK if we're talking of fairly minor mishaps, for example: It's too bad that I skinned my knee when I fell, but it's good that I didn't break any bones.  It's too bad that I got in a fender-bender, but at least no one was hurt. However, this way of thinking breaks down when you're dealing with something that really is the worst case scenario. Last year my stepmother-in-law's son was killed in a car accident. There's no "but" for her. It really is as bad as it gets. What do you say to the person who lives with the worst thing that could happen? 

Confronting grief and loss seems to have somehow become a theme the past few months. I think it started with my stepbrother-in-law's death, and then one thing after another pushed me to contemplate mortality.  For some people, the internet has become a public grieving space, in addition to funerals and family gatherings, so I have been able to "participate" in that way as well as in the more  traditional ways.   A former colleague of mine passed away from cancer in 2012. Then a singer from a band I adored as a teenager also died from cancer.  My brother-in-law's fiance's mom (they are to be married in a few months) is facing a terminal illness.   I happened to re-connect with a fellow student from 10 years ago (we were not close at the time) whose brother died suddenly last year. She is a writer and wrote about her grieving online. Then, not least of all, there are the IF blogs I am reading.

I read a lot of blogs, but I have to admit I seem to have been reading a lot about baby loss. Maybe it's just because I've been thinking about death in general and trying to understand how we deal with it. For many years of my life I really didn't think about death at all (I'm lucky to have experienced very few deaths.) Now something has changed. I haven't had a baby of mine die, but maybe being a witness to death and confronting an IF diagnosis has driven some point home. Or maybe I'm just really scared.  Scared and  just want someone to please try to explain all this to me.

It's odd the things you become  grateful for at different points in your life. When we first started trying to conceive, and even before, I thought it was kind of a bummer that so few of my close friends and family have babies or children. I have no experience with babies and thought it would feel lonely to be the only one with a baby. Now I'm glad that so few of my friends have children - most by choice, some I'm not so sure of - because I'm not constantly surrounded by moms and babies. There are no close or even close-ish family members with children either, although there are a few weddings scheduled in the next couple of years so I am sure babies will  be the next thing to happen. Mr. Turtle and I still might be the first to have babies, but if things don't go smoothly it's quite likely others in our family will beat us to it. (How stupid that sounds. It shouldn't matter, should it? and yet it's one of those things that I think of. That we "should" have been first and yet we likely won't be.)

Another thing I'm grateful for is that I did learn a few things about infertility and loss before any  of this became important, and before having children was anything more than a vague theoretical maybe in my life. I read about IVF for the first time in a magazine article back in high school. Much later I read a memorable article from a man's perspective (I can't remember the writer's name, but perhaps I will  find it somehow: he is a very good writer.) I must have read a lot of other information here and there, because it was definitely on my radar. Of course I felt like a bountiful woman and assumed that if I had no children, it would only be by choice or because I couldn't find a man I would marry.

The most poignant account of loss  (until discovering blogs) that I can remember reading, however, is from an L.M. Montgomery novel called Anne's House of Dreams. Maud is famous as the author of Anne of Green Gables. Anne's House of Dreams is sequel #4 of 8. I read all the books as a tween. House of Dreams takes place the year after Anne and Gilbert are married. They buy a little house by the seashore and are serenely happy. But the book develops some pretty dark and intense themes. Anne is a famously social character, but she is quite isolated in her new home. The only friend her age that she makes is a strange and tormented woman called Leslie. Leslie's life has been turned upside down by several turns of bad luck (Ch. 11: The Story of Leslie Moore) including her brother's death in an accident, her father's suicide, and to top it off an abusive marriage to a sailor who ends up mentally disabled, requiring her to nurse him.  Leslie and Anne's friendship creates one storyline in the book. Anne is puzzled by Leslie's erratic behaviour; one day  she seems to like her, the next day she acts angry and rude. Anne knows Leslie's history and feels compassion, but she can't quite figure out how to relate to her  friend.

Then comes the chapter Dawn and Dusk (ch. 19). Dawn and Dusk describes the birth, and death the same day, of Anne's first child. I found this chapter so terribly sad as a child. When I reread it as an older person, I felt reassured somehow that if Joyce was born in my time, she would have lived. The reason for her death is that there is something wrong with her lungs. She may not have stood a chance as a home birth in a P.E.I. fishing village, but in the age of neo-natal intensive care, incubators, and respirators...the chapter would have had a happy ending. Re-reading it now, I realize that is not entirely true - the worst case scenario does indeed still happen, and  Anne's story and emotions could have been ripped off of any blog updated yesterday.  The sequel, so to speak, of Dawn and Dusk is in the chapter Barriers Swept Away ,where Leslie confesses to Anne how jealous she has been. They also discuss how Anne's bereavement - much as both regret it - has allowed them to be closer.

It's a bit uncanny how House of Dreams echoes so much in the IF world. Later on in the book, the issue of ethics and medical science comes up. The debate is whether or not Leslie's mentally disabled husband should undergo an experimental operation which might restore his capacity. Because he is an abusive character, several people think not - he would just end up making his wife's life a further hell. In the end he does undergo the operation, and Things Work Out through a plot twist; the moral being that one must always do the right thing even with the consequences are  not assured. The happy ending wraps up the book's complex themes a little too neatly. Anne's House of Dreams isn't great literature. And yet it has its moments of truth and at its best it's an honest telling of the dramas of women's lives.  I'm not especially mystical - at least not in the sense that I could say there is a mystical system at work in the world - but I do feel grateful  for whatever brought this book into my path, long ago.

So where does that leave the Pain Olympics? I think of Tolstoy's famous line - that every happy family is happy in the same way, but every unhappy family is unhappy in their own way. Or music theory. Major scales sound happy, but there are not many of them and really, they all sound the same. On the other hand, there are many, many kinds of  minor scales. Nobody wants to be unhappy, but even at our most joyous we listen to music in C minor, we read, we try to learn compassion. From where I stand now, I'm grateful there are people I can learn from. 

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