I grew up hearing that I made a fuss about pain. It’s understandable in that what was going on with my body wasn’t really recognised then, but still, it would have made a lot of odds if there had been a bit more kindness in the mix. PE at school was the worst – painful and also humiliating and with no sympathy at all. But, it wasn’t just school, and it included my doctor. I internalised the idea that I make a fuss and I learned not to take my pain seriously. Of course doing that means you can’t ask for help, relief, slack cutting or anything like that.
A few years ago, I saw a friend talking about hypermobility on Facebook like this was a thing that merited care and concern. This surprised me. All of my body bends in ways it shouldn’t, but I hadn’t connected that with experiences of pain. I decided to educate myself, and discovered that hypermobility is a soft tissue issue. People like me damage easily, we feel more pain, everything takes more effort, and as a soft tissue issue it can impact on the gut and other things as well. It’s helpful when things make sense. It’s useful having some idea what to do to avoid hurting myself in the first place.
But more than this, it is validating of how I’ve experienced my own body. I’ve experienced this information as permission not to be ok, and having spent the first thirty or so years of my life being given to understand that I make a fuss and must have a low pain threshold, this is a very big deal.
The pain is real. The pain is real enough that I am allowed to take it seriously. Taking it seriously opens the door to trying to avoid it, trying to get help, trying to manage it better. It also gives me space for the emotional impact both of living with pain and having internalised the idea that the pain I live with doesn’t matter and shouldn’t be taken seriously. It means considering that I’m not some kind of pathetic drama queen who over reacts. This is quite a shift in my self-perception.
Sometimes we do need permission. Especially if there’s been a big push in the other direction. Validation can be a powerful thing. It’s another reminder that none of experience life in a vacuum. We’re all impacted on by each other’s words, deeds and ideas. Wellness and healing are not isolated individual issues, they are community issues. The stories we tell each other about what our bodily experiences mean have massive impact, for well and woe.
I’m watching similar things happen around the growing recognition that trauma has real, measurable effects on the body. I think we’re moving away from old stories that hive emotions off as irrational and not situated in the body and that instead we’re moving towards recognition of people as complex beings where experience can impact on wellbeing.
We’re challenging the stories that are quick to write off some experiences as over-reacting – the medical profession does not have a good history of responding to female pain – and even worse if the women is poor, or Black, or all of those things. But this can change. We can have new stories in which pain deserves care, and in which we don’t tell people off for making a fuss when they are suffering. We have to stop assuming that being a certain kind of person means something about whether we really feel pain or not We can stop telling stories that block the way to getting some people’s pain taken seriously. We can do better and we can be better.