How do we make sense of each other’s pain? If someone is suffering, all we know is what we can see, what we’ve experienced and what we imagine. We guess, we judge, we decide whether to take them seriously or not. We call for an ambulance, or we tell them not to make a fuss.
I’ve seen rather too many statistics say that women’s pain is taken less seriously than men’s. I’ve also seen plenty to suggest that fat people in pain are taken less seriously than thin people. Black people may also find it harder to get taken seriously than white people. When it comes to the business of other people’s pain, we bring our prejudices to the table and judge accordingly. People who are wealthy and deemed important will have the slightest health issue jumped on – perhaps because they can pay people to do just that. The rest of us will have to make our case, and may be met with suspicion and disbelief.
As a child I was told I had a very low pain threshold. The implication was that I made too much fuss about things that hurt me – cuts, bruises, splinters etc. As an adult dealing with children, I’ve seen far greater reactions over far less. Not least because children have little to compare a hurt to, and are far more shocked by it. Often it’s the shock they most need you to help them with. There’s a balance to strike between helping a child keep their experiences in perspective, and comforting them.
Into adult life, it is often the people with least experience of pain who make the most fuss about it. The people for whom pain is not normal, are the people most keen to avoid it. I recall being told that a person just couldn’t go for a run unprepared, they would hurt themselves. Well yes, they might make their muscles sore, certainly. I don’t run often, because the jolting hurts my body too much, but when I’ve had a go, I’ve been in pain before I started. It must make it hard for an observer to make sense of me. I walk for transport, I do long walks, I dance when I can – it doesn’t mean I don’t hurt, it’s just that I choose not to be ruled by that hurt.
There are many conditions that mean living with pain. You choose how much you can do and what you can take, or what you’re obliged to take in order to work. With the safety net ever harder to access, people who don’t know you may make superficial judgements about your pain and thus your right to time to rest and heal. Some things can be recovered from if people are allowed to rest and heal. Some things are more readily managed without piling on the economic pressure. The question now isn’t whether you should work, it’s whether you can. A person who is in constant physical pain can indeed work. I do so. I don’t think anyone should be obliged to, though.
I don’t look like I’m in pain. I’m not pulling dramatic faces or making sad noises, I don’t limp or have a sling, I only use a stick for longer walks over more challenging terrain. And like a great many other people in similar circumstances, I can’t prove to anyone how much my body hurts. This means we are easy to dismiss. If we’re inconvenient, we can be ignored. If we can’t do something we can be told off for not trying, not pulling our weight. It is really easy to deny, ignore and denigrate someone whose pain does not manifest in ways you can easily observe.
And then there are the people who feel I should deal with my pain in the manner of their prescribing. If I don’t, I’m not taking it seriously, not trying hard enough. Or I was lying in the first place. It can be frustrating to say the least, and I don’t have to take as much of this as some people will. As far as I can see, there’s a definite parallel between who gets to have their pain taken seriously, and who has other kinds of privileges going on. It all seems to fall out along the same lines, and that stands some thinking about.