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Comparative studies in distress

Friday 3 April 2009

Meet my imaginary friend. She’s called Beth.

A broken toe is nowhere near as important as having, say, a broken spine and punctured lung. However, a broken toe does stop you walking and is worth taking seriously.

If Beth is sat next to a guy with a severed artery, there’s no way she’ll demand to be treated before him. But neither will she express surprise when the paramedics get round to her and want to treat her toe. She won’t object to having it x-rayed and put in a cast if that’s what the professionals deem necessary.

She doesn’t fail to feel hunger if she misses a meals in a row, just because people exist who haven’t eaten for a week. Nor ought she to fail to do something about it, to find something to eat. And nor must she tell anyone they’re not hungry when lunch is late, because she herself had no breakfast.

Losing your whole family in a bomb attack is far more major (and I’m not attempting to define major (or to use it correctly)) than losing your beloved dog to old age. Beth hasn’t done either, but she would guess the former hurts more and for longer. BUT she doesn’t think that means you are wrong to mourn the dog.

Any pain deserves its own grief, shaped and sized to fit. We could do the ifs. Say the person who has died was ‘merely’ a school friend you were fond of but lost touch with years ago. If this is your first bereavement, it will probably take more dealing with than if you’ve lost enough close kin to be familiar with the feelings and process; your perspective is different. Conversely, even having had all those previous losses, this relatively small one may be more upsetting, if the effect on you works cumulatively… If. If. It’s trite to say we each do it differently – but it’s trite because it’s often repeated, because it’s true.

Beth is not allowed to ask for emotional support – or physical first aid – from someone who is more badly wounded than she is. If she’s walking wounded with one useless arm, she will put the tourniquet on the stranger bleeding to death in front of her (even if that’s a painful struggle for her). She won’t say, ‘Sorry, I haven’t got the energy, it’s too much effort.’ BUT she will expect help from the fighting-fit stranger who happens past when hers is the only injury still not taken care of, and be astonished – nay, indignant – if that stranger refuses on grounds of feeling tired.

Stop trying not to feel bad, just because someone out there (or within your own household) feels worse.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. AlienBaby permalink
    Sunday 5 April 2009 9.43 am

    “If it hurts a lot, that’s because there’s a lot to hurt about. If you can’t see anything that ’should’ hurt this much, it’s only that you can’t see it, not that it isn’t there. The doctor who tells a patient they have no pain because he sees no swelling is doing his job very badly.”

    You know I couldn’t agree more. Amen! Amen!

    • Sunday 5 April 2009 12.19 pm

      I knew you would. 80)

      Btw, leaving aside the figurative thing, i knew that doctor in real life.

  2. Friday 3 April 2009 3.42 pm

    Aagh, apologies to anyone whose feedreader has showed this twice. I spotted one of those typos you can’t leave in: isn’t not where it should have read is not. I hate it when i do that.

  3. Friday 3 April 2009 2.31 pm

    Thought, provoked by your post:

    All pain is relative.

    [Groucho]And relatives are the biggest pain of all[/Groucho]

    What it’s relative to is important.

    (Caveat: the following are hypothetical situations)

    Today I feel put upon, harrassed, stressed. I felt this yesterday. On Monday, my world was a black pit of despair from whence all light had fled. Today is much better than Monday, and yet for someone who had a pastoral and idyllic Monday, today would be pretty grim. I still need help (and therapy) but since today is not as awful as Monday, I don’t feel the need to ask for it.

    Sometimes I don’t want to ask because I am jealously nurturing my pain. I hurt, therefore at least I’m feeling something.

    Sometimes I don’t ask for help because I know from experience that the only person I can ask is determined to one-up anything I have experienced. You know the sort? The person who never sets foot outside their own head, and who therefore cannot imagine a worse, more protracted, more soul-destroying pain than the one they experienced in 1987, when the A-Ha concert sold out.

    People play this game in their heads all the time. It’s the risk vs reward game: how likely am I to get the help or support I need if I say anything *now*?

    Partly it’s nurture. Each generation gets, realtively speaking, whinier as we move away from the model that says one should “Keep calm and carry on” and towards a model that says we should tell people when we hurt.

    I think at the moment, most of the people of our generation are at the stage where we’re saying “Please, if you have a moment, I need help”. Whereas moe open generations and cultures are far more likely to gab you by the lapels and snarl “Help me NOW, I’m in pain!”.

    And for the life of me, I can’t work out which is better.

    • Friday 3 April 2009 4.36 pm

      Interesting to get two comments (the first two, perhaps the only two) on this post from guys (AND from two that remind me of each other in certain ways…) instead of any of the women that i know read my blog! Hm.

      My post is less about asking for help, than allowing ourselves the fact of needing it.

      But i do recognise the state you describe of not asking, because of either not feeling there will follow any helpful help or not feeling help is deserved, or other reasons with different names but the same source. The source is the depression demon that wants you to have No Help.

      It’s possible – and allowed – to recognise pain/sadness/you name it, and at the same time recognise there isn’t any help for it.

      My understanding of depression (and i’m not about to blog about how i have reached that understanding*) is that depression = sadness not felt. The sadness that is appropriate AND experienced doesn’t become depression. Feeling bad after bad things happen is meant to be; we’re malfunctioning if we don’t feel it.

      It’s when the feeling-bad is too big and scary to allow us to go through with it (partly because we haven’t had enough practice at safe feeling-bad) that we need help with it. Like pulling the arrow out of our own arm, but with feelings the other person isn’t required to do the work, just to be there while we do.

      I think when i say ‘appropriate’ (paragraph before last), it’s what you are talking about when you say ‘what it’s relative to’. Really, pain is relative to its own cause. And to nothing else.

      If it hurts a lot, that’s because there’s a lot to hurt about. If you can’t see anything that ‘should’ hurt this much, it’s only that you can’t see it, not that it isn’t there. The doctor who tells a patient they have no pain because he sees no swelling is doing his job very badly. So are you if you tell yourself your feelings are bigger than they ought to be. It’s the other way round, we shouldn’t measure pain by the visible cause, but deduce the cause from the pain – after all, pain is a signal.

      Someone once told me that sadness that seems to have no root may arise from something (or things) that happened at the pre-verbal age. Makes sense to me that if we can’t put the reason into words it could be because we couldn’t put the experience into words at the time it happened. So often we draw the conclusion that if we can’t put it into words, there isn’t a ‘reasonable’ cause.

      Acknowledging that one potential source of help is no use does NOT mean there won’t be another.

      I don’t think living (and watching tv) in the States can make it easy to determine what is a ‘proper’ amount of yelling for a certain amount of desperation. I definitely don’t believe comparing with other people’s behaviour (which we can see) and level of feeling (which we can’t) tells us anything.

      Three points:
      – Read Dorothy Rowe (if you haven’t already).
      – Think what you’d say to yourself if a friend you cared about was feeling like this. Whether or not he wanted your advice, think what it would be.
      – Ask yourself if you’d leave a broken ankle untreated and expect to end up functioning fine in ten years. Ask yourself if you’d ask that friend to do that with his broken ankle.

      Another interesting thought: depressed wasn’t my state of mind when i wrote this. And if people don’t believe me, they’ll have to believe that i wrote it days ago and used the scheduling tool. So however i was feeling then, i’m not today. ;0)

      Hey, this reply is longer than the post. But, luckily, i love it when blogs turn into conversations.

      * Except i will say that i was a depression sufferer for years, and now i’m a depression survivor. So i do know something worth sharing.

  4. Ted permalink
    Friday 3 April 2009 1.25 pm

    A mumbling written while depressed will cheer you up no end.
    Very good.
    I can only think that there is a worse condition and that is:
    ‘man flu’. lol

    • Friday 3 April 2009 3.06 pm

      No, no, spare me the man flu!

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