Collective, not competitive

I knew posting about having a jolly time and being all cheerful was a mistake. It tempted Fate. I got as far as the train this morning when I realised everything was too loud and too bright and not quite where my eyes were telling me it was. I lurched into a fellow-passenger, put out my hand to catch myself, and it looked not like my hand.

Well, it was my hand, but my proprioreception was fried.

Damn, I thought. Migraine.

I got off at the next station, found a chemist, bought ibuprofen, staggered back onto the concourse, realised I could not swallow the damn pills without water, staggered into a newsagents and paid approximately £97 per centilitre for a bottle of water, texted H, went off to find the train home again, realised I had to call work, did that, and burst into tears because everything was SO LOUD. H texted me back asking me if I needed rescuing and leading home with a paper bag over my head, and I decided, on the whole, no. The Headache Proper hadn’t started yet, I was just feeling overwhelmed by having all my senses turned up to 11 and then de-tuned, damn it.

And then I went home and put my head under my pillow for a few hours.

But, you see, I’m quite lucky. My migraines very rarely last more than five or six hours, and there are people out there who have them for days. I haven’t had one for a couple of months, and some migraneurs have them weekly, even daily. I don’t tend to throw up during them (though I do feel sick), some poor comrades can’t stop throwing up (with a head like a coconut in an industrial vice. Ugh).

On the other hand, when I’m actually having the fucking migraine, I feel like the unluckiest female on the planet, and if anyone tried to tell me otherwise I’d mutilate them. Very quietly, of course.

Reactions from fellow migraneurs have varied from compassionate empathy, through wry camaraderie, on to onedownmanship friendly version, onedownmanship passive-aggressive version, through to outright competitive hostility. You know: ‘Ohh, sweetie, that sucks,’ — ‘Oh, God, I remember when I was sick in a card-board bucket of fried chicken during my first date with the cutest girl in the school!’ — ‘I wish my headaches only lasted one day!’ — ‘Well, I wish I had time to go and lie down when I get a migraine.’ — ‘Your migraines aren’t nearly as bad as mine. You have no idea what real pain is like. When I get a migraine, I’m floored for a week. One day! Pah!’.

Sooo, much the same as infertility and miscarriage then (good link, eh?).

I recently found out that an old school friend has just had a second late miscarriage. Once more, she had to give birth to her child’s tiny body, knowing that if he wasn’t dead already, this would surely kill him. I got in touch to offer my condolences, and, my God, she and her husband were actually commiserating with me. That they could spare any compassion for anyone else at all while planning their baby’s funeral made me quite weepy.

Their situation breaks my heart, and at times like this I lapse into seeing infertility and miscarriage on a scale – miscarriage is worse than infertility, unless the infertility has been going on for years and years. Late miscarriage is worse than early miscarriage. Multiple miscarriage is worse than one miscarriage. Miscarriage and no living children is worse than miscarriage and some living children. And so on.

It’s all, all, foaming green arse-gravy. One situation is not, cannot be worse that another. They’re all shitty. What makes the difference, what demands the compassionate response, the reaching out, is the grief and misery of the afflicted. One couple can take quite a lot of hell in their stride, because they have each other, and because they have inner grace and strength. Another couple finds their bonds are made of glass, and one tragedy shatters them utterly. One person endures years of infertility and miscarriage with stoicism and then is able to focus on the rest of his/her life, another had built their entire identity around children and parenthood and discovering that they are infertile tears their heart across.

And everyone’s tipping point is different, and in a different place. One woman puts so much hope and longing into it, the first failed IVF breaks her. Another does IVF over and over again, but snaps when her sister gets pregnant in her teens. Another has twelve miscarriages without giving up. Another finds one miscarriage has scarred her so the thought of trying again is unendurable. A couple has a miscarriage after a healthy pregnancy, and are overwhelmed by grief for the lost little brother or sister, while another couple finds their existing child(ren) take away at least some of the sting.

To some, the loss of a pregnancy will be a terrible disappointment and frustration, to others a hideous bereavement. To some, it will feel like a punishment and a curse, to others, a bittersweet blessing that came and went too quickly.

And not one of these people is ‘wrong’, or being too stoical, or being not stoical enough. We don’t know the variables, we don’t know the heart and soul of another. We don’t know their childhood, their dreams, their resiliance, how much support their family can give or take away, whether they have the sort of friends who will rally round or slink off. We don’t know what having a child meant to them, the next great adventure or the be-all-and-end-all of their marriage, their whole life.

And yet, people will play judgy. People will say ‘at least you’ve already got kids’ to a woman who has just found out her child has died inside her. People will say ‘oh, just relax‘ to a couple who had been planning for a child since the day they laid eyes on each other and now have found out Fate laughs at their plans. People will say ‘at least it wasn’t further along,’ or ‘it’s for the best, there must have been something wrong with it,’ or ‘you can always try again’ or ‘did I tell you about Some-Woman-You’ve-Never-Met? She had ten rounds of IVF before it worked.’

And while, in a calm moment of consideration, the newly infertile, or the woman with just one miscarriage under her belt, can and do consider how it could be so, so much worse, when they are right there in the throes of their own personal hell at its freshest and most agonizingly vivid, who the fuck has the right to tell them their pain is not as valid as the next person’s?

And if my old school friend and her husband can spare me some compassion in the midst of their desolation, then I can spare some too.


15 responses to “Collective, not competitive

  • wombattwo

    So sorry for your friend, how utterly horrible.
    Very well put. If only the general public would understand this too.
    I get migraines where I lose the right half of my visual field to black and white zig zags. Sometimes without the headache. Disconcerting, isn’t it? Though in the realm of migraines, I think I’m quite lucky. Glad yours responded to analgesia.

  • Mali

    This is a fabulous post! We all cope with things differently, we all feel the pain differently, we all take different times to recover, but the one common denominator is that we all need compassion.

  • a

    My few migraine experiences were stress related, not incapacitating, but lasting longer than a day. I have sympathy for anyone who has them.

    I’m so sorry for your friends’ loss, but I understand their impulse to commiserate with you. I would do the same thing – take the focus off of me so I would not have to deal directly with my sorrow in the presence of anyone else.

    I often wonder if there’s something wrong with me that I don’t feel these losses as severely as some people seem to. It’s not that I am not sad, but my instinct is to attack the problem rather than wallow in feelings. I’ll probably have a nervous breakdown one of these days from all the suppression…or more likely, a heart attack. Oh well, I’ve been saving my sick time at work for just such an event since I never really got to use it all up for maternity leave.

    And I suspect you are far more sympathetic than you claim to be…

  • manapan

    Beautifully stated, as usual for you. How I’ve missed you while I avoided Google Reader! And even more, how I hope that bitch Fate would leave you alone for a while.

  • Valery

    Foaming green Fate.
    My migraines are so painless I don’t dare to tell people. The optical stuff resolves itself in an hour, I’ll just sit there, drink tea quietly because i can’t read my screen. So it’s nothing really, just an hour of my life. I’ll think of you and other people I know with migraines and allow myself to feel a bit sorry for myself….(and keep the rest of my compassion for you of course)
    Sorry if this sounds strange or something, words are difficult today.


  • Ben Warsop

    I mostly find myself grateful I don’t have other people’s migraines – glad mine respond to triptanes better than Laura’s, that they aren’t triggered by chocolate like Charlie’s, that they aren’t as inconvenient as Ole’s, that I don’t get such intense hypersensitivity as yours, and so on. We are a prey species, we migraineurs.

    Your other point is so very well made.

    *a very gentle, very silent, not actually touching you, hug*

  • Anonymous

    You are a wise, wise woman!

    So sorry about the migraine. They are killers. I used to get blinding, one sided headaches frequently in my late teens/early 20’s but I would actually welcome the eventual chucking up, because that seemed to “fix” them and marked the point when I started to feel better. Weird. And then they started happening less often and now it’s been years since I had one at all, for which relief I give much thanks!

  • Lulu

    This post brought tears to my eyes. So eloquently put for such a prickly subject. I love this post.

    PS sorry you had a migraine : (

  • Illanare

    This post, even by your awesome standards, is wonderful.

    And I am sorry you had a migraine. Blick 😦

  • jill

    Very well said. I try to remind myself of this all the time. It goes hand-in-hand (for me anyway) with envy – the other person may have something you want but you don’t know what her life is like, she may want something you have as well.

    I really hate and try to avoid participating in the “pain olympics”.

    Sorry about your migraine 😦 It sounds awful.

  • Bionic Baby Mama

    have you read joan didion’s migraine essay, “in bed”? her conclusion is looney, ihmo, but it’s otherwise amazing. i started having my students read it because it is a short, perfectly built personal essay (their first writing assignment), but i admit i enjoy how their eyes widen when someone in the class mentions having migraine and i casually drop that i do, too. figure it buys me a little understanding when the first big storm rolls in and flattens me. (and yet, standard disclaimer, mine are not as bad as didion’s or many others’.)

    today, i highly suspect that the bean and i both have mild ones. i will use that as my excuse for finding nothing to say about the rest of this post except: yes, yes, yes.

  • Linsey Behan

    I get migraines from time to time. I am only too glad, selfishly, to meet someone else who gets them because most people don’t understand what they are really like.

  • kylie

    As a society we struggle with expressing sympathy. The usual things (which work) are seen as too trite, so the only way is to validate by talking of ones experience.
    My boss’s wife had a miscarriage about 18 months ago, so when mine occurred, I didn’t have a problem mentioning that was the reason why I was taking time off. Not much more was said (apart from being told to take as much time as I needed) but it has inspired an effort to make sure we have a backup for maternity leave.
    Haven’t quite brought myself to tell him that isn’t going to be necessary as my body clearly isn’t going to cooperate any time soon.

  • Hairy Farmer Family

    Oh, lovey. Deepest, deepest sympathy for coconut-headed membership of the Migraneurs; I do love the term. I am not a fully-fledged member in my own opinion, having had exactly two optical-only attacks in the last 9 months, but if the pain corresponds to the freaky visual stuff, then I am officially Afraid Of Them, and full of anxious clucking for those whose suffering is worse, howsoever it presents.

    Eh. I’m guilty of playing judgy, you know. A friend of mine, whenever – every single time – my miscarriages are brought into convo, instantly hijacks the topic with her own, solo, single, few-days-old loss. And while I know that it hurt and upset her badly at the time, she has had singularly trouble-free pregnancies since, and I do feel as if I want to be Topper, although that’s possibly a reaction to the lack of social skills in play rather than the situation per se. I was mean enough to treat her to a description of what a 8 week pregnancy sac looks like on the way out once, which I’m not proud of. And you are, of course, so very. very right in what you say, and I am more ashamed than ever

    “We don’t know the variables, we don’t know the heart and soul of another.” How true, and how beautifully put.

  • Lulu

    I just remembered this post and came back to read it again. I’m a downright professional blog reader, have been reading blogs for YEARS now (are you impressed?) and this is probably the most beautiful post I’ve ever read. I’d like to have a copy of it to pass out to people. Strangers on the street, friends, anyone. I love it.

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