Friday, 22 June 2012

The Pain Olympics

I've written about this before, so forgive me if you're bored of reading about it, but it's been on my mind. And hey, it's topical (35 days to go until the real olympics). Apologies if you're heartily sick of the olympics. Obviously, this isn't really about sport, so read on.

What I mean by the 'pain olympics' is the competitiveness that I've occasionally witnessed from other people with chronic illnesses or disabilities, as though there's a gold medal for the 'most disabled'. The conversation might go something like this:

Person 1: I am paraplegic (paralysed from the waist down). This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me.
Person 2: I am tetraplegic (paralysed from the shoulders down). You're hardly paralysed. Call that an injury? It's just a slap on the arse. Get yourself a band-aid and a cup of tea and you'll be fine.

With some paraphrasing, this is a conversation that I have heard many times in real life.

I have to admit that it's tempting to squash the complainers. The people who have a cold and whine for a week. A broken toe? A cut that needed *gasp* two stitches? There are times when I want to tell them to look around and try to gain some perspective; to tell them that they have no idea what 'serious' pain is like.

 But I don't.


Because where do you draw the line?

What counts as serious and 'worthy' of sympathy? There will always be someone in a worse position - more paralysed, in more pain, more limited by their disability, in hospital for longer, requiring more care or more surgical intervention. There will always be someone younger, more courageous, more inspirational; achieving more against the odds.

Complainers, we love you and want to be supportive, but think carefully about what you're saying, and who's on the receiving end of your whining. Telling someone with digestive tract paralysis who is totally unable to eat about the awful morning sickness that is putting you off your organic muesli may not earn you much sympathy.

Sick people, try not to be too judgemental. Imagine how much we could achieve if we supported each other instead of thinking up new and original cutting remarks to put people in their place if they dare to complain about something as minor as, say, childbirth.

For me, the progression of this illness is the worst thing (or one of the worst things) I've ever experienced. I know that there are people in a worse position than me, and I can't imagine how strong they must have to be to get through each day. I rely on these people to inspire me to find the inner strength that I need to seek out the joy in life when it seems impossibly hard. I am so grateful that they don't belittle my experience, though it's nothing in comparison to what some of them are living through on a daily basis.

There is no gold medal for having the most serious illness. The only achievements in life are those we earn, despite our circumstances, not because of them.


  1. I hope many people read this and understand it. Sometimes my friends hesitate to talk about their problems, saying they're nothing compared to mine, but I try to assure them that their problems are bad for them, and that my situation makes theirs no less real. It's the same way that my concerns are no less valid just because someone else is in worse shape than I am. You are so right that everyone's problems are real and valid and we must respect that.

  2. Thanks Stephanie!

    Hi Chronicrants, and thanks for your comment. I have the same thing with friends; that they don't want to tell me about their health (or other things) because they feel that it's insignificant in comparison to my illness. I tell them that I love them and want to be a good friend, supporting them through their hard times. I want all the friendship responsibilities - not a censored friendship!