Thursday, November 30, 2017

Winning the Pain Olympics

Last night, Grey and I met with our landlord's uncle, who also is a property manager. The purpose of the meeting was determine whether our current rental agreement was salvageable if not simply avoid a lawsuit given all that has happened. During the discussion, the uncle kept emphasizing how much our landlord has been suffering. First with the sudden loss of her mother, than with all the unexpected repairs and replacements that were making in necessary to take out lines of credit to cover them. Listening to him, we emphasized that we understood she was struggling but that it didn't take away from the shitstorm we were literally living in.

That's when, in an effort to de-escalate, the uncle told us that he got it. That what we were living in was highly problematic and that despite his niece's hardships our concerns were valid and needed to be addressed immediately. In short, we had won the Pain Olympics for this situation.

And though his intentions were good, it pissed me off.

I don't know who first coined the term Pain Olympics (honestly, I'd love to know), but the premise is based on human behavior of trying to one-up one another about who is actually in the most pain given a situation. Within the ALI community, it's not uncommon to see if crop up following a catalyst moment of some sort, usually with someone innocently venting their frustrations about their journey only to have them be attacked by someone (worse yet, a group of someones) who have decided they actually don't have it that bad. It's an odd game of King/Queen of the Hill people play where the prize of "yeah, you do have it worse" only usually makes the awardee feel slightly better for approximately 2 seconds before they also realize the prize comes with social isolation and questions about mental sanity. In short, winning the Pain Olympics isn't something one should be aspiring to.

And yet, engaging in the Pain Olympics is a common human practice for geting people to acknowledge pain and grief. When I was first diagnosed, I remember feeling so alone in my pain with hardly anyone being able to understand. The idea that someone who experiencing something I saw as far less traumatic taking away the support I so desperately needed left me feeling very threatened. Countering the lore that love is limitless, the truth was support really wasn't, leaving me struggling alone a lot of the time.

But this isn't universally the case as there are some crises and situations that humans are trained to acknowledge and respond with support. Terminal disease diagnosis, being laid off, an unexpected death or being physically harmed by another out of no fault on your end (think criminal charges or lawsuit worthy offenses). Granted, there's a level of judgement many still will quietly pass, but it's commonly acknowledged that doing so publicly can easily land the offender with the title of "asshole," complete with scarlet A, resulting in being socially exiled. It's these specific cases humans have been trained to recognize are sure-fire ways to win a Pain Olympics argument while also garnering social support. And apparently Grey and I have now landed such a combination.

The thing is, as anger as I am about our current shitstorm, it's not worse than infertility and loss. The chronic pain is just different. What makes it extremely manageable is that we also have an abundance of resources to turn to. For an uninhabitable home, there are laws written to protect us. For toxic childcare, there is readily available access to other high quality facilities AND a direct contact for the Board of Education (combined with fines). With job hunting there are experts and career counselors combined with access to a skilled network of professionals who are happy to pass on leads and advice. Granted, there's flaws each system and it's rare things are ever easily solved, but unlike infertility and loss there's actual support and social conditioning to do so.

While on the train today, I spent some time reflecting about why there's this divide and disconnect. Why is it we have to train people to be empathetic to specific types of trauma? And the best I could come up with is a lesson I learned from Lavender Luz, which is this general assumption of Either/Or we all swim in. We're surrounded by memes and reminders about how someone out there always has it worse, comparisons are made in order to rate pain or there's images reminding us that we need to strive for bigger, better and higher moral status. But in this process of extreme competition, we fail to connect and form the connections that are critical for our mental well-being. By shunning the Both/And, where pain and grief is acknowledged and is allowed to exist regardless of the circumstances, we find ourselves in a culture of one-upmanship.

At the end of the day, I don't want to beat out my landlord on pain. Losing a parent is painful. Losing one where they literally drop dead right in front of you is something I never want to witness. She's grieving and I fully understand that it's a process. But her pain does not mean that she is absolved from her responsibilities to Grey and me as a landlord. Just as the former daycare director's responsibilities and duties she failed at are not absolved solely because she's pregnant. And the pain and anger I face now isn't worse than when I lived with infertility and lived through my losses.

In short, no one should ever win the Pain Olympics. Because doing so just hurts everyone involved.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly. I have never understood the pain Olympics. I do not want to win. I want to be happy and healthy and content and not have it worse than anyone. I think sometimes people lose sight of the line between having their pain acknowledged as real and “winning.” I suspect that is what the the landlord’s Uncle was clumsily trying to do - acknowledge your situation.

  2. The Pain Olympics reminds me of the Old Woman's story in Candide where she goes through her long list of terrible things and says, "I do not see how you can have had it worse than me" in response to Cunegonde stating that her heart is dead to hope. Can you tell how much I love that book? :-). But you're right -- pauses, yes, asking for patience, yes, but you can't be absolved of all responsibilities.

  3. As you point out so well, the problem with the Pain Olympics is that it encourages participants to confuse winning with losing. And aim low.

    Responsibilities exist even while grieving.

  4. I always feel that those who indulge in Pain Olympics are really just pleading for people to hear and see their pain. Comparisons are futile. But unfortunately, hurt people hurt people, and this makes the Pain Olympics so dangerous. Better to opt out. Because I agree, winning sucks!

    1. I agree with you, at least at first. But I’ve witnessed people who have had their pain acknowledged turn on people who are also expressing their pain. It’s as if they perceive that by acknowledging someone else’s pain, suddenly there’s becomes less. And hence try fight. What it signals is something much deeper is going on. But what also needs to be pushed is winning is actually the worst thing to strive for. In my opinion, winning is the equalevant of death. You win, why are you alive because now you are the train wreak everyone else in the world fears becoming.


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