Chronic pain and empathy: pregnancy as a chronic illness and the importance of listening
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Chronic pain and empathy
Chronic pain and empathy are unlikely bedfellows, but experiencing pregnancy as a chronic illness taught me otherwise.
Some women are pregnant with poise while others fall apart. I was of the collapsing variety. Going in, I didn’t think it’d be too much to handle. In my pre-pregnancy days, I had hiked over 1,000 miles on the Appalachian Trail. I had lived without electricity and running water as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I knew how to be uncomfortable. But this was worse. I was 40, overweight, and pregnant.
Within days of conceiving, I lost my life force. The placenta nourishes the fetus but it takes time to develop and until you’ve got one, the “little bundle of joy” acts as a parasite which caused this host to experience nausea, dietary aversions, and a loss of vitality. So I lived this way, half alive and under the constant threat of vomit. I knew I was supposed to be healthy and yet it was vegetables and water (water!) that disgusted me the most. Fast food helped but it was a shameful elixir.
My placenta-based symptoms waned but were replaced with a loss of mobility. Pregnancy weight gain tipped me into obesity and that, coupled with all the other symptoms, caused me to stop walking recreationally. As a former long-distance hiker, I felt my wings were clipped. Movement was both too difficult and too painful to enjoy. In pregnancy, your body increases its blood volume resulting in a heart-pumping twice the volume. This left me winded after even the simplest of tasks like putting dishes away or even talking. I grunted like a tennis player when I turned over in bed and then panted like a hot cat afterward.
Trips to the bathroom, which were constant, felt like genuine excursions. I was also in pain – my back, my hips, my feet, my breasts. Walking and standing were excruciating, minutes felt like hours. Sitting and laying down was only incrementally better. Even sleep became problematic. Flung into old age, my one escape was a water aerobics class where I bobbed and splashed in the company of people who found gravity as distressing as I did.
By the end of my third trimester, I felt better. I don’t think I was better, in fact, I must’ve been worse, but I had learned over the course of eight months how to be chronically ill. Acquiescing to what I couldn’t do allowed me to accept the bounds of this new normal. I stopped fighting it.
Most people assumed I was joking, or exaggerating when I spoke negatively of pregnancy. Because I had pregnancy, not cancer, my suffering was supposed to be heartwarming and cute.
All along I had been attempting to commiserate with my mother, who was seventy and recovering from a brutal fall. By phone, I often told her, “we’re basically old at the same time now.” I yearned to connect but she would laugh at the seeming ridiculousness of the idea. She didn’t believe me, that is until she saw it for herself.
With my induction one week away, my mom flew in from out of state.
We soon found ourselves chatting in the living room, pillows strategically wedged around our bodies. “See?” I motioned at the pillows, “we’re both old.” In each other’s company, there was no denying: we were in the same boat. Chronic pain and empathy are strange bedfellows indeed.
We walked with geriatric gaits, and for only a few minutes at a time. Benches were unbearably hard yet life-saving. We used grocery carts as walkers even if we knew we weren’t buying anything. “I think I need a new couch,” I’d muse, and then later we’d despair, “but maybe there is no couch that could be comfortable for us right now.”
We clung to the grab bars I installed in my tub. Digestion was a constant struggle; we swapped tips for treating constipation. We congratulated each other on bowel movements, “Oh, good,” we’d say warmly, then, “how’s your back?” Our hunch was that constipation exacerbates back pain.
Our sciatica flared all day; our leg cramps all night. We discussed these things at length while we ate bananas in hopes of healing the latter, but did bananas make constipation worse? Had we heard that somewhere? Our conscientiousness veered into superstition at times. Each day we tested hypotheses yearning to be free or our ailments. What if I eat half a banana instead of a whole banana? What if I stretch for a few minutes before I get up? What if I take magnesium? That week with my mom, before my son was born, we had a ritual. “DairyLand?” one of us would say, and the other would respond, “Do you even need to ask?” DairyLand was our local hot spot for soft-serve ice cream, Dr. Pepper, and the occasional tater tot. Pushing the gas pedal triggered my sciatica, and it was hard getting into and out of the car for both of us, but it was a bright spot in our day. What strikes me now, as I rest in this memory, is how happy we both felt at not being alone in our pain. Even though we were miserable, we were really quite happy together. The company we gave each other displaced our physical suffering.
Read more: Why I hide my chronic pain from people
But within a few weeks of my son’s birth, our paths diverged.
I first noticed it when we were walking into a restaurant and I had to slow my pace for her. Just a few days prior she had been slowing down for me. My heart sank. Sure, this meant I was feeling better, but she wasn’t and I had only been a tourist to her pain. She had to be alone now in the world of chronic illness — a world I had just realized is beautifully transformed by company yet equally disfigured by isolation. I took care of my son, who did turn out to be heartwarming and cute, and wondered: how can I support my mother now that I live in the distant land of good health?
Not being taken seriously as a pregnant woman in pain was frustrating, but I hadn’t believed my mother when she spoke of her pain. How many times had someone told me what they were going through and all I heard was “blah, blah, blah, old” or “blah, blah, blah, pregnant.” It was convenient for me to assume that because an experience is common, like pregnancy and old age, it must be manageable.
Chronic pain and empathy: unlikely bedfellows
I had never been chronically ill so when a sick person went on and on about their ailments, I wondered why they didn’t just focus on something else as if by speaking it they were making it worse. Plus, body talk is boring. Constipation isn’t an interesting subject unless you’re in its throes. But when I was pregnant, my mind fused with my body. I couldn’t focus on something else. I was no longer capable of having non-body thoughts because I was always in some sort of pain or discomfort. Each day was a twenty-four-hour-long physical obstacle course. It was hard to have a body and to get through a day. If I talked about anything other than how much pain I was in, I was multitasking. Sick people talk about their bodies a lot because their bodies have hijacked their minds.
My husband was my caretaker when I was pregnant. Without him, given my overwhelming pain and discomfort, I surely would have fallen into a depression. But every day not only did he take care of me and compensate for my increasing lack of functioning but he also gently listened as I described, often in detail, my aches and pains. He wasn’t pregnant with me, but his listening company nurtured me and kept me in good spirits. I would joke that I was E.T. and he was Elliot, but it wasn’t really a joke. We were connected by his deep empathic listening and I never felt truly alone.
From now on, when a person shares their ailments with me, I’ll be on the edge of my seat. Partly because my tailbone was damaged by pregnancy, but mostly because my ignorance has been replaced by experience.
I can love my mother now, even as I enjoy good health because I can listen.
Monica Yancey is a professor of communication studies at San Jacinto College in Houston, Texas. She has published creative nonfiction essays in Cite Magazine, Sinkhole, Months to Years, and Salt Lake City Weekly.