When we’re children, around the age of middle school, we start to learn the kinds of people we are in comparison to other people. Jake is tough, Kevin is nerdy, Ashley is a jock, etc.
What I learned about myself is that I’m sensitive. Other people figured this out and started calling me a crybaby, wimp, and weak. The name-calling hurt my feelings, of course. But it always bothered me for another reason as well: I never felt like I was a wimp, weak, or a crybaby. I felt like I was more sensitive to pain than others.
Throughout most of high school, I didn’t give this much thought. Nobody wants to think they’re a big fat crybaby, after all, so even if I don’t perceive myself as one, it doesn’t mean I’m not one. I shrugged it off as one of those things. I’m a crybaby. So what?
And really, it didn’t matter. At that age, expressions of toughness are limited to the ability to withstand branding your foot with a quarter or survive lighting a firework in your own hands. It was easy to pass off my sensitivity to pain as level-headedness that other teenagers didn’t have. I built an identity in high school around being the ‘only sensible one.’
And yet. There was always a part of me that wished I wasn’t such ‘a crybaby,’ so that I could have the fun of lighting a firework in my own hands too.
Most people grow out of being crybabies. Either becoming an adult whips them into shape, or they become spoiled and entitled adults.
But, I never grew out of it. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t help but be more hurt by things than others. It didn’t matter how much I tried to ‘take my mind off of it’ — pain, both physical and mental, seemed to exact a toll on me it didn’t on others.
There were two things I could conclude. Either I really am more sensitive to pain, or I’m character deficient in some way.
In high school, while my friends lit fireworks in their hands, I was recovering from a debilitating case of depression. It was so severe that my brain registered it not as an emotion, but as physical pain. Even nine years later, I lack the words necessary to describe the experience. It was pain beyond comprehension.
But since depression is invisible, no matter how severe, and high schoolers aren’t known for their sensitivity, I earned a reputation for being a big fucking whiny baby.
As this depression slowly eased off, I began to develop some kind of unknown stomach condition. The primary symptom was sharp pain, like the stabbing of a knife into my abdomen over and over, for up to one hour after eating.
After my experience with depression, this pain seemed paltry by comparison. In my adulthood, I now recognize that it was the kind of pain that should have sent me to the hospital. But at the time, it didn’t occur to me.
These things, taken together, sound like compelling reasons for me not to think of myself as a baby. But everyone else did, and I really, really didn’t want to be a baby. So I concluded that I needed to grit my teeth and man the hell up. If other people could handle their lives, then I could handle mine.
I misinterpreted ‘handling it’ to mean ‘ignoring it.’ (Which is exactly what I did for my depression as well). When my stomach ignited in pain and people asked me what was wrong, I brushed them off with a simple ‘I’m tired’ and collapsed on the couch. It would take three digits to count the number of times in high school I told friends I was ‘tired’ or ‘not feeling well’ when what I meant was that it felt like someone was eviscerating my intestines with a steak knife.
It’s important for me to explain that I didn’t see a problem with any of this. I was aware that my friends didn’t experience excruciating pain three to five times a week, but it seemed sort of abstract to me, the way being wealthy seems abstract to someone who grew up in abject poverty. It didn’t occur to me that I could have the same thing.
One day I said ‘I don’t feel so good,’ wandered into the bathroom at a friends house, and then collapsed to the floor, dizzy with pain. I don’t remember how long I sat there, fading in and out of consciousness, but I do remember it was then that I finally decided I had a problem.
These two experiences, taken together, seriously screwed up my perception of pain. When doctors asked me to rate my pain on a scale of one to ten, I had to adjust my scale to account for what the average sixteen year old would rate as a ten, not what I could imagine as a ten.
Later in life, I discovered a standardized pain scale. I appreciate this pain scale because it quantifies pain by observable physical reactions. On this scale, my stomach pain was always a 9 or a 10.
This story makes me sound tough. “Megan, how could you think you’re weak if you went through all that?” And during that time of my life, I was. I use that time of my life to remind myself how tough I can be.
But I was also stupid. Because when I went to the doctor, he prescribed me a tiny blue pill called Levsin. When the stomach pain starts, Levsin takes it away. A month’s supply for $20. I suffered through three years of agonizing pain when a cheap pill could have taken it all away.
This was the first lesson I learned about pain. Don’t endure pain without complaint if there’s something you can do about it. Don’t be stupid.
For the record, I also avoided treatment for my depression, but there were a lot of complicating factors. My stomach episodes were I caused myself agonizing pain through sheer stupidity.
The fear of pain never bothered me when I was experiencing it regularly. It was a simple fact of my existence; sometimes I hurt, sometimes I didn’t, whatever.
Going into college, all that changed. Thanks to the little blue pills, I didn’t have to experience that pain more than once a month. But now that my day-to-day existence didn’t include excruciating pain, I was terrified of it. Any time my stomach even twitches with discomfort, I would break out in a a cold sweat. Is it back? Is it back?
For the first time in my life, I was afraid of pain. It followed me like an axe hanging over my head everywhere I go. At any moment, the pain could return.
And for most of college, it turned me into a blubbering wreck.
Even so much as a stubbed toe triggered the part of my brain that thinks the pain is coming back. Also, thanks to my depression, the fear of the choking misery returning terrified me. Even the slightest emotional pain made me freeze in fear, thinking ‘it’s coming back.’
During college, the time most people spend out trying new things, I folded deeper and deeper into the safety of my apartment. Surely there, in the safety of my home, nothing could hurt me. (During this time, I received both a diagnosis of Panic Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder).
That’s when I became a baby.
Being a baby isn’t about the degree to which you do or don’t feel pain. Good ole science has discovered that sensitivity to pain is affected by the structure of your brain. Which, anyone could have told you. There is a disorder where even nonpainful things are painful, and there is a disorder where you don’t feel pain at all. So, clearly, the degree to which people feel pain varies widely.
Being a baby is about the courage with which you face up to pain. Bringing on pain you don’t need to feel on is stupid, and avoiding pain you do need to feel is being a baby.
Or, to use the word we use for adults, a coward.
In college, for the first time in my living memory, I was pain free. Instead of enjoying it, I became a coward.
I knew I was being a coward during this time of my life. I never thought so explicitly, but on some level, I knew. I knew because I suddenly became very sensitive to others calling me weak. I found myself trying to convince people I was tough or brave.
I also watched myself give up many things I enjoyed out of fear, like rock climbing, long boarding, and outdoor adventures, for fear of physical injury.
I wasn’t a fool; I knew what this meant. I just ignored it. Courage be damned, I thought, I am tired of hurting.
I defended myself with my diagnoses, but the excuse sounded weak to even my ears. People were always very courteous of my disability, but in my heart I knew it was bullshit.
It turns out all the good things in life take a little risk. But it’s even worse than that. If you spend your time avoiding pain, you invite pain of other kinds into your life. The act of avoiding pain causes pain.
In my case, I avoided pain by clinging to known places and people in my life. By clinging to them, I avoided the pain of new places and new people. I clung to them very tightly.
Even when these people started to hurt me.
As we established before, my pain tolerance is high. So high that it took far more pain than it should have to convince me to get them out of my life.
And fuck, I knew all these things. I’m not blind. It’s not like I wanted to be mistreated. But I was afraid of the unknown. The danger of pain and depression in the unknown was more frightening than the pain I had in the life I knew, so I stayed until I physically couldn’t any more.
That was the second lesson I learned about pain. Life is painful. Don’t avoid necessary pain or you’ll have more of it. In other words, don’t be a coward.
Once they were gone from my life, I found myself pain-free for the first time in a few years (again). But this time, it was cowardice, not stupidity, that led to my pain.
My brain short-circuited. What do I do now?
The answer, of course, is be neither stupid nor a coward. If you’re in pain and you can get help, get help. If you’re in pain and there’s no way it can be helped, then grin and bear it until it passes.
A lot of people get stuck in this position. We go through something difficult and learn ways to cope. Sometimes, the ways we learn to cope stop helping and start causing the pain. Subconsciously, we remember that the coping mechanisms helped, once, so we double down on them. When double the pain hits, we triple down. And that’s how people get stuck.
Don’t let yourself get stuck. Reassess if the coping mechanisms you’re using are actually working, or if they’re making the problem worse in the long-term.