Weighing Pain

Recently, I have begun to notice a tendency to dissociate. My eyes glaze over, I zone out, I realise I haven’t been listening to a word. Or I read voraciously, transporting myself elsewhere, refusing to be present for hours and days and weeks at a time. Or my heart begins to pound, my mouth goes bone dry, the room slowly spins, the silence stretches out, my breathing becomes shallow and I am excruciatingly aware of a total dearth of words inside me. Although I’ve been searching for years for validation and recognition of my various difficulties with emotional distress, ‘dissociation’ always seemed like something that happened to people with real problems.

I wonder, now, how I could have been going through life, split into halves, not really being present, not really being there. I have always felt flayed, like I experience life too fully, that I am too present. It’s hard to accept that I could have suffered so much for so long — with my self sabotaging, cannibalistic, hyper-vigilant mind — and yet not have really been aware of myself, not really have been fully experiencing the world and the conflicts which hurt so much.

But it’s hard to experience pain without flinching away from it, and I look back now and see almost an automaton, a schizoid self tying itself in knots to hold parts of me separate from other parts, to protect elements from the world and build a wall of fog against an anticipated reality.

I’ve been trying on various labels like PTSD, CPTSD and ADHD recently and found that I finally sometimes feel that my dysfunction is valid enough to potentially warrant them-their specific relevance aside, I can place my issues within the same order, the same family. (I’ve always had the diagnoses ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’, and always wondered if it might be more complex than that, but never really allowed myself other labels. It can be difficult to obtain a more complex diagnosis within the UK NHS, and the desirability of such a diagnosis is debatable —stigma is a problem — which is one of the reasons such labels are sometimes given reluctantly. The question of a personality disorder such as borderline has been dangled over my head without resolution for many years; the general consensus seems to be that such long-standing problems as I have automatically become ‘personality issues’ based on their pervasiveness and resistance to your garden variety treatments, but a more specific label has not materialised). I like that labels like CPTSD (complex post traumatic stress disorder — an alternative title and approach to the idea of borderline personality disorder, but one which in my experience has not caught on in the NHS) focus on the cause and the processes of mental illness; it’s not you, it’s what happened to you. It felt sort of necessary to be able to put myself in the 'actually sick' category as easily as the 'not sick’, in order to feel able to cast off the whole dichotomous concept.

It can be hard to see anxiety and depression as anything other than pretty vanilla when you’ve dealt with them all your life, and when their severity varies so wildly. It doesn’t seem to quite cover it, but those are the only labels I have, so it’s natural for me to think other people have more valid problems than I do. But there’s an issue with this when we consider compassion and self compassion, all tangled up together as they are. Even alongside invalidating my own suffering, and therefore compounding it, by regarding my problems as ‘not as serious’, I’m placing a value judgement on being 'normal' and proclaiming the alternative unacceptable. If one seems more acceptable than the other, whichever direction the value judgement goes in, then I’m still buying into that system of values, placing a judgement on the severity of pain and experience, yours versus mine.

How often do we put someone else’s suffering on a pedastal and diminish our own, or vice versa? I realise that every time we do this we are putting up walls between us, holding one another’s suffering at a distance, isolating ourselves from one another through categorisation by value or severity. But what if my suffering is your suffering and yours is mine? What if the currency is exactly equal, what if we are all just as capable of knowing what it is to suffer? Could we then discover a vast kindness, a desire to take care of our neighbour as we do our own loved ones, to love ourselves more deeply as we suspend the barriers between us?

Here, to my surprise, I find not selfishness, or a sense of overstepping my own importance in weighing my pain and finding it just as heavy yours— but empathy and love, a sense of equality which is more powerful than the self-denial we tend to practice in lieu of understanding.

Of course this should not mean we do not concede the pedastal to those going through a more difficult time, or that we should not practice ‘dumping out’, but a thought exercise which, for me, brought the way I see mental illness, neurodivergence, suffering and compassion briefly into a new light.