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The Chapter on the Pain Olympics from the ALI Community History Book

Too Many Fish to Fry had a post about the Pain Olympics this week, asking more the why-we-do-it question.  So go over there for that discussion (and don’t forget to read the comment section).  What I want to talk about here is the history of the Pain Olympics and the waves the ALI community goes through.  But a tangent for a moment.  Does anyone remember when I coined the term ALI community?  It was 2008, and it was embarrassingly with this post.  Did we know that post would lead to a sticking term?  I don’t know… sometimes looking at the history of things is amusing.

The first time I heard the term Pain Olympics in regards to infertility was in 2004 on Tertia’s blog.  She was responding to Laughter and Forgetting’s post about Pain Points.  She summed up the feeling that was fairly common in the community in that moment: “And yet. I do feel as if there should be some acknowledgement of the pain of a ‘lifer’ on Infertility Row.”  I think back then, in 2004, it was more common for people to respond to this sort of post by offering comfort or verbally diminishing their own pain in the face of someone else’s, even if they also hinted that the Pain Olympics weren’t helpful.

Adding up your Pain Points (which as bloggers and commenters stated were obviously ascribed in the eyes of the beholder; not everyone would agree with the numeric value assigned to certain procedures or paths to parenthood) gave you a sense of place.  It wasn’t that you weren’t accepted in the community; it really never occurred to me that it was an acceptance thing or a non-acceptance thing.  It wasn’t a you-can-give-advice-or-comfort thing or not (until it came out that way later… more on that in a moment).  It just… was.

But you can see from the comment section that we weren’t always anti-Pain Olympics even if there were always people who didn’t embrace the idea.  When the idea was proposed in 2004, it was hailed as a great explanation by some and rejected by others.  But it was more of a discussion, politely held, with support given and inclusivity kept for the most part.

In fact, Laughter and Forgetting’s original Pain Points post was about how we couldn’t quantify emotional pain.  She made the Pain Points to point out how bizarre it was to think that we could really have worse and better exist in a vacuum.  She pointed out this fact as did others in the comment sections of various posts that appeared around that time jumping off of L & F’s post: there were too many non-definable factors that go into how you process your IF including your emotional reserves, your support system, the state of your partnership (if you had one), your financial situation, your culture or religion… the list is endless.

The discussion about the Pain Olympics bubbled up from time to time, and then in 2007, there was the Redbook Infertility Diaries brouhaha.  Readers were up in arms that the two IF bloggers were both parenting.  To say that people reacted explosively is an understatement.  It was a little disturbing to see the ire vented at the bloggers, and This Sorta Fairytale said it best when she wrote, “instead of directing anger at the editors who did not bother to consider the feelings of their readers or their bloggers, we have once again directed it at one of our own who is doubtless still dealing with the emotional toll infertility takes.”

On one hand, diversity is just common sense and gives a panoramic view of a situation (of course, with only two slots, it was never going to be all-encompassing).  And on the other, I think it’s a branch off the Pain Olympic tree — this idea that some were worthy to discuss infertility and some were not.  Julia’s history was known, her Pain Points high, her pregnancy currently happening.  Lili’s history was not known, and she was pounced on.  It was a really divisive and upsetting moment in the ALI blogosphere since it was directed at individuals, and the fallout went on for a while.  Later on, Redbook had a string of bloggers write about their infertility, always reaching a stopping point and then starting with a new person.  But that came after people had trotted out what amounted to the Pain Olympics, wondering who was worthy to talk about infertility, who was not.

One of the interesting things about blogging for so long is that you process all new posts against old posts.  You see ideas go in and out of vogue.  At some point, the wave turned and now those who supported the Pain Olympics were in the minority and those who were against the idea were in the majority.  I don’t think you’ll find many posts outright supporting the concept of the Pain Olympics now.  We are more likely to sit on one of the branches than hug the main trunk.

I’ve always been against the idea of the Pain Olympics — back in 2004 and still now — but I come at it as someone who has spent many years teaching Voltaire’s Candide, which covers this topic thoroughly.  I’ve always proposed the idea of the Pain Campfire, where we all sit around it sharing our stories and listening to one another rather than racing each other as if it’s a competition.  But I’m also a kumbaya-singing wimp like that.

The community changes constantly, and that is mostly due to the fact that the people in the community change over time, bringing in new ideas or renewing old ones.  The culture of the community changes; at times anger is directed inward at other infertile men and women, and at other times, we bond together and fight against something outside the community.  I guess I always wonder about these waves — why the community explodes from time to time, and how we bring the same ideas back (what determines the interval?).

Sometimes I think about writing up a history of the ALI community as I know it, recording all the explosions and times of peace, the blogs that were here, the writers who have morphed or disappeared entirely.  Just so we have that context.  Even though it’s usually fairly uncomfortable to reflect on those bad times — even the ones you just observed from the sidelines — as much as it’s sad to sometimes scroll back through a comment section and notice all the names of people you know have moved on from the blogosphere.

26 comments

1 gwinne { 02.05.13 at 11:43 am }

Timely for me. I’ll go read the post that inspired this.

Another blogger, InBetween was recently talking about whether or not she’s an infertility blogger, now that she has a child. And she got me thinking about who counts as “infertile” (outside the context of the dr’s office). A DE mama? Seems obvious. An married woman who gets pregnant using IUI? Not so obvious. Does that matter? At some points when I was most raw, it certainly did to me. And I don’t like admitting that.

2 gwinne { 02.05.13 at 11:44 am }

That is “unmarried” woman. Proofread. Gah.

3 E. { 02.05.13 at 12:43 pm }

I understand I think the argument from those who would rather not compare and rank pain. At the same time, I feel like sometimes it’s necessary to distinguish, even if you’re not ranking. I recall recently – I THINK it was on this blog – the writer saying that there’s a difference between those who always knew they’d have to do IVF (childhood cancer survivor, for example) versus those who are astonished to find ourselves here. There wasn’t a value judgment placed on one over the other, but it is helpful to say that the experiences are different.

Perhaps this is also an argument in favor of the pain campfire? I don’t know – something I’ve been working through on my blog is the idea of providing context and how it can be a really good idea when you’re talking about numbers. I think differences are important to note, whether or not you ascribe value to them.

4 Kate (Bee In The Bonnet) { 02.05.13 at 1:16 pm }

I think the value of the Pain Olympics and desire to participate in the Games has much to do with one’s perceived place among all the potential competitors. For myself, I find very little value in the Pain Olympics… unless I arbitrarily decide that I would be the default winner, in which case, my inner dialogue grows much more feisty toward the potential loser– How DARE you whine and complain?!?! Don’t you know how *easy* you have it compared to me?!?!

But I think my standard outrage at playing Pain Olympics is mostly because I am almost always on the losing side. No one wants to feel outdone, and it’s much easier for me to just decline to play the game than it is to admit that my own story isn’t all that tragic. Yes, there’s pain. Yes, it’s real and it sucks and I hate it, but I don’t like to be reminded that as great as that pain was to me, someone else had it much worse. Even when you win, you lose. No fun.

But… I kinda want to say that I get the impression pretty often that the willing participants in the Pain Olympics are usually doing so because they desperately need or want the attention that one can glean from having the “winning” pain. Notice how fast page views jump when there’s a controversial post or an especially painful event. Clearly, no one would ever admit that they wish tragedy on themselves (and I do think that at heart, no one truly *would* want such tragedy to befall themselves), but I do sometimes think there is some jealousy at the attention that all the painful events allow. I think about many blogs that I’ve found because they had a sensational story of some kind that drew me there. And when I read people writing about how terrible their pain is compared to so-and-so who has it marginally better than them, it just reeks of jealousy to me. Which is weird. Just weird. It’s almost akin to toddlers breaking rules just to get attention, because ANY attention is better than NO attention.

One of my dear friends had a joke phrase that he repeated often that had come from an experience with an ex- of his. She was trying to get his attention, and she finally bounced about and shouted, “acknowledge me!!” And so, when he saw someone doing something attention-seeking, he would shout, in full, annoying, nasaly-whine-mode, “acknowledge me!” And when I read situations where people are attempting to draw the spotlight toward their own pain (as opposed to, say, honestly sharing what amounts to a shitty situation), I hear that voice ringing in my head, begging to be acknowledged– see me! Pay attention to me! Someone notice me! Drive up my page views! Feed me with comments! I NEED to feel popular!!

Er, okay. Maybe I’ve gotten way off track with this, but that’s what reading Pain Olympic stuff makes me think about, that it must suck to feel so horrible inside that you NEED to win at being the most hurt person, just so that you can win something. When I read about people dogging the Redbook infertility writers, I really felt that people were, at least in part, jealous that they weren’t picked to be the star themselves, that they felt that their stories were MUCH more interesting, more intense, more “real”, and that *they* should’ve been chosen, rather than those other fakers who obviously don’t have *real* infertility, since they so easily became parents.

So yeah. That’s just my impressions. I can handle a certain amount of “woe is me”, especially when it’s warranted, but when it becomes clear that it’s just competitive Pain-ing, I just have to stop reading someone’s story. It’s too much.

Of course,

5 a { 02.05.13 at 1:17 pm }

Maybe the Pain Olympics is part ”lame attempt to make it seem not so bad” (you know, like punching yourself in the stomach so you can forget about your headache?) and part “I can’t really understand what you’re going on about, because I can’t remember/never experienced how awful that part was.”

I like the idea of the history, though…but mostly, I just wanna know why Tertia doesn’t like Julie. :)

6 Jendeis { 02.05.13 at 2:42 pm }

The following is not (just) to blow smoke up your a$$, just to let you know that I find the concept particularly helpful and use it often when discussing both IF and non-IF-related topics.

Totally irrelevant to your point in the post is that at the time of the Redbook stuff (say 2007-08) it seemed like every new writer they got for that blog would become pg within weeks of starting the assignment. At the time, it felt like a conspiracy against me (you know, cause the world revolves around me).

7 jjiraffe { 02.05.13 at 3:34 pm }

Thanks for the link and huge thanks for explaining where the term came from. The history about the online infertility community is really interesting and I love being able to know where commonly used terms come from. I miss William Safire’s “On Language” column.

8 Shelby { 02.05.13 at 3:44 pm }

Kate-totally agreed. I can’t help but see this deep need for attention in the whole game of pain olympics, but that might just be the psychologist in me. And even if you do wish to participate in the Pain Olympics, what are the rules? How does one ‘score’? You will never be able to quantify perception. Does a miscarriage before seeing the heartbeat get a 1? After the heartbeat a 2? What if your husband was also cheating on you at the same time? Does that get you a few extra points? Seriously, this could go on and on.

I think the waves we experience in the ALI community will never be traced because an attitude or thought is like a contagion in a group of people, especially one as large and ever-changing as this. And this being online, it’s even harder to pinpoint.

My personal pain Olympics story:
Early on in the young days of my real-life IF group, we had a ‘member’ (for lack of a better term) who, when she found out I got pregnant after my first IVF, decided to revoke my IF ‘title’ and announced spitefully to the group, “she’s not even infertile then! what’s she complianing about?” Luckily I wasn’t a witness to it, because girlfriend and I would have had some WORDS. She was a bit crazy, though, and needless to say, didn’t last very long with us. So, I’m not much of a fan of the pain Olympics as I’ve seen how ugly it can get in real life.

Do we feel differently about people who have experienced more or less (in our perception) than us? Yes. Should we make anything of it? No. It will get us nowhere, fast.

9 loribeth { 02.05.13 at 3:54 pm }

Well, I’m a fan of all kinds of history : ) (those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, etc. etc….) and while I’ve been around awhile & remember some of the posts you mention, I think an ALI community history would be fascinating and enlightening, for both oldtimers like me and newer members of the community who cared to read it. : ) I too am curious about what happened to some of the bloggers I used to read who have disappeared.

I am still working in the same department where I started with this company, 26 years ago. Everyone else who was working here when I started has long gone, although I do have a few coworkers who are hovering around the 20-year mark, and there are people here now who have more years of service with the company than I do, just not in this particular department. Everyone comes to me when they want to know the history of a certain issue or document, & while I don’t always know everything, I can usually tell them something, or point them in the right direction. Somebody will have this “great idea” & I’ll say, “We already did that, and this is why it didn’t work.” Sometimes they will listen to me, sometimes not. Sometimes enough of the players & factors have changed that it’s worth another try. It is a strange (& sometimes frustrating) thing to see history repeat itself over & over and the pendulum swing back & forth, from one extreme to the other and back again, as the players change and institutional memory fades.

Re: the Pain Olympics — I guess it’s only human to be envious and want what others have, and feel that our pain is the only pain that matters. I try not to get caught up in it. I do remember, though, when I was going through fertility treatment, being distinctly irked by a woman on my pg loss e-mail list who wrote about how she had “suffered through infertility.” She basically tried for about FIVE MONTHS before conceiving (unassisted) the last of her THREE living children. I guess her other pregnancies were conceived right away, & to her, five months ttc was “infertility.” Gahhhh!! (As you can see, it still irks me now, lol.)

10 Geo chick { 02.05.13 at 5:11 pm }

Well said as always. :)

11 Rachel { 02.05.13 at 5:18 pm }

I hate the pain Olympics, and yet yesterday (as I was awaiting my period for the 36th or so cycle) I indulged. It just fell out of my mouth (to a mom of a Rainbow baby) and it was so terrible and whiny and I am embarrassed.

But when I think about it, sometimes you need a Pain Olympic minute just to validate your pain. And I can’t have them with anyone. My mom’s response? “You can’t let this dominate your life”. My husbands response? “Isn’t our marriage good enough?” Anyone else? “Can’t this girl shut up?”

It’s hard. I know that. So I understand when people play…I just don’t like it.

12 Lori Lavender Luz { 02.05.13 at 5:38 pm }

I would love to read that history. Let me know if you need helpers on the project.

Why do we go through the waves? Because people mature through the community (through the passage of time) and new people enter who haven’t had a chance to learn from its history.

It’s interesting to go back through old posts — I recognize old names and wonder “what ever happened to?” Some names have continuity. And some names are missing because while they are ALI bloggers now, they weren’t back then.

It’s not a static community that can process something and move forward. Though as individuals, I hope we can :-)

My theory, anyway.

13 Sara { 02.05.13 at 5:59 pm }

Thanks for writing this. When I read the comments on Jiraffe’s blog, I also thought “surely it was Tertia, well before Rachel,” and I actually started to write about the Redbook kerfuffle (first it was Julia, then Julie, then JJ) in my comment, but ended up deleting that part. I was far too lazy to actually chase the links and confirm my memories, though, so thank you for doing that.

Regarding the comments above dismissing pain comparisons as simply attention-seeking behavior, I don’t think it’s always quite that simple. Maybe I’m just naive, but when I was blogging, I never even checked my page views. Not everybody has the same motivations for blogging, and having the biggest most viewed blog isn’t what everyone is going for, or at least it wasn’t back in my day (gosh I feel old!) Wanting someone to be present for you sometimes, though, rather than just being quiet and waiting for their turn to talk, seems like a pretty standard human thing, though, or at least it is in my world ;-) I know that if someone dear to me got so frustrated by my failure to really hear them that they felt the need to shout “acknowledge me,” I’d be far more mortified by my behavior than theirs! I guess that what I’m trying to say is that I think that the Pain Olympics tend to occur when people feel like their words around the Pain Campfire are being ignored.

It would be interesting to do a “whatever happened to…” post about the first-generation IF bloggers that have now dropped out of the blogosphere.

14 Cristy { 02.05.13 at 10:46 pm }

I’m in complete agreement with Kate. I also see the Pain Olympics as this strange way of garnering attention, usually because the individual trying to “win” is so desperate for some acknowledgement of their pain. When I was younger, I played Pain Olympics a lot, mainly because I was constantly being belittled and feeling that I didn’t matter. Thankfully, I’ve learned a lot since then.

I most certainly would be interested in hearing more history about the ALI community! This post is a gem (I never knew pain points existed) and I imagine learning more about the history of this community will allow us not only to grow but learn as we encounter similar situations in the future.

15 Jess { 02.05.13 at 10:47 pm }

I’ll admit, when I was at my lowest, and felt the most marginalized I ever felt (11 IUIs, 10 IVFs, 4 losses…) I played the pain Olympics. I think for me it was that I wanted to find others who had been through as much as I wanted to belong somewhere, anywhere. And even well intentioned empathy for me didn’t help, and at some point I felt like I became the poster child for “enjoying watching the train wreck to feel better about my own situation”- as in the worse my story got, the higher my page views.

Now that I feel less desperate and sad and am finally a mom (via adoption) I feel I have better perspective on things and realize it was my own fragile ego that allowed my participation in the pain olympics…though I think I’ve always known logically it wasnt “right.”

16 Mali { 02.05.13 at 11:10 pm }

Hurt people hurt people. And hurt people get hurt very easily, in ways that perhaps we wouldn’t at any other time in our lives. So it doesn’t surprise me that the Pain Olympics debates might come and go in the community, as the membership changes. When I was part of the Ectopic Pregnancy Trust community, there were a number of very emotional debates, and they basically came down to Pain Olympic issues. Mothers telling non-mothers that their (the mothers’) pain was greater because “they knew what they were losing.” Non-mothers telling mothers that their pain (the mothers’) pain was less because they already had a child. But the reality was that everyone was hurting, and they were all vulnerable, and rather than one pain being greater than another, it was different. There were one or two difficult times though, but the community came out of it stronger, and new norms of behaviour – namely, respecting everyone’s pain – were established. It was easier there though, because there were moderators and rules of etiquette. We don’t have moderators and rules in the wider blogging community, but we still have a lot of people who are in pain, are raw and vulnerable, so potential conflict or hurt is inevitable. The truth is we have probably all felt this at some time or another. And I think that is natural. After all, human beings do compare their situations against others, and how they sit as a result of those comparisons does determine how they feel (rightly or wrongly).

But really, all any one wants is to hear that they are heard, that their pain, their loss, their individual situation, is acknowledged.

17 Amy { 02.06.13 at 12:29 am }

The thing that kills me about all of this is how horrifyingly cruel and judge-y the ALI community in general can be, and, maybe moreso, why that surprises me. It strikes all facets…someone’s IF story is worse than another’s, one woman’s adoption journey was more hellacious, this woman’s pregnancy/baby loss story is more tragic than that woman’s. I had no idea until some anonymous troll smeared me in my own blog comments. I walk in both worlds: IF and babyloss. Both suck. Both have left scars I don’t think will ever go away, no matter what the future holds. That’s probably true for (guessing) the vast majority of us. So why minimize? It’s bizarre behavior…behavior that reminds me of the packs of mean girls in school. Women and girls can just really be hateful, and what a shame when we could all be supporting and commiserating instead. I don’t get it.

18 persnickety { 02.06.13 at 1:04 am }

It is a way to manage (not well) the pain- to play the I am more (or less) of a sufferer than someone else. It’s dark and horrible, but sometimes making someone else feel bad can help people feel better (that has always been my take on a lot of the bullying that happens). I don’t think it is exclusive to women, just that we know how to wound each other- men are vulnerable in a different way.
I try to avoid it (although sometimes it is harder than it seems), for me it is more on the “my life sucks, but at least it isn’t…” scale. Except that I am becoming the horrible example that I used to observe, bit by bit.
I do have a personal scale of pain- the IUI disappointment is worse than just “trying” with nothing, but less than IVF, which is less than miscarriage. Kind of like the personal scale of pain that the ER makes you rate (which is totally subjective). It’s on a scale of 1-10 of worst pain you have ever had. Most of the time I score pretty low, because it never hurts as much as a sinus headache.

But emotional scars are always subjective. I think (although I have NO logical basis for this) that a miscarriage after having at least one child would be less painful than ones where there is no other child. But in conversations with my boss, whose wife has had at least one, he found the miscarriage after his son was born worse, because he knew what was lost. I have found that I have become more stoical about losses as we have gone on- both in failed IVF cycles and in the latest miscarriage. By contrast, each problem seems to weigh more on my husband- the miscarriage was a real shock to him. It is disconcerting (and frustrating at times- I want him to be despondent with me), but also helpful- when one is down, the other can be the optimist and then it reverses.

19 Tiara { 02.06.13 at 8:05 am }

Not sure I have anything to add that hasn’t already been said, I think I need to mull this all over for a bit…but thank you for writing this. Being a newer member to the ALI community, I am very interested in it’s history.

20 alloallo { 02.06.13 at 8:40 am }

This is really helpful… thank you! as an IF-er and Media Anthropologist (yes, it’s a thing!) I’d be very interested in reading this history and/or helping out in some way.

21 Peg { 02.06.13 at 9:15 am }

Kinda off topic, but I’ve said many times in the last 3 years that there is no such thing as the grief olympics. Loss in any degree of magnitude sucks and it’s really not something I’d want to win a gold medal in.

On topic, I think a history of this community would be fascinating. Seems like a great dissertation to me…

22 Chickenpig { 02.06.13 at 9:30 am }

I would love to read a history of the ALI community. There are several blogs where I have gone back and read all the archives so I could see what the community was like before I discovered it. What would really be nice is if we could point at a chapter and say “See, we already hashed out the differences of primary and secondary infertility, no need to fight about THAT again.” Sometimes this community just feels a little like being tied to a mill stone that keeps grinding the same old sh*t.

The Pain Olympics don’t stop with infertility, unfortunately. I left a mothering multiples group because it seemed like they spent all their time competing about who had the sickest/smallest preemies, or who had the toughest first months. You would think that moms would compete about who went the longest or who had the biggest babies or the least pregnancy problems, but not dice. Now I am dumping parents of children with autism for the same reasons, everyone fighting about who has had to fight their school for services, or whose kid has the toughest behaviors. Is this really an event that anyone wants to win?

The thing with the ‘Pain Olympics’ is that there are about a million events, everyone can medal in something. Had a tough childhood? Abusive parents? Mental illness? Drug addiction? Did you lose a sibling? A parent? A child? Were you raped? Were you in an abusive relationship? The list goes on and on and on. Anyone who wants a medal in the Pain Olympics can have one. Maybe we could post them on our blogs so readers could know in advance if we’re worthy?

23 Rose Mary { 02.06.13 at 10:57 am }

This post got me thinking about a phrase I often hear in a particular 12 step meeting “identify, don’t compare”. I also ask that as a community we stop by “C” is for Crocodile and show them our love and support as they lost their lovely son to leukemia yesterday.

24 Illanare { 02.06.13 at 4:01 pm }

I try not to participate in the Pain Olympics (outside of my own head) if I can but I have a similar story to Loribeth above. Two weeks after I lost my daughter (second loss), a close friend announced her pregnancy and told me she knew exactly how I felt because it had taken her 8 months to get pregnant. I did hold my tongue to her, but not to my partner who finally stopped my ranting by reminding me that the only person I was hurting was myself.

25 Kris { 02.06.13 at 8:19 pm }

I remember when the whole pain olympics came up. During that time, I was blogging at Broken or Not, and had gotten in an argument with a blogger who had informed me that I was not infertile, because I was able to get pregnant. She was unable to get pregnant herself, and felt that infertility was only based on whether you could get pregnant or not. If you could, you were not infertile. Yeah, I was able to get pregnant, but I lost those pregnancies just as fast. I was not able to keep a pregnancy. Yeah, I am lucky now, and have two, but I will always remember being told I didn’t belong in the community because I was able to get pregnant. I also remember a post, I think by Barren Mare, about infertility island. How sometimes we had to say goodbye to people, watch them leave the island, but also know that they may be back, dejected, and would need us. It was a more moving post to me than the one about the Pain Olympics.

Even with two kids, I still consider myself infertile, because I have continued to lose much wanted pregnancies. At this point, I am no longer trying, but when I discussed it with my fiance, the possibility of having kids with him, I had to say, this is something that may not happen, because I am infertile.

26 Kris { 02.06.13 at 8:25 pm }

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