How a subtle but longstanding stigma keeps us from conquering our pain for good.
The first time I gave birth, I surprised even myself. Guttural tones filled the air, arising from deep within my diaphragm. Last week, when one of my grown babies ran his miniature shopping cart into the back of my heels, I let a swear word slip. So it should come as no surprise that when my nearly nine-year marriage disintegrated overnight, I felt the need to share.
If that last sentence made you cringe for a reason you’re struggling to articulate, you’re not alone. It’s uncomfortable and uncommon to hear unfiltered responses to the pains that disproportionately plague people who are born into the world as female. Consequently, words like bitter and melodramatic are more likely to attach themselves to traumatic divorce stories than terms like brave and transformative.
Say It Loud
In today’s age of pharmaceuticals—some useful and some overused—we don’t often witness raw pain in daily life. But common sense points to the benefits of vocalizing pain. On a most primal level, the volume and frequency of my moaning kept the midwife apprised of my need for pain meds during my first birth and a warm bath for my second. The tone of the curse word I hope my child didn’t retain imparted the importance of steering clear of people’s feet. Telling the story of how I became a single parent led me to a mom in my neighborhood playgroup, a nurse practitioner who screened me for STIs and an entire secret online support group. I thought I was the only one, but all three connections were to people who experienced the same thing as me.
It’s uncomfortable and uncommon to hear unfiltered responses to the pains that disproportionately plague people who are born into the world as female.
Science confirms the benefits of vocalizing pain. Authors of a 2015 study in the Journal of Pain put vocalization to the test by asking participants to immerse a hand in painfully cold water. Study participants who were instructed to say a neutral “ow” tolerated the cold water longer than those who remained silent. Even more vindicating, in a similar 2009 NeuroReport study referenced by the authors, participants who swore out loud, labeled as negative vocalization, tolerated the cold water longest.
Putting Pen to Pain
Two therapists, three support groups, and five years later, my pain has quieted. When an old friend asked me if I still hate my ex, my authentic response was “I’m over it.” I have a new life partner and get every other weekend to recoup from the joys of parenting. But my version of “over it” has not involved silence. At 52,000 words, I’m on the second draft of a memoir I’m writing for the unknown number of people who get sidelined by what I overcame.
People don’t talk openly about the kind of thing that happened to me, but when one of us speaks up, others take notice. When I scratched the surface of it by writing a post for my city’s mom blog, it was one of the most read posts of the year.
At first glance, my story centers on infidelity, yet another term that incites visions of angry, rancorous women. But infidelity doesn’t discriminate. Whether they’re on the offending or receiving end, at least one in five Americans can relate. When the polling company YouGov surveyed about a thousand Americans, 21% of men and 19% of women admitted to cheating on their partners. Another 7% of survey participants said they preferred not to answer the question. These findings don’t account for couples who identify as something other than heterosexual.
Whether monogamy is dead or not, I’m convinced there’s a robust audience for my story.
No Place for Chick Lit?
In my cursory Google search for book proposal guidelines, one of the top results was from a boutique agency with a particular interest in women-focused, how-to books. While they welcome memoirs, part of the agency’s advice for prospective authors says “If you have a memoir about your monster of an ex-husband and your struggle to reclaim your self-esteem after finally kicking him out, I’m very sorry, but that’s not really for us.”
In today’s age of pharmaceuticals—some useful and some overused—we don’t often witness raw pain in daily life. But common sense points to the benefits of vocalizing pain.
I paused and looked twice at their guidelines. Why would a self-professed women-focused agency exclude such a large swath of women’s stories? From my perspective as a reader, women rising from the clutches of a life that doesn’t serve them is a popular, lucrative narrative. Elizabeth Gilbert became a New York Times best-selling author when she chronicled the healing journey prompted by her divorce. Oprah Winfrey offered Glennon Doyle a movie deal after she released a memoir of how she rebounded from years of betrayal in her marriage. And then there’s Cheryl Strayed, who left her first marriage to hike the Pacific Trail and recover her self.
I get it. Not every abuse and recovery story belongs on a shelf at the local independent bookstore. In the United States, one in four women have experienced domestic violence, and one in three have experienced some form of sexual violence, but in the words of New York Times editor Daniel Jones, even death needs an angle. That’s why I’m obsessively cataloguing stories. I want to figure out how best to tell mine.
Our Own Worst Enemy
So far I’ve found one article in my favorite love and relationships column that centers on infidelity, and it’s written by a man. There are others that touch on parts of my story, but not in full. As I strive to polish my writing skills by reading good stories, I’m beginning to notice a pattern. In literature, when a man vocalizes pain, it’s seen as valid, even artistic. When a woman does the same, she is labeled as whiny and resentful, often crazy. She is less likely than her male peers to enter the literary cannon, and due to privacy issues with very real potential consequences, she is frequently encouraged to turn her true story into fiction.
I myself am guilty of internalized oppression when it comes to vocalizing pain. I don’t want to sound like that angry blogger or that out-of-control laboring woman down the hall. What if people see me like they see her? Is my story even worthwhile given I can’t find one like it in any reputable publication? Am I allowed to write it? This is the voice that threatens to drown my own every time I sit at my desk to write.
As the birth of my first baby approached, other women’s stories were part of my prep. Some women would rather forget their birth stories, but others claim to be transformed by the experience. Hearing and reading their stories is how I learned it’s common to poop on the delivery table, say things you wouldn’t say under normal circumstances, and feel a rush of endorphins if you’re able to forgo the pain meds.
…when a man vocalizes pain, it’s seen as valid, even artistic. When a woman does the same, she is labeled as whiny and resentful, often crazy.
So too with infidelity, sexual abuse, and domestic violence. If it weren’t for women’s stories, how else would we know that there are good men open to dating a woman in her mid-thirties with a toddler and infant in tow? Who would testify that no act of sexual abuse is too small to be a big deal? And who better than survivors to tell us that breaking the cycle of domestic violence—both physical and emotional—almost always feels insurmountable?
Over It For Good
If it weren’t for my need to vocalize my story, I never would have discovered it’s about so much more than infidelity. I wouldn’t have connected the storyline of my divorce to the universal human need for love and belonging. I wouldn’t have cleared the main traumatic event of my life fully enough to start processing the deeper, older wounds of growing up female in a male-dominated world.
Contrary to literal interpretations of the Garden of Eden, it is not our lot in life to quietly bear the pain inflicted upon us. Instead, we must bear witness to our own pain and to others’ in order to get through and over it.
I may never be rid of my scars, but my wounds are healing. By putting pen to pain, I hope to inspire others to shamelessly give voice to theirs.
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Last Updated September 4, 2019