When Pain Becomes Suffering

“...the pain of labor might be defined as an unpleasant bodily sensation that one wishes to avoid or relieve. Suffering, however, is a distressing, psychological state that includes feelings of helplessness, fear, panic, loss of control, and aloneness. Suffering may or may not be associated with pain, and pain may or may not be associated with suffering." - Penny Simkin

Pain does not always equal suffering.

I learned this lesson in a powerful way during my labor.

My contractions were intense. When they overtook me, all I could do was moan through them. I tuned everyone else out and was brought inward - going into what many people call “labor land”. During this time, I moved, assumed positions I found comfortable and vocalized. Looking back, this was great coping on my part.

I was in pain, yes, but I was not suffering.

I hit 8 centimeters, coping like a champ.

And then, out of the blue, back labor set in. All of a sudden, I began to experience horrific pain in my back. We’re talking, excruciating, can’t-stand-it, out of this world pain through each and every contraction. In fact, I couldn’t even feel the contraction in my uterus once back labor set in. The pain in my back was so all consuming that it was all I could feel. It made those first 8 centimeters look like a walk in the park.

Before I even knew it, I was screaming my head off through each contraction - bloody, shrieking noises I hadn’t even known I could make. My husband, just as inexperienced as me, tried to help as best he could. My doula, nurse and midwife? I don’t know where they were. What I do know was that they were not helping me to cope when I so obviously need it.

It was then, when I felt alone, hopeless and abandoned, that I began to suffer. I didn’t know how to cope with the back labor. I didn’t know what to do. No one was helping me. The pain took over and completely controlled me. I was terrified of each contraction. The pain was so awful that I truly didn’t know how on earth I was going to handle another one.

This was suffering.

“Suffering...is a distressing, psychological state that includes feelings of helplessness, fear, panic, loss of control, and aloneness.”

I don’t know how long I suffered like that - hours, at least - before I demanded an epidural and, I might add, was given an almost unsupportive look by my midwife. But to this day, I feel that asking for that pain relief was the best decision I made during my birth, because it was the only thing that assuaged my suffering. The story might have been different if my doula or midwife had supported me through the process, but they didn’t.

My point is that I hadn’t truly understood the real difference between pain and suffering until I could compare these two very different parts of my labor. I was in a lot of pain before the back labor set in, but, as funny as it may sound, I was in a a good emotional place.

This was not the case once the back labor hit and I was left feeling incredibly alone, helpless and scared. I was in pain and in a panicked emotional state. There has never been any doubt in my mind: that was suffering.

I have said it before, I will say it again: pain does not necessarily equal suffering.

A woman can experience pain during labor and not suffer. I did up until the back labor hit. Suffering is when you hit a dark emotional place. It is when you feel scared, alone, panicked, psychologically distressed, unable to cope.

And suffering during labor is unacceptable. I relieved my suffering with medication and I am glad that I did so. For some, medication will be the way to go. For others, the remedy may be for someone to step in and ground you, guide you back to a better emotional state. Just remember, suffering during labor is never alright. Whatever it takes, never let pain become suffering. Never.