Tag Archives: academia

Crip(pl)ing Pain – Poster Presentation at Encountering Pain

At the end of last week, I went to the Encountering Pain conference at UCL. The conference was really good – it was very much an interdisciplinary conference, so there were people from a range of academic disciplines, as well as artists and medics. One of the starting points of the conference was the work of Deborah Padfield – particularly the pain cards she co-created alongside people living with chronic pain who were also undergoing medical care for their pain; I really recommend looking at Deborah’s work – and attendees also heard from project participants, which was really interesting.

I was asked to prepare a poster – not my strength at all, unless it involves felt tips – on the topic of crip and pain, hence the title. I probably spend too much time trying to be witty with titles. My poster was a very short account of how crip theory can be used to expose some of the problems with chronic pain. You can look at a pdf version of the poster (which was also the flyer version), and a word version if that’s more your thing (especially if you’d rather not deal with images and layout).

I’m going to try and explain what I mean by the problems with chronic pain. I am also going to try and not use complicated academic language like I did on the poster. Please tell me if I am not explaining my ideas very well.

So, to start with – crip theory puts forward this idea that modern society (at least society in the UK, but also in the US and other similarly set-up places) sees “normal” as the ideal – so everybody should want to be “normal” and society is set up so that “normal” people benefit from it. Some people are not normal because they are disabled, or gay, or not white, or old, but society also thinks those not-normal people should be trying to become normal, because being normal is the best way to be. In academic words, this is called “compulsory able-bodiedness”.

Pain means lots of things in modern society, and pain is both normal and not-normal (in the same way a white gay man is also normal and not-normal). I think there are five big ways that pain is related to the idea of normal.

One: it is normal to feel pain. There are some people who do not have certain genes, which means that they cannot feel physical pain. This is considered a serious disability, and it does make certain parts of those people’s lives very difficult. This is because pain is very useful to us when it tells us our bodies are doing something dangerous, like touching a hot cooking pan, or that we are sick.

Two: normal people are able to talk about their pain, and tell other people when they feel pain, and why they feel pain. If I bang my toe on a step, if I am a normal person, I need to be able to say “ow. I have just banged my toe on the step and so my toe hurts.” Sometimes we need the help of other people with special training to help us understand why we feel pain – these people are doctors.

Three: pain only has meaning in relation to other things. This is a little bit complicated, but: I banged my toe on the step and now my toe hurts. The pain itself is only important because I banged my toe and because I tripped. If I have a headache, the pain is only important because it can tell me or the doctor that there is a problem. Pain on its own does not have meaning. This is why chronic pain is such a big problem in this society that wants everyone to be normal – because it is not telling us or doctors anything, it does not tell me anything about the world, and it is not caused by anything. It is just pain.

Four: pain is bad, even when it is normal. Nobody is supposed to like having a headache, or falling over. Normal people should try to stop feeling pain, usually by stopping what they are doing, and sometimes by taking medicine. When people are in pain they are not good at being normal – and because we are supposed to want to be normal, we are supposed to want to stop pain.

Five: we do not try to feel pain. This is joined to number four – pain is bad, normal people want to stop their pain, and normal people also do not want to do anything that will make them be in pain. If we are doing something that makes us feel pain, the pain is still bad – and these things are only acceptable because the result is good: when we do a lot of exercise, and when people give birth to babies. People who like to feel pain, or who do things even though they will feel pain, are not normal people.

I think this is a really important thing to consider, because pain is very important in medicine and also in disability, because almost everybody feels pain at some point in their lives. Even people who do not feel pain in their bodies feel painful emotions (and sometimes it is hard to tell what is a painful emotion and what is a painful sensation – it is not always helpful to split them into two things).


So, back to the conference. It was really interesting to hear so many perspectives on pain, and about all the ways people interact with pain. Rita Charon’s talk on narrative medicine was really good, particularly when she talked about the need to practice social justice with medicine (although I got the feeling this made some people in the audience uncomfortable – possibly because we think of medicine as this very neutral thing). One of the things I did notice was that people didn’t really mention disability much – and there was no suggestion that chronic pain could be considered alongside disability, or as a part of disability. I think this is partly because disability rights and disability theory hasn’t always been comfortable about including people living with chronic pain, or talking about pain more generally – but more so because a lot of the thinking about chronic pain was very based in medical diagnosis, so people were separated out based on what diagnosis they had. So while we could talk about trigeminal neuralgia and M.E./C.F.S at the same time, as both are chronic pain diagnoses, there wasn’t space to talk about M.E./C.F.S. and autism, or fibromyalgia and Downs Syndrome in the same space. For me, this was really disappointing, as I thought that a lot of the ideas people were explaining, particularly when it came to problems with doctors and patients, could really have benefitted from some disability theory reading.

There was also division between medics and people living with chronic pain – even though there was some acknowledgement that people living with chronic pain could be experts, they were never expert medics. Expert art therapists, or artists, or writers, or even expert patients – but not medics. There was some discussion of empathy, and of doctors’ hero complex (where doctors don’t like to lose and don’t like to be wrong), and even of the problem of this word normal creating artificial divisions. I really, really think some consideration of the ideas of compulsory able-bodiedness, of medicine as a system of knowledge and power, and of ontological intolerability would really have helped. I know these aren’t necessarily considered suitable topics for events that want to be engaged with the public, and they are definitely uncomfortable topics in medical spaces, but my one disappointment was that there was so little space to speak back to medicine, to challenge it directly.

Otherwise it was a fabulous event, really interesting and engaging – and with some great dance from Anusha Subramanyam. I really recommend looking back through the tweets at #encounteringpain and exploring the various images and texts linked to there. Sue Main’s work at Exhibiting Pain is definitely worth a look (and a comment) – as is this essay from GP Jonathon Tomlinson (which contains some great links at the end). Huge thanks to Deborah and her team for organising (and Deborah more personally, for the encouragement and talking me in to doing it when I panic-quit).


#BADD2016 – On Pain (of course) and the Personal

This post is for Blogging Against Disablism Day 2016. You should go read the rest of the blogs and check the hashtag #BADD2016 on Twitter. Massive thanks, as always, to Goldfish for organising this.

When I tell people about the subject of my PhD, they frequently look at me like I’ve gone round the proverbial bend for a few seconds. I can understand that – chronic pain isn’t exactly the cheeriest of subjects, and it doesn’t sound like there’s a lot of space for much to be done. Then, a lot of the time, something else happens: they assume I am looking to cure chronic pain or they look at my walking stick and ask “so, this is for personal reasons?”

I can, on some level, understand why. But whenever I talk to other PhD researchers, what quickly becomes apparent is that their research is always personal to them – but it is only “minorities” (i.e. disabled people, people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, or women) who are assumed to be doing their research about something personal, something integral to them. And there is a part of my research that is personal – I started to look at disability because I was settling into being comfortable with being disabled, but I found people like me weren’t reflected in what I was studying at the time (which happened to be gender and sexuality). I wanted to go and find a part of academia where I was included.

At the same time, my research wasn’t chosen because I live with chronic pain; it was chosen because when I was interviewing participants about their queer identity and acquired disability, BDSM and kink came up in two of the three interviews – and while that was probably just luck, it came just after I’d had a job working for a BDSM-friendly cafe, Coffee, Cake and Kink – now Coffee, Cake and Kisses, because finding somewhere willing to lease a store to them with the word kink in the title was impossible – where one of my responsibilities was helping to develop the company’s disability/accessibility policy as an employer and a venue, with the aim of making it an accessible space. This was (obviously) a few years ago, and it was very much at the “ideas first, practicalities later” stage – but it was interesting to note how many of my colleagues and our customers and people on the BDSM scene were interested in disability rights, were disabled, or had friends who were. Endless conversations were had, and then when kink came up in those interviews – it seemed to me like this was something that was not being talked about.

Pain is assumed to be a major part of BDSM (for those of you not familiar with the acronym, it stands for Bondage and Discipline, Domination and Submission, Sadism and Masochism – and no, I haven’t read 50 Shades, because I like my porn well-written, thank you) – and while it can be involved in some practices, it isn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion, and you can do kinky things without feeling pain – or causing another to. That said, there are lots of activities that can include playing with sensation – such as flogging, spanking, or needle play – or that might cause pain as a side-effect, such as some positions in bondage; others might include what could be thought of as emotional pain. There isn’t always a great deal of discussion of pain in BDSM – I think because pain has such a negative connotation, particularly with violence and suffering, that it is a difficult thing to really put centre-stage, especially when many people on the scene want to “normalise” BDSM, to remove the stigma of being kinky. So I was interested in what pain meant in that context, as well as in the context of disability. I admit, I went with pain because I have chronic pain – although I was also considering bondage in the context of reduced mobility – because it seemed like such a juxtaposition, but I’d spoken to enough people to know that there were people out there who liked playing with pain, who also lived with chronic pain. It might not have been what I was into, but it didn’t seem unreasonable.

So it was personal, but it also wasn’t. I don’t know if I’d have discovered the gap in academic writing if I hadn’t become disabled, but it isn’t a foregone conclusion. Not everyone who studies disability is disabled (although plenty seem to be – or have disabled family or friends), but not everyone who studies French literature is French – that it is assumed to be correlated is what annoys me. I’m not the first person to get annoyed by this – lots of feminist academics have written about the same issue with their work – but it is something I’m struggling with, separating myself from my writing when I also want to pull out my own experiences, when I have written about how my work affects my pain (simply put – it makes it worse, but also different) and centralised reflexive practices (a.k.a. navel-gazing) in my research methods. It is … difficult.

Which doesn’t mean I don’t wonder if people would stop assuming it’s personal if I wasn’t using a walking stick.

A sweary reflection

It’s been a little over a year since I’ve started my PhD. It’s been, well, mostly good. The panicking, the crying, and the sense of despair have been balanced by the joy of good feedback, a sense of achievement, and above all, doing what I actually love, even when I bitch like hell about it. Because even doing things you love can seem like a pain the arse when you’d really like to be doing that other thing you love which doesn’t have a deadline.

Doing my PhD has already taught me a few things. It’s affected my fibromyalgia – and been affected in turn – in new and interesting ways. As well as some old and frankly boring ones. I’ve met some lovely people, online and at conferences and talks, including the awesome people who volunteered to let me into their lives and be participants (and answer some really weird, nosey questions). I’ve been introduced to some ideas that I’ve loved or hated or just made me think, that have changed how I’m approaching my research entirely, or confirmed some of my suspicions that while I may or may not be barking up the wrong tree, I am not the only one doing so. It’s been awesome.

And, in the grand tradition of avoiding doing some work, I’ve made a list of the things I’ve learnt.

1. Say no

Whether it’s because you don’t have the time, or because you straight up don’t want to, say no. I’ve got shit to be getting on with. Sometimes that shit is sitting on the sofa, eating crisps, and doing sweet fuck all, but still, I’ve got shit to do. I have finite energy – you do too, even if your reserves are decidely larger than mine – and I have learnt that I can’t do everything that everyone wants me to do. So I have to say no – whether it’s to going out with friends (it frequently is, and my friends are the best for understanding this) or reading a book or travelling to an event. Most people have been understanding.

This is why I’ve quit my job, at least for the rest of the year, to focus on my PhD. I do, mostly, like teaching. However, this particular teaching role was throwing up demands on my body and mind that were impacting my priorities in life – I have been bitchy and I haven’t had the energy to be the person I want to be, or to do the things I want to do – or even the things I need to do. I’m lucky; G is immensely supportive, hugely helpful, and he does the hoovering. I like the income. But I need to refocus and get on with my research and my writing, and teaching EFL to teenagers wasn’t helping. So I’ve quit and it feels great.

2. I don’t need that in my life

If you can’t acknowledge that I might know what I need or want, and that I do know what I’m doing – or, conversely, that I still have the right to go ahead and do it anyway – then I do not need you in my life. If you can’t get over my disability, I do not need you in my life. If my disability (or whatever) is such a barrier to our friendship, or you employing me, or you speaking to me politely – guess what? I don’t want to be your friend/employee/colleague/whatever. So long, farewell, fuck the fuck off.

Seriously though. One of the bits about radical self care is this: don’t feel you have to keep someone in your life if they’re sucking your soul. Which is not to say I’m going to dump friends just because they’re having a shitty day/week/year; we all do, and sometimes depression makes everything harder. But it is to say that I don’t need sources of hate in my life, and I can’t win everyone over to the dark side with the power of my personality and swear-filled arguments, so I will choose my battles and my friends.

3. Say yes

Having just said all that – I have learnt to say yes. Yes to the things I want to do, the things I need to do, and especially to the things that mean I’ll be utterly useless for days after but I hope it’ll be worth it. I don’t always say yes – but I try to, especially when it’s something that might be fun, or open my mind.

4. Down time is sacred

I have a rule: unless there’s something urgent that needs to be done by tomorrow (or worse, by yesterday), I always have a few hours to watch TV, knit, cook, walk the dogs – time to live, in a quiet, low-energy way. G and I have some tv programmes we watch together – I have several I watch alone. I like cooking dinner for us. We can talk and eat and bitch about the things that need bitching about, and it helps keep me from going batshit insane.

5. Own your weaknesses and limitations

They’re not something to be ashamed of. And in talking about it, I’ve found other people will also talk about it. I hope that, maybe, it’ll help someone else decide they can do a PhD and see that it’s not all stress and working yourself into the ground and crying. Sometimes it’s fun and the hard work is manageable, and you can do it while being chronically ill and constantly shattered. Or at least you can do the first year. Fuck knows what the rest is going to be like.