One evening in Washington, at a dinner celebrating a mutual friend, an acquaintance passed his phone diagonally across the table to me. I declined reading the article in the restaurant and he agreed to email me the link instead. When I got home that evening, I read the the article, in which Iraqi-born author Sinan Antoon argues that the surge of published writing by veterans, in particular Iraq War veteran Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet focuses on the suffering of American veterans who voluntarily enlisted to serve in the US military while erasing the experiences of Iraqi and Afghani civilians caught in the crossfire. Antoon raises many important points concerning which narratives are considered relevant by the literary establishment and are expected to appeal to the American (reading) public. His article didn’t have a great deal to do with my work facilitating writing groups in psychiatric treatment programs within military hospitals, which ostensibly prompted this poet—a man I barely know—to suspend his cellphone over my dinner. The implication, I suppose, was that by using poetry to help American veterans ease their own suffering, I was contributing to the problems Antoon outlines. I emailed the phone-wielding poet a response inviting discourse about varying definitions of voluntary, about which particular veteran narratives are published by major presses, and about a reader’s responsibility to seek a range of voices. That I received no reply is only mildly surprising.
The effort to relieve or acknowledge suffering in one place does not deny its existence in another. There is enough suffering to go around. To suffer is to bear something, to be under something. The Wicked Witch of the East suffered from a house falling on her. Then someone took her shoes and her feet shriveled in their striped stockings. But think of the trials of the shoe thief, the poor lost little girl who fell with her house out of the sky. The munchkins were suffering too, under the tyrannical rule of the witch—that must have been terrible. And the Tin Man, no heart. And the Lion no courage. And the Scarecrow no brain. What’s the worst?
In most of my writing groups in psych programs there is someone who believes their own suffering is the worst. There is always someone who believes their own suffering is unworthy of mention. Everyone has been asked by someone in their lives: Why can’t you just get over it? Why are you choosing to be so miserable?
The compulsion to compare and measure and (in)validate suffering, and particularly the perceived inverse relationship between choice and suffering fascinates me. What factors would go into an equation of suffering?
Where x is the number of times you felt fear in your home as a child and y is the number of times you braved violence to go to school and z is the number of adults who loved you unconditionally and m is incidents of sexual violence over the course of your life and v is the frequency with which you experienced prejudice and t is regret and w is the people you loved or were responsible for who died and c is the loss of a child and d is a near death experience in adulthood not related to war and g is financial ruin or loss of employment due to circumstances outside of your control and s is acceptance by a peer group and t is the experience of hunger and f is having a safe place to go. And a is personal choice.
I haven’t factored in the specific pain of:
Intimate partner abuse
- Substance abuse
I haven’t factored in the relief of:
- Access to beauty in nature
- Good looks
I don’t know how to account for predispositions toward anxiety, sensitivities, social awkwardness, the confines and pressures and advantages of birth order, expensive tastes, below average intelligence, extreme intelligence, a tendency toward insomnia or nightmares.
What sets my own suffering apart is that it’s happening to me. What makes your suffering the worst is that I can’t imagine what that’s like.
Poor You and Poor Me. The diarchy of the kingdom of suffering. The Royal We.
I have several writing prompts on hand, and one in particular I had planned to use, but the air in this room is unsettled, and I want more information. I ask the eight men and women in the room some questions. “What has the mood been this week? What do you find most helpful about this program? About therapy? What doesn’t work for you?” And my favorite, “How are you kind to yourself when you’re working so hard on your own shit each day?” They are responding with generic, short answers. Finally one man takes a deep breath and sits up. I have seen this man in a treatment program at another hospital as well. He has slept through groups, has doodled instead of writing, has told me politely that writing is not helpful to him because thinking about things makes him worse, brings flashbacks. Last week, though, he picked up the pen and wrote.
“Honestly, ma’am,” he says, in his slow, subdued way. “None of this helps. I was better off before. You saw me in the other program. Now I’m here. None of it’s working. I just feel worse.”
“I did see you before. I don’t know if you said two words then. You seem better.”
“I feel worse.”
“You know how you can’t even walk after leg day at the gym? It’s like that. You feel worse. Then you get better. It happens. When I see someone cry–”
“Ma’am,” another man, who had cried while reading his writing in group the previous week, chimes in. “We don’t cry. We sweat from our eyes.” Everyone laughs.
“Right. Sorry.” I respond. “When that happens, you’re probably about to feel better, to understand something, if you can just stay with it. But man, I know it’s hard.”
My cousin is eight months into a high-risk pregnancy, her first. She is craving french fries and we go to McDonald’s. We have gas in the car and dollars in our wallets. It is a beautiful night, all the windows are down. The sunroof is open. In the parking lot she tells me she feels guilty for being sad. “There’s nothing to be sad about. I am so grateful to God. But it’s overwhelming, this sadness. It comes from nowhere. Hormones maybe.” She is bothered, more than anything, by the ingratitude suggested by her bouts of sadness. Everyone is bending over backwards to care for her. How dare she be sad? The discomfort with grief, with debilitating emotions that seem to be an inconvenience for others, is a somewhat separate facet of the experience of loss and trauma. There is the event and the emotions associated directly to that and then separately, there is the intense sense of shame for feeling. The weakness of feeling brings shame, we are taught to keep our feelings under control, to keep our woundedness cloaked. When inevitably we can no longer sustain our stoic exteriors, we feel both the grief and an overwhelming sense of shame about feeling it.
Two months ago, she visited my apartment and started bleeding. My sons, their lungs and hands and organs fully formed, these people who left the darkness of my body cloaked in blood, shine like evidence of my good luck. An embarrassment of riches. I herd them into my bedroom, the furthest corner of the apartment. Reward them for their proximity to disaster with weeknight video game time. She in the bathroom moaning. Her mother on the outside of the door talking her through it. Her husband pacing. Her brother and I staring at one another wide-eyed. We search the Internet for possible causes. The bleeding subsides, the baby is moving. The bleeding starts again. At three o’clock in the morning, we call an ambulance.
I go to the hospital the next day. She is fine, the baby is fine. Risk is still high, but the crisis has been averted. She says, “I’m so sorry, Seema. Weren’t you six months along when you lost your baby? This must have been so hard.”
Needle through epidermis, through womb, under soft budding clavicle bone, stilling a tiny beating heart. I chose certain death for him over an uncertain life for all of us. It has been eleven years since I terminated that pregnancy. Each year on the anniversary, I think he would have been this many years old. This year I think: eleven, eleven, eleven.
When my son Sam was eleven, he got a leather jacket that made him feel grown up. That year, for the first time, wearing that ridiculous jacket, he pulled his arm from mine as we walked to the grocery store. The natural cleaving. Inevitable.
Shame holds people hostage through silence. It fuels the voice that rings in all of our heads that says, no matter what we accomplish or who loves us, “If they really knew you…” And the fear isn’t unreasonable. We live in a permanent record world. There is a taboo against changing minds or negating previously held beliefs, against making mistakes. The accusation of “flip-flopping” leveled in political campaigns, the deep digging into the personal histories of public figures—this makes apologies, admissions of mistakes, and the reevaluation of beliefs, absolutely terrifying; a last resort. I say, “I lost a baby.” As though I misplaced him by accident. As though he wandered off.
She said, he said, he said, he said, he said, they said, he said, she said, “Seema, you don’t understand. I have killed people.” Sometimes they say, “There were kids.” There is a pause, wide eyes on me. I nod. I think, So have I.
There was almost a baby. I would have been his mother. It’s not equal. This suffering is voluntary.
Seema Reza is the author of “When the World Breaks Open,” a memoir of essays and poetry forthcoming from Red Hen Press in Spring 2016. Based outside of Washington, DC, she coordinates and facilitates a unique multi-hospital arts program that encourages the use of the arts as a tool for narration, self-care and socialization among a population struggling with emotional and physical injuries. Her work has appeared online and in print in The Beltway Quarterly, HerKind, Duende, Pithead Chapel and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency among others. An alumnus of VONA and Goddard College, she was awarded the 2015 Col John Gioia Patriot Award by USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore for her work with service members. She serves as a council member-at-large for the Transformative Language Arts Network.