Other People Have It Worse
Updated: Nov 11, 2022
Other people have it worse is a pyramid scheme that keeps people from getting the help they deserve.
“You know, Karin, other people have had it worse.”
That's what my cousin, who is twelve years older than me said after he’d read my memoir about overcoming decades of minimizing the repeated gropings I’d been submitted to in ninth grade and healing from its effects. I don’t think he said it to be unthoughtful or dismissive. I think he said it because of the theory of relative relativity which states an older relative will always grow older and wiser with time while the younger relative will remain at the same level of understanding they had when they were five years old.
Case in point: A few years back I told my cousin a story about our city’s police plane. A story he felt he needed to correct me on by explaining to me that police services have helicopters. Not planes. He corrected me despite the fact that at the time I had been a Special Constable at the police service for seven years. That I was a dispatcher and had dispatched the police plane to hundreds of calls. My cousin’s reaction when I had the audacity to double down on my outlandish statement that the police station where I work has a police plane?
“What does it look like?”
So, when my cousin said, “You know, Karin, other people have had it worse.” I think he said it because he genuinely thought I, despite being a 9-1-1 operator and police call-taker, a fifty-one-year-old woman who has watched the news, read books and knew a little history, might not have a clue that other people have had it worse.
“I knooooooooooooooooooooow!” I said in my expertly honed snotty five-year-old voice.
“That’s why I wrote the book.”
When I first told my therapist about being repeatedly groped in ninth grade, I expected her to dismiss it as being insignificant, just the like the teacher who witnessed it almost daily did. I never once considered it could be linked to my decades of symptoms of anxiety, depression, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempt. Symptoms that fit neatly into a bi-polar diagnosis that was bestowed on me by a disinterested psychiatrist in my mid-twenties. Symptoms I thought came from a mis-wired brain and could only be treated by a drug he prescribed that never seemed to work.
But my therapist didn’t dismiss my story. Instead, she listened with empathy, took it seriously and started asking me questions. Questions that burst open the floodgates in my brain and let in all the pain, humiliation and shame I’d blocked out for decades.
That pain confused me. Because I didn’t believe I should feel that bad. I didn’t think what happened to me was a worthy enough of an experience to warrant the mental health problems I’d been struggling with for decades. I thought I was being a big baby. A weak snowflake who couldn’t handle a little teenage horseplay.
Because other people have it worse.
Take your pick.
At the time, I worked forty-eight hours a week steeped in other people have it worse.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“Worse than you’ve ever had it.”
And when I wasn’t taking calls from people who were having objectively worse days and lives than me, I was dispatching officers to possibly life threatening and life altering situations. To scenes where they see, smell and hear things that no person should be exposed to on a regular basis.
“Your job must be stressful,” people sometimes say to me.
“Yeah, but the officers on the street have it worse,” is my usual reply.
But just try telling an officer on the street they’ve had it bad because odds are a hundred to none they’ll tell you a story.
About someone whose had it worse.
But I don’t need to work at the police station to know other people have it worse. I have a friend whose baby died. One who was regularly beaten by her mother. One whose father passed her around to his buddies.
And if I didn’t know them, all I have to do is turn on the news to see how other people have it worse. How in the big scheme of things, being regularly groped by a classmate is way, way down on the scale of human suffering.
But still, I couldn’t deny the fact that once I let the feelings I’d been suppressing out of the bag, it hurt. It really, really hurt. And what I wanted and felt I needed most at the time was to hear a story about someone who didn’t have it worse and still felt bad. Like me. I needed to see if I was over-reacting or if my reaction was reasonable. I needed validation. I needed permission to feel the way I was feeling.
My therapist would later give me all the validation and permission I would accept. But my next appointment was a month away. The next available one she had.
So, I went to the bookstore. I went online. Searching for personal accounts of people who had minimized their mundane, run of the mill, non-newsworthy fully clothed non-penetrative sexual assaults only to have it rear its ugly head later in life.
What did I find?
Lots of stories about people who had been sexually assaulted and left with mental and physical health challenges.
Who were these people?
People whose stories were shocking. Whose lives had been threatened. Who weren’t believed, weren’t supported, weren’t helped. Who were revictimized by their community, the courts, the press.
People who had it worse than me.
I finally came across a book by Peter Levine called Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. I bought the book because of a line on the back cover: “People are often traumatized by seemingly ordinary experiences.”
Seemingly ordinary experiences.
That phrase gave me permission to buy the book. Read about trauma. See if it had anything to do with me.
It turns out it did. It turns out that the threshold for an experience to be traumatic isn’t as big as I’d assumed. That it isn’t reserved for the shocking, the horrific, the terrifying, the life threatening. That the amygdala, the fear center of the brain, doesn’t make distinctions between levels of threat. That even though the more evolved parts of the brain know other people have had it worse, the amygdala doesn’t care. That if left unresolved a traumatic experience can result in a plethora of symptoms that can persist if left unrecognized and untreated.
That, I told my cousin, is why I wrote my memoir.
Because I believe there are more of me out there. Legions of me. Who have pushed down their own mundane, unexceptional non-newsworthy sexual assaults that may have resulted in unrecognized and unresolved trauma. Sexual assaults that may have shaped their belief systems and therefore their lives without them even being aware of it. Sexual assaults they would never think to revisit as being a significant factor in their development.
Because it wasn’t that bad.
How do they know?
Because other people have it worse.
When my cousin asked me the question, I felt I had to defend not only my intelligence that I know other people have had it worse, but also my reason for writing my memoir. But after our conversation, when my defenses came down, I became curious about what he said. And I wish I’d asked him why he said it. Because really, what is the point of telling someone, who shared a painful experience, that other people have had it worse?
Because other people have it worse has nothing to do with us or what happened to us. Other people have it worse is faulty logic in weighing our experiences. Measuring its importance in our lives. Other people have it worse is a pyramid scheme that runs on the mistaken premise we need to save all our compassion and empathy for someone else. That there isn’t enough to go around. That we need to meet certain requirements, hit an undefined benchmark of special and unique suffering before we are allowed to claim compassion for ourselves. Other people have it worse keeps us from acknowledging what happened might have hurt us. And if we can’t acknowledge we were hurt, how do we know we need to heal?
Because I didn’t. I thought my decades of mental health problems were a result of a faulty brain, bad morals, ungrateful heart, weak will. I thought I was born wrong and never considered that anything wrong had happened to me. At least not as wrong as the things that happen to other people. The other people allowed to claim their wrong.
And who are these other people that get to make the claim that they have it the worst? Are there even more than one of them? Is that allowed? Or is all compassion required to flow ever upward until it has finally reached the apex, the one poor sorrowful soul who has had it worse than every other living person on the planet. What would that person even do with all of the compassion? What would they say when they were finally given it?
“You think I’ve had it bad? Let me tell you about great-grandfather's life. Then you’ll really know something about someone who’s had it worse.”
I’ve told many people my story. People who, in my mind, have had it worse. And I haven’t found one that lobbed that phrase at me. Told me I shouldn’t hurt about something so minor. I believe it is because they know a few truths. That trauma is trauma. If something hurt you, it hurt you. Pain is pain.
I think they know something else. That recognizing someone else’s experience doesn’t diminish theirs.
It’s been said that comparison is the thief of joy. I would argue it is the thief of mental health healing as well.
I have a friend I’ve known for over thirty years. She grew up with two alcoholic parents who were physically, mentally and emotionally abusive. She has been in trouble with the law. She struggles to maintain relationships. She self-medicates with alcohol. She recently told me that she often wakes up to the sound of her father screaming at her. She hasn’t lived with her father for a long time. I suggested that seeing a therapist might be helpful. I offered to help her find one. Told her I would pay.
She shook her head and cracked open her third beer.
“It wasn’t that bad,” she took a sip.
“It sounds like it was bad enough,” I suggested.
“Nah, I know other people who’ve had it way worse,” she chugged the rest.
For what other injury does other people have it worse hold so much power? My co-worker was recently diagnosed with cancer. He says he’s lucky. That it was caught early. That the prognosis is good. That it’s not even half as bad as some other people’s cancer diagnoses. The people who have it worse. Still, he’s going to his treatments. He’s getting the health care he needs and deserves to root out the cancer and regain his health. Other people having it worse isn’t going to stop him from doing that. Just like it never stopped me from taking a pill for a headache, medicine for a cold, and accepting anesthetic for my c-section.
So, why does it stop people from seeking out treatment for their mental health injuries? Part of it might be the mind’s natural coping response of minimizing what happened. Protecting them from the pain they aren’t ready to face. But I suspect there are other things at play. Hidden or not so hidden beliefs about strength, weakness, shame, guilt. Thoughts that they shouldn’t need help. That they should be stronger. Like the other people who’ve had it worse but didn’t need help. Didn’t need therapy. Didn’t need medication. Pushed through. Carried on. Thrived despite.
They might also be scared, that if they do tell a therapist, their experience won’t be taken seriously. That it will be dismissed. That a trained professional will confirm what they already suspect. That what happened to them wasn’t that wrong or bad. Not enough to cause them the pain they are feeling or responsible for the ways they are coping. That the problem isn’t what happened. The problem is them.
I don’t really know why my cousin wanted to make sure I knew other people had it worse. I believe he said it out of love and caring for a younger relative who he doesn’t want to see hurting. Because it is uncomfortable to watch someone else struggle and be in pain. Uncomfortable to hear about it. That by reminding me that other people have it worse, he was trying to point out the ways that I am lucky. Focus on the positive. I believe he had good intentions and that when some people say it, they have good intentions as well. But when he said the phrase that is not what I heard.
I heard don’t be a whiner. Don’t complain. I heard that I don’t deserve to feel bothered or bad. I heard the teacher’s reaction when I begged him to make the boy stop grabbing my breasts, my buttocks and my genitals almost every day. I heard don’t talk. Don’t tell. Get over it.
But when my cousin said it, I’d had enough years of therapy to challenge the phrase and know I didn’t have to believe the underlying message I heard. Not everyone is in the same position I am when someone says that phrase to them. For that I know I’m lucky.
Luckier than who?
The other people who have it worse.