Why pain?

By Merlijn Gabel

You may have already seen my name pop up on the website or somewhere else and you are aware that I have recently started on a new stigmatics project. If not, pain, suffering and stigmatics are the themes I will dive into for the next four years, with the focus on Austria. Last Christmas, the importance of the research became instantly clear. Enthusiastically, I was speaking with a family member about pain. She is a nurse and I asked how she would know if her patients are in-pain. It is important to know that she works mostly with children. She replied that children almost always point to their belly to express pain. It does not matter whether they are dying of cancer or are worried about an important school test, it is the belly where they feel this unpleasantness we call pain. She also stated this makes it difficult for medical personnel to read the severity of the pain children are experiencing. In some cases, doctors may be seriously in doubt whether the children are in-pain or not.

Of course, pain does not always have to be the result of a lesion, think about the so-called phantom pain people can experience in their lost limbs. The relation between lesion and pain becomes even more uncertain when there are people who have a serious injury but claim to not experience pain. Think about cyclists in the Tour de France, who can continue cycling with a broken hip, elbow, knee, ribs, or all the above at the same time. As pain is not always a sign of lesion, doctors do not always trust children being in-pain when they point at their bellies every time they experience something unpleasant.

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Foto by ©Leonie Kohn

Not only modern-day doctors are aware of the ambiguous relation between pain and lesion. They were just as aware of it in the past, just as the doctors who examined Juliana Weiskircher. She was an Austrian stigmatic from Schleinbach, a small village close to Vienna. She was born in 1824 and her youth was marked by all sorts of pain. She was one of ten siblings, of whom six would not see their tenth birthday, which was, how sadly so, not uncommon in the nineteenth century. Her father died when she was only thirteen years old, which had a big impact on the young girl. If this was not enough, she was often sick. Very often. She was probably suffering of tuberculosis among other diseases. She coughed blood and sometimes lost control over her body when it cramped. We can only imagine the tragic and pain she must have experienced. Sadly, the medical treatment was not developed enough to cure the diseases. One of the few things doctors could do to relieve pain was bloodletting, but this did not heal her. She had to accept that she had to live with a body-in-pain. Beside the worldly bodily suffering, she also experienced a divine suffering, which became tangible in 1847 in the form of stigmata. She could feel how Christ had been nailed on the cross. The nails left wounds on her hands. This divine suffering was not meaningless and went hand-in-hand with visions. She felt Christ’s pain in body and soul and in an unconscious ecstatic state she would cry out: “My God,” “My Lord,” “This Pain,” “Thy will be done.” Other times she seemed to be in absolute bliss and her face was still and peaceful. When she was not in an ecstatic state, the sources state, she was a happy and cheerful person.

The stigmata did not only leave a trace on the body, the miraculous phenomenon also had an impact on the small village of Schleinbach. Word travelled fast at the time, as newspapers covered the event, and a growing number of people wanted to see the stigmatic for themselves. The word did not only spread to the curious, local authorities also became aware of the miraculous events happening in the town. For them the claimed miracle was a potential social turmoil that needed to be clamped down.

The reasons why the authorities were so anxious about Juliana are a bit unclear. I assume they were afraid of every popular movement that could undermine their jurisdiction. In 1848, European states were threatened by revolutionary forces. The continent had barely recovered from the previous major revolution and the following Napoleonic wars. In this light, it makes sense that the local Austrian authorities suppressed all possible popular movements that had the potential to undermine them. They preferred the unexplainable miracles in Schleinbach to disappear, rather sooner than later.

How to make a miracle disappear? The answer is quite simple. By simply showing that the miraculous is ordinary. This was the mission of the doctors who had to examine the stigmatic. First, they examined her at home, but they were under the conviction that the Catholic home-environment was one of the main triggers for the extraordinary events. A true examination could only be done in the hospital in Vienna, far away from all the misleading Catholic influences. In Vienna the doctors would show to the world that Juliana had faked the stigmata and therefore the miracle was no more than an ordinary scam.

Juliana and her family were not easily convinced to go to the hospital. The poor health of the girl made her vulnerable for the trip and the intentions of the doctors seemed unjust. Only after the bishop had put in a word and the doctors had promised they would cure the girl, they were persuaded to send Juliana to Vienna.

In Vienna, she was treated for almost half a year during which she was constantly watched by nurses and was isolated from any spiritual care-taking. The treatment had its effect. Her health clearly improved and the bleeding had stopped. This was for the doctors the sign that she had been faking the stigmata and they declared her cured, shortly after it seemed unlikely that the stigmata would return. Their mission was accomplished as the miracle was no longer miraculous.

Although the doctors had declared Juliana cured, she still had cramps and bodily ecstasy, which still caused a lot of pain. The doctors, however, stated that she was just exaggerating. Women at that time were ought to suffer in silence. Behavior that did not fit this model was perceived as fake or an exaggeration and could thus be ignored.

In our contemporary eyes it seems totally absurd that a woman who is clearly in-pain can be diagnosed as cured. We are often under the conviction that we are no longer formed by such degrading cultural models of how to express pain. If someone claims to be in-pain, it is acknowledged. Even psychological pain, such as depressions, are more accepted than ever before. So, why is the story about Juliana interesting for us?

I want you to think about the children from the introduction, who point at their belly when they are in-pain. Doctors still lack tools to know how severe someone’s pain is. They often ask the patient to scale their pain from 1 to 10, but we can all think about reasons why this system is untrustworthy and can sometimes still end up in doctors ignoring the children’s pain. Just as they did with Juliana’s. These small children do not yet understand the codes to express their pain correctly. Or how do we deal with people from other cultural backgrounds, who express or feel their pain differently than we do. Recently, I spoke with a doctor who has a lot of patients with a Moroccan background. When these people are experiencing stress, they feel pain in their belly. It took her a while to figure out these people were having stress although the symptoms might implicate something else.

Therefore, the story of Juliana is still important as it is relevant. If we want to be respectful to all people-in-pain and treat them the best way possible, we can no longer take our own cultural standard of how to express pain as the only standard. Otherwise, we end up with more people like Juliana, who come out of a hospital and lose faith in all medical treatment. After Juliana returned home her health decreased once again and the stigmata returned as well. But now, as the doctors had ‘proven’ her stigmata were fake, they did not pay any attention to her anymore. Her tragic life ended in 1862 when she died at the young age of 42.

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