Does Forgotten Pain “Count”?

Are you being cruel to yourself if you can’t recall how that cruelty feels?

During my latest meander through the maze that is cyberspace, I stumbled upon an article entitled, “Twilight Sleep: The Forgotten 20th Century Method Of Childbirth That Erased Memories”.

Twilight sleep sounds heavenly. No pain, no memory of childbirth. You go in, and next thing you know, your baby is in your arms. That sounds vastly superior to the method I’d have chosen, which is to knock me out and wake me back up when the kid is 21 and self-sufficient. Because talk about a time suck.  

Twilight sleep was really popular in the early 1900’s, but it has since (thanks be to God) fallen out of favor. On its surface, it sounds plausible. You give the mom morphine for the pain, and then regular doses of scopolamine throughout the childbirth to erase their memory thereof. Feminists at the time were huge advocates of this procedure. Anything that would make childbirth painless sounded good to them. This article will tell you how historically horrific childbirth could be.

In fact, at about the same time there was a vast increase in the number of mothers who chose to go to a hospital rather than giving birth at home with a midwife. Nobody wants to be in pain if they don’t have to, right? It also caused doctors to explore techniques of pain management in general, which, as far as I’m concerned, is a good thing.

Unfortunately, twilight sleep has multiple issues. Of course those drugs are passing through the placenta to the baby, and some babies were born not breathing. As the procedure became more popular, medical staff that hadn’t been trained had also been known to kill the mother with an overdose of the drugs.

But there’s another horrific reason why twilight sleep fell out of favor. Anyone who had given it the slightest amount of thought would have asked themselves why one would need to forget an experience if it were painless. Therein lies the rub. It wasn’t.

The woman would be administered morphine while still conscious, and I’m sure that felt like a huge relief. But it’s easy to overdose on morphine, so it’s not like the physician could knock the patient out completely or give additional doses once the pain came roaring back. Instead, they would administer the scopolamine to put mom in an amnesic state.

In other words, she felt the pain. She just didn’t remember anything about it afterward. The birthing room had to be kept extremely quiet during this procedure, because the slightest noise or distraction could snap the patient out of the amnesia, and there she’d be, in excruciating pain, and would then remember every moment of it. That sounds like a hellish way to wake up. So the nurses would often cover up the woman’s eyes, and plug her ears so she couldn’t hear anything. And then, because her body was still feeling the pain, they would often tie her hands and arms down and pad her body so she wouldn’t thrash too much. Many women woke up wondering why they had burn marks on their wrists.

So that begs the question: Does forgotten pain “count”?

To me, twilight sleep is a way to torture the body while the mind remains blissfully ignorant. It’s unethical. What ever happened to, “First, do no harm”? It’s like saying that if I drug a woman and rape her, it isn’t really rape because she won’t remember. (Bill Cosby was quite adept at this.)

As far as I know, no studies were done regarding the psychological damage to the unconscious portion of the minds of the women who went through this experience. The body was still in agony. That’s a trauma. Part of you must feel awfully helpless in that situation, feeling pain and not being able to engage the rest of the brain enough to make it stop. That’s got to leave a mark.

I suppose it could be argued that forgetting the pain, if that’s the only alternative, is better than nothing. Personally, I’d rather retain my own agency. I’d want to engage my whole brain in the epic battle against the enemy.

Pain, for the most part, is survivable. It’s not fun and it’s not something I would wish on anyone, but it’s survivable. (Chronic pain, on the other hand… I can see why someone would choose to forget that rather than endure it.) I highly recommend pain management, but I don’t recommend checking out and letting your body go it alone. At a bare minimum, your being would be undergoing inner abandonment issues. Self-trust would be obliterated.

There aren’t really many regulations regarding how a person treats his, her, or their own body. If so, there would be people walking around snatching the cigarettes out of the mouths of strangers. That sounds like heaven to me, but some might disagree. After all, we are the bosses of us. Or at least we should be. (And before anyone lights a fire in my comment section, this does not equate to having to wear a mask or get a vaccine, because those things are about protecting everyone, not just selfish old you.)

There’s a fascinating series, streaming on Apple TV+ right now, called Severance. In it, people are voluntarily undergoing a surgical procedure that severs their home and work lives. The minute they enter the elevator to get to their office, they have no memory of what they do during their off hours, and vice versa. It’s almost as if two people take turns using the same body.

The main character has signed up for this because he is devastated due to the death of his wife, but he knows he must continue to work. Severance means that he will only have to experience his grief while at home, and can function efficiently on the job.

Another character is having an intriguing debate with herself. Her “innie”, or the part of her that works, hates the job and wants to resign. But her “outie” refuses to let her, even though Innie is clearly suffering emotionally. Outie doesn’t care, because she doesn’t remember any of that. Unless both parts of her get on the same page, then no change can happen, leaving the opportunity for change at a distinct disadvantage. Outie’s lack of compassion effectively renders Innie a slave.

So, are you being cruel to yourself if you can’t recall how that cruelty feels? Are you torturing yourself if you don’t recall the pain? Does a person with dementia love someone that they no longer remember?

How much of your brain has to be in sync for you to be you?

Like this quirky little blog? Then you’ll enjoy my book!


Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

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