Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Universal Language of Suffering

My mother had a bad fall recently. She has Alzheimer’s disease in addition to a neurological disorder called Parkinsonism as well as some other physical challenges, most of which affect her balance, overall cognition and ability to communicate. My mother needs hands-on care during the day, which we or her caregiver can usually provide and despite how precarious it might sound, we manage to keep her safe, comfortable and happy most of the time. We haven’t quite evolved past that basic biological need for occasional sleep, though, try as we might, and that was our hiccup recently.

My mother started on a new medication for her Parkinsonism the evening of her fall and I think that it disoriented her. She got up at 1:30 in the morning and instead of just walking the ten steps from her bedroom to the bathroom like she always does, she took a detour into the kitchen and fell, banging her head on the sharp edge of the counter. There was a horrifying scream and then a crash as we ran downstairs to find her. She was on the kitchen floor, her forehead covered with blood, and she was largely unresponsive. The paramedics arrived quickly, put her on a stretcher and we met them at the hospital.

Thankfully, she only needed four stitches, but she also broke a vertebra in her neck in the fall. As injuries go, it was a fairly minor hairline fracture and it wouldn’t compromise her spine or mobility but given her other challenges, it wasn’t so straightforward. She had to be transferred to a different hospital, one better suited for her needs, and stay there with a neck brace on, her bed modified to keep her in it. She cried so much, being understandably confused, scared, upset and in pain, that she was able to get a private room in the ICU and she was probably released earlier than they would have liked otherwise, just to return her to the comfort and normalcy of her familiar space at our home.

In addition to the already pretty staggering laundry list of challenges before her, my mother had to continue on this new drug as it was hoped that it would ultimately aid her balance and make her less likely to fall. It made her even more wobbly, though, and it also rendered her utterly unable to communicate. Under the best of circumstances, it is difficult to hear and understand what my mother has to say. With this new medication, though, is was impossible. Words wouldn’t form. Thoughts disappeared as they emerged. She was miles away from us while sitting a foot away, separated by a impenetrable wall. She knew, though, even in her remote, drugged state that she was in misery. Of all the basic needs, to be denied even the ability to communicate your suffering, to be trapped inside your fear and pain, is the ultimate horror. She was reduced to just crying, her whispery voice barely audible, crying for help, crying for her mother like a baby.

We were there for my mother, though, to comfort her and care for her, even if she was only vaguely aware of us. We could walk her to the bathroom, change her clothes, feed her, wash her. Imagine if you were similarly disabled and no one was there to help you. My thoughts naturally led me to think of the billions of feeling, sensitive and intentionally handicapped beings in our agriculture system.

Of all the horrors we inflict upon the animals that end up as our food, perhaps the cruellest is the day-in and day-out pain of being so profoundly compromised. Even if they have never experienced another way to feel, I have no doubt that the drugged-up, ailing states we create within their bodies make it even harder for the animals find any small measure of peace within the oppressive structures we force upon them. Among the many ways we alter their bodies so as to suit our purposes better, the animals are castrated, forcibly impregnated, de-horned, de-beaked, have their tails cut and their ears notched. They are denied their most basic instincts of roaming, grooming, dust baths, nurturing their young. Finally, they are confined into tight spaces and given a routine cocktail of powerful drugs, including antibiotics, antiparasites and steroids, to make it most financially efficient to convert living beings into the stuff we eat.

(I need to interrupt the flow here and state that it doesn’t matter to me if a random farm doesn’t use all of these industry-wide practices: I am opposed to animal enslavement and exploitation always. On these idealized farms, babies are still taken from their mothers, male chicks are still killed at birth, male calves still supply the veal industry, and the animals are still exploited for our ends and violently killed.)

Despite the arthritis, hearing loss, Parkinsonism and Alzheimer’s, my mother’s body is hers alone and there is still a comfortable norm within it. Her well-being is so tightly calibrated on that razor's edge that if she feels five degrees better or worse, it is keenly felt.

Given how much this new medication was harming her, we quit it after a week and she is much improved. She is able to communicate better and we are able to hear her; she is back to singing her uniquely mashed up songs, laughing with her grandson and asking me what I’m making for dinner at 9:00 in the morning. She’s back. She’s with us again. I am grateful beyond words.

The experience has me imagining what it would feel like to lose one’s entire physical integrity, diminished as it is. I imagine how it would feel to be hurting, completely obstructed, trapped inside one’s pain and unable to communicate it. With my mother, we simply took her off the medication and the dark clouds lifted. What if you had no one looking out for you, though? What if you had no refuge? After caring for my mother during this deeply challenging time, hearing her cries through the night and seeing her anguish, I’m pretty sure that I can extrapolate what this would feel like. It would feel like hell on earth.

The conclusion I can draw from this is not that if we simply remove the drugs and physical alterations and replace them with a patch of grass here or there and a pretty label once they’re dead that we are doing the right thing. The conclusion I draw is that living beings suffer profoundly when they are denied their corporal integrity. No matter how compromised one might seem to be, there is still a life in there that wants to thrive, to be supported and be free from pain. To those who are trapped in the system of exploitation and physically compromised, not being able to communicate their fears and pain to someone who cares is the ultimate misery we could inflict.

The way out of inflicting this misery on others is simply to end our participation in it. The beauty of it is that we can start right now. 


  1. oh marla, i had to stop and start again bc i couldn't read through my tears. i had no idea how ill your mother was and i am so sorry about her fall and the fear and misery she is experiencing. leave it to you to be able to have such abundant compassion and empathy to take her/your challenges and extend it to our animal friends.

  2. No one can even begin the agony of feeling pain and having awareness and being unable to express it in any form, not even a primal scream.
    I went through this with my father who suffered from Locked-In Syndrome for 13 months before he died. Completely paralyzed except for blinking, completely able to hear, see and feel all that went on, he was treated as something much less than human in ways I wil not describe here.

    There is a definite analogy to how people who cannot communicate are treated and how animals who cannot communicate in human language are treated. In the end, everyone shares the common desire for safety, comfort and life but not all receive it, especially those who cannot express those desires in words.

    My prayers and wishes to your mother.

  3. Thankfully, there are beautiful people like you, Marla, who continue to light the way for those in the dark.

  4. Beautifully said. Thank you for sharing your mother's story and making such a clear, true connection to the lives of animals.

  5. Thank you for courageously drawing the parallels between the nonhumans and your mother's suffering. Acknowledging both as one and the same confirms that our empathy should also be undivided as well.

    My sincere wish is that you and your family find strength, hope and peace while this life-experience unfolds.

  6. Marla, is this a good time, or not, for a fan letter? I'll start by sharing that my dad died from early-onset Alzheimer's after deteriorating for about ten years. My mom, an RN, was his caregiver; I was spared most of that burden, so I can only imagine what it must be like for you. I am sending you all the hugs and love I can pack into a blog comment.

    Here's why I'm a fan, and in your debt. A friend pointed me to your blog last year, when you wrote The Zombievore's Dilemma. I loved it. I should have become a regular reader, but life got in the way. I did, however, save the insightful The Emotional Pipeline of Food to show my spouse, in the hope that it would give him some new ways to think about his food choices. (It didn't make a noticeable difference at the time, but I was still so glad you'd written it.)

    Just a month ago, I came across a terrific article about Chicago Vegan Family Network which inspired me to launch Long Island Vegan Family Network. Our kickoff lunch is a week from tomorrow.

    VegNews arrived today, and it was reading your contributor blurb that sent me back here to your blog. So now I've finally put it all together—blogger, journalist, group organizer—these individuals to whom I'm grateful are all the same person. You! AND I gather you've even written a novel about a vegan superhero? Sure it's not an autobiography? Thanks for all you do, Marla.

    More hugs to you and your mother.

    Vegan Long Island Organizer
    Long Island Vegan Family Network Co-Organizer

  7. Thank you, Lisa. You are a compassionate soul.

  8. Oh, Rhea. I had no idea about your father. That sounds like the epitome of suffering. I am so sorry that he went through that. "In the end, everyone shares the common desire for safety, comfort and life but not all receive it, especially those who cannot express those desires in words." That is the truth. My sympathies with you, friend.

  9. Thank you, Rebecca, and you too!

  10. Thank you, Kasey! I really appreciate it.

  11. Thank you, Bea. I appreciate your compassion.

  12. Wow, Jennifer! Thank you so much for your kind words. My sympathies for what you and your family have gone through. My mother also had early-onset Alzheimer's and started showing symptoms of it at around age 56. It is gut-wrenching to go through and I am very glad that your mother was able to be there for your father. My condolences on your loss.

    That is so, so exciting about your vegan family network, Jennifer! Wow! How did the first get-together go? Thank you for taking the initiative. I have found so many times people are just waiting for someone to take those initial steps and then it comes together easily. Thank you for being that person! You are a vegan superhero! I am excited to know that there are people like you in the world.

  13. Marla, I'm back to let you know how the kickoff lunch went—you can see for yourself!

    We had four families (not counting me), which was perfect—parents enjoyed meeting each other, the kids played, and one family offered to host a backyard picnic at the end of this month. So we're off to a great start! The group already has over a dozen families signed up.

    Thank you again for being our inspiration! xoxo

  14. Wow wow wow, Jennifer! I love it. How healthy and happy everyone looks. May you have many years of happiness and community together, raising the next generation of compassionate children. Fantastic work! You are amazing.


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