“That to me felt like this deeply personal and deeply upsetting embodiment of what was at stake,” she said. “Not just on the side of the medical establishment—where female pain might be perceived as constructed or exaggerated—but on the side of the woman herself: My friend has been reckoning in a sustained way about her own fears about coming across as melodramatic.”
“Female pain might be perceived as constructed or exaggerated”: We saw this from the moment we entered the hospital, as the staff downplayed Rachel’s pain, even plain ignored it. In her essay, Jamison refers back to “The Girl Who Cried Pain,” a study identifying ways gender bias tends to play out in clinical pain management. Women are “more likely to be treated less aggressively in their initial encounters with the health-care system until they ‘prove that they are as sick as male patients,’” the study concludes—a phenomenon referred to in the medical community as “Yentl Syndrome.”
We are so, so, so afraid of making noise.
Girls. Women. We are so scared of the sound of our own voices that we will lie in pain in a hospital hallway without making a peep because we can’t, like, get in anyone’s way.
We are taught from the day we are born to take up as little space as possible in the world and then, when we are hurt or overlooked, we are asked why we didn’t speak up.
I was lucky, when my ovarian cyst burst more than 10 years ago now, that the EMTs and ER doctors we called on took it seriously. I had surgery, good medication, follow-up care. But that’s all it was, luck, luck that we found someone to listen. That’s what our lives hinge on, the blind stupid chance that the person we are calling out to won’t assume we don’t know what we’re talking about, and ignore us.
I’ve been ignored in doctors’ offices, though, before and since. My first infertility doctor refused to listen to any of my concerns before putting me on medication that I didn’t need, that made me sicker than I’ve ever been. I had a GP once tell me that I should stop taking anti-depressants because, “What, do you want to be on pills for the rest of your life?” I had a therapist cancel an appointment, not tell me, and then later kick me off her service because I didn’t keep the appointment. Some of this is just run-of-the-mill pain in the ass stuff that could have happened if I was a dude, sure, but all along the way I’ve been made to feel exceptionally bad about myself for getting upset about it. Shh, there are other patients. Sit down. Don’t make a fuss.
This is a time in our society when you have to be a fierce advocate for your own medical care, for your rights as a patient, and of course when you most need those rights you are least physically and emotionally capable of defending them. I’m not surprised women’s pain is ignored until they make themselves un-ignorable. Why should our pain be different from any other aspect of our existence?