Edited by Jessica Sutton.
It’s meant to hurt.
The Doctor smiled at me, pitying, patronising. I was 22 years old, stricken with the first bout of intense pain of my life. I tried to tell him this wasn’t normal, that this wasn’t like me.
“You’d be surprised how bad normal period pain can seem,” he tells me knowingly. “Trust me, if something was really wrong, you’d be in a lot more pain than this”.
I should have told him that my body was turning against me. I should have told him that it was impacting my work, my relationships, my dreams. I should have asked him how he could possibly know what “normal period pain” felt like. I should have asked him what it was about me, that made him feel that my description of pain was not to be believed.
Instead, I said thank you.
When I got home, I rolled my aching body into a ball and cried.
When I was a little girl I did not know pain like I do now. I knew pain only as a surprise visitor, a sharp knock on the door of my body that never lingered long, and never left marks. When I first got my period, I was lucky. I barely noticed anything, no pain, only the slightest dip in mood. I lived with menstruation as a mere inconvenience, not a defining burden. I knew I was lucky. I knew the girls around me who had to take a week off school when it was that time of the month, the girls who had to take every painkiller under the sun just to sit up, the girls who went to doctors and were brushed off like they didn’t matter. I became one of them in July of 2017, out of the blue.
The only thing the doctor could give me, was a directive to go back on the contraceptive pill. I said no. The pill made me want to walk out in front of a bus. The pill had once made me sit by the side of the road, inwardly daring myself to do it. So, I said no. He didn’t like that. How dare I question his expertise? How dare I know my own body? How dare I assert that my mental health matters?
“Feeling depressed? That’s a small price to pay in the scheme of things”, he said.
“I don’t want to die”, I told him.
He wrote me a prescription for Levlen anyway. I screwed it up and threw it under a bus on the way home.
Womanhood is pain, doctors seem to say. Women are defined by pain. The pain of childbirth is something we are expected to strive for and be intrinsically changed by. The pain of being dismissed at work, having our labour exploited in relationships, being psychologically or physically abused, colours the lives of so many women that I know and love. When you speak of pain to a doctor, they shrug. Living as a woman is layered in so many different kinds of pain, that physical pain should come as no surprise.
I went back a month later. The same doctor asked me if I was stressed. I was, of course. He asked me what the pain felt like. “Like being stabbed. A lot”. He laughed. I have never been the most patient of women, but this made me outrageously angry. I was angry, like so many women. Women are righteous and beautiful in their anger. Whatever other people said, my body mattered to me. I deserved to be believed. I demanded to be taken seriously. I needed an ultrasound. I wasn’t leaving until he made the referral.
The ultrasound showed what I knew it would, an ovarian cyst. And a follow-up brought another possible diagnosis: the dreaded endometriosis. The new doctor lamented about possible infertility, focusing on the imagined life that it is my supposed duty to accommodate. I revelled in knowledge and a level of control, looking forward to my appointment with a specialist. COVID-19 lockdown took that away from me, my referral declined due to lack of capacity. You can manage endometriosis at home with over the counter painkillers. You can manage.
I feel abandoned.
There is no right way to be a woman in pain. If we get angry and command recognition, we are hormonal and attention-seeking. If we stay quiet and suffer in silence, we’re bringing down the mood, no fun to invite out anymore. There is nothing more painful and reductive than our anger being cast as a mere product of hormones. There is nothing more enraging than our pain being framed as histrionics. In reality, women are far more likely to under-estimate and under-report pain than men. We wait longer in emergency rooms, we are referred to psychiatric rather than medical help, we are given fewer pain killers, we are sent home with platitudes. We take pain as if it is our due. It is not. Pain is not the legacy of femininity.
Women should not have to scream to be heard. We are so often cast as irrational, emotional, susceptible to hysteria and invention, creating a prison of pain in our heads and expecting ‘rational’ men to play along. This narrative is false. Although the patriarchy continuously tries to assert control over our bodies, this world does not know our bodies better than we do.
We cannot let chronic pain steal our voices. The only thing we can do is speak out loudly and insistently and demand that we are believed. I am not a weak or hysterical woman. I am a woman in pain. And I am fighting.