Women in Pain

“Take some ibuprofen”

“Are you fucking kidding me!?”

It was the 3rd time I’d been back to the GP describing the excruciating pain in my back, shoulder and arms following an accident on a bus. Tears flooded my eyes and began to drop uncontrollably onto my lap. The GP gave me that pitying look that all women know, that borderline eye-roll of here we go another hysterical woman. I’d described the pain over and over again, the pins and needles which ravaged my arms, and my hands, the sharp stabbing pains across my shoulders and my back. But still, the only diagnosis I got, was the implied accusation of hypochondria, all too obvious from the looks, the comments, the lack of basic care. If it wasn’t hypochondria, it was anxiety, it seemed that anything was more plausibly the result of a bus accident than a woman’s actual physical pain. It made no sense.

After 18 weeks of pain, 3 trips to the GP, mounting anger and frustration – I broke. I could not sit their passively in that cold GP chair any longer while given fleeting glances of you’re lying every time I described my pain. I could not sit and listen while my pain was dismissed, and reduced to something curable by over-the-counter ibuprofen so I made a scene. I cried, I showed my frustration, my anger, my pain. And like that – to rid the sterile office of the hysterical woman – appeared an appointment, finally to see a specialist, to have tests done, an acknowledgement that, no, I hadn’t been fucking lying for months on end!

It sounds like a happy ending, a what are you moaning about moment? But nearly 10 years later, multiple MRIs, neurological tests, blood tests and appointments later I live with a condition that is basically ignored and has only reluctantly been diagnosed after years of fighting to prove that my pain exists. I don’t bother to go back if it worsens or if I’m worried about it; because mentally, I can’t go through the accusations, the disbelief, the frustration, again – and for what – some ibuprofen?

When I was 17 and going through all of this initially, I thought it was just me, did I look like a liar? Was I unconvincing? Did I not look unwell? Not only did I suffer from physical pain but the whole situation caused so much emotional anguish, I truly thought it was something about me individually that made me unbelievable. I think the reality is exceptionally worse.

The “gender pain gap” can be seen all over the world. A 2001 study by researchers at Maryland University The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain found that women are more likely than men to have their pain dismissed, and if it is acknowledged, they do not receive the same aggressive treatment as their male counterparts. Women suffer even more when their pain is considered a gynaecological problem and such pain is put down to “just being a woman” so, er, get over it – basically. Too many women I know personally and professionally have had their pain ignored. Have been told they’re lying, exaggerating, looking for attention. Not just by Doctors but by their partners, their friends – why is a woman’s pain so impossible? It feeds into the Freudian (PSEUDO scientific) image of Anna O the hysteric, nervous and emotional woman who has become a typecast for women everywhere in that, any pain we may endure, is really just a symptom of our nervous female “condition” – psychological, and not physical. The fact that medical professionals are indoctrinated by this idea is problematic not only in terms of the inherent sexism but the actual demonstrable impact and threat to women’s health that it poses. Let’s not forget that race, age and ability also play a key factor in the recognition of pain and cause a further widening of the gender pain gap. But at the heart of all of this is a medical profession that actively delegitimises the voices of people and their pain due to an archaic patriarchalism which still, to this day is costing lives.

When I think about the gender pain gap I remember so vividly the glee on the doctors face as he turned up the volts in my Nerve Conduction Velocity Test and his disgust at my visible pain as he shot electrodes through my neck – “why are you crying?” He asked condescendingly in a how-on-earth-can-volts-of-electricity-through-your-body-hurt kinda way.

“Fuck off you sadistic cunt” or so I wish I had said.