I like symptoms that can be independently measured, outside of my own testimony. I like blood pressure and pulse and even weight in our fatphobic culture. I like obvious damage in x-rays and MRIs. I like mammograms because they are looking for something others will verify as they review the scans. My thyroid levels, my blood sugar, and range of motion measurements are numbers that make sense.
Pain levels aren’t clear. Cognitive functioning is hard to quantify. You have to take my word for it when I talk about fatigue, about my body feeling heavy, about heat intolerance.
For a survivor of sexual assault, I’ve learned my word isn’t enough for some.
Women aren’t believed, and I’m not talking about rape here. No, women are less likely to receive pain medication, more likely to wait longer for treatment, and more likely to be misdiagnosed with a mental health condition when they have physical symptoms than men under the same circumstances. (Side note: the research generally assumes a gender binary, so I’ll be using the men/women dichotomy here.) Even after major heart surgery, men were twice more likely to be offered opioid pain medications than women… even though women feel pain more acutely than men. This powerful essay describes the incredulity of a husband through his wife’s - in her own words - “trauma of not being seen” when she was ignored for hours in an emergency situation. When they have brain or renal tumors, women are more likely to have to go through more appointments before their diagnosis than men with the same tumors.
Among women, though, I am privileged because of whiteness; black women are more likely to have strokes and less likely to survive them than white women, and they’re more likely to be misdiagnosed for or die from breast cancer. Black women are more likely to die from cervical cancer or die following childbirth, the latter truth illustrated well in the story of Serena Williams who is only alive because she advocated for herself (and probably would have been ignored if she weren’t a well-known champion athlete).
Knowing what I know about women being (dis)believed, I want to measure my complaints with precision. That’s not always possible. I’m going into an appointment tomorrow (Monday) morning during which a CT scan will likely be ordered. But that unbelieved little girl within me worries that my word for my symptoms isn’t enough for the next test to be deemed necessary.
I know I’m a powerful self advocate. I know I can push for what I need. I know how to fight for myself and my health.
But I’m tired. I don’t want to have to fight. I don’t want to be mindful of every word so that my doctor understands the point, so that my symptoms will be taken seriously, so that I can get the care I need.
I want my pain, my malaise, my intolerance to heat to be graphed like my cortisol levels can be. I want to be able to give an undeniable number for my fatigue. I want to be able to show my symptoms in a way that no one can minimize.
But it doesn’t work that way. I’m learning to trust my body, my word, my resilience. I can’t ask doctors to do that, after all, until I can.