Have You Tried a Heat Pack?

Collage by Katie Ward

The perceived dichotomy between fact and feeling has caused me a lot of angst and shame. Western medical practice values ‘biological fact’ as more credible than ‘subjective feeling’ — and when your pain is invisible it is often reduced to a feeling rather than a fact, particularly if you are a woman.

“The Girl Who Cried Pain” (a 2001 study on the bias against women in the treatment of pain) found that women’s pain is often discounted as “emotional” or “psychogenic” and, therefore, “not real”. Moreover, women are treated less aggressively in their initial encounters with the health-care system until “they prove they are as sick as male patients”.

While this phenomenon has been dubbed Yentl Syndrome by the medical community, I prefer to call it sexism.

In line with current medical thinking, I will separate my story into fact and feeling. The facts are that I began feeling a sharp pain on the right-hand side of my uterus in September last year. The pain initially came monthly, but by early this year was occurring daily. When the pain comes I am doubled over in agony, unable to function. I bled non-stop for six months, and for some of this time was in South-East Asia.

After describing the pain I felt while overseas to my GP — waking up my boyfriend’s twin brother crying in a humid Cambodian hostel at 1am; too many long bus-rides spent hunched over with my eyes closed — she replied: “Have you tried a heat pack?” She later added: “It can’t be that bad if it comes in waves”. I left her office feeling humiliated.

A few weeks later I had an ultrasound intended to determine whether I had deep infiltrating endometriosis. As the ultrasound technician lubed up the instrument, which bared a striking resemblance to a metal dildo, I briefly giggled to myself, mildly amused by the sexual connotations. My smile quickly dulled into a grimace as the procedure began. I felt my teeth clenching as the words “looks like you’re fine to me!” left the technician’s mouth.

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Collage by Katie Ward

One of the main reasons endometriosis takes a decade to be diagnosed is due to doctors routinely discounting female experiences and “normalising symptoms”. I felt like a fraud: the words “you’re fine” consumed my thoughts. I sat there, having lost my underwear and my dignity, and sobbed big, fat, woe-is-me tears.

When I finally came across a specialist who took me seriously, I meekly told her: “I promise I’m not lying.” But by that point, I wasn’t even convinced. In total I have had three ultrasounds to identify the source of the pain, none of which have yielded any answers. I am currently scheduled for laparoscopic surgery in hopes of a definitive answer.

In Leslie Jamison’s essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” she hypothesises about the new generation of “post-wounded women”. Post-wounded women cringe at Sylvia Plath’s self-pity, and watch shows like Girls about women who constantly disclaim they’re hurting.

When I tell people about my pain, I notice myself qualifying every conversation with “I know I can be dramatic but…” and pre-empting accusations of exaggeration and attention-seeking behaviour. Much like how menopause has become a popular-culture punchline, I find myself making my trauma laughable. “My pelvic-pain physio fingers me more than my boyfriend,” I retort when friends ask how I am.

As a post-wounded woman, I do not want to play into limited conceptions of womanhood. I want to move beyond the damsel in distress, and instead present suffering as a form of empowerment. But that’s a false narrative. There is nothing empowering about suffering through chronic pain. And by distorting my narrative to avoid being stereotyped, I am just giving those one-dimensional and misogynistic characterisations of women credence.

My story isn’t unique, new or radical. My story is felt and shared by other weary women whose correct diagnoses take years. Women who pleaded with their doctors only to have their pain patronised. Women like the wife of Joe Fassler, who has shared his own experiences watching his wife be repeatedly dismissed by doctors in emergency rooms as nurses patted her, dried her tears and told her to “wait her turn” — meanwhile, her ovaries twisted and bulged inside of her. And women like my grandmother, who had a hysterectomy for complications that were never identified.

This is an all too familiar narrative that I would rather not have to retell. But it is indicative of the reductive stereotypes of women that continue to pervade society.

Dismissing female pain masks more severe indictments: women are self-indulgent, victim-playing and attention-seekers. I am not doing a disservice to womankind by letting my suffering have a voice. The silent stoicism of our foremothers serves as a reminder of the importance of being heard.

So while research into endometriosis continues to be under-funded and generally lacking, it is imperative that people start listening. The fact of the female experience might be reduced to fiction, these stories are still newsworthy.