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I Had to Convince My Doctor I Wasn’t Just “Whining”

“I’m not usually a complainer, I swear.” The words feel like sandpaper across my already dry tongue.

I have a high pain tolerance.

I’m not a drug seeker.

This is really bad.

Please.

These are all phrases I have uttered far more often than I care to admit, in a hospital setting where I was desperately trying to be heard. To be treated. To be saved from the pain ravaging me from within.

The Atlantic recently published a piece titled, “How Doctors Take Women’s Pain Less Seriously.” It hit home for me, to the extent of producing an almost PTSD-like reaction; memories flooding my mind of the many, many times I have been on that hospital bed myself, trying to qualify my pain in a way that reduces suspicion and produces only action.

The piece was written by Joe Fassler, his version of events from a 14-hour ordeal where his wife, Rachel, was left writhing in pain for far too long; ignored, diminished, and repeatedly told her pain was nowhere near as bad as she was claiming it to be. Certainly it was something she should have been able to endure a little more gracefully.

In truth, Rachel was experiencing what is known as ovarian torsion; a twisting of the female anatomy that produces excruciating pain and can lead to fatal complications if not treated promptly.

“In his eyes, I was a drug-seeker until proven otherwise.”
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As I read Joe’s words, I found myself holding my breath, fighting back the tears of memory. I have been Rachel. I have been the woman crying out in pain, begging to be heard.

I have stage IV endometriosis, a chronic pain condition that has tested my limits in every way imaginable. Over the last few years, it has been kept pretty well under control, but that wasn’t the case in my mid- to late-20s. There were frequent hospital visits, nights spent vomiting and sweating in pain, and a language I learned to speak in order to be treated like a patient, as opposed to a woman in need of placating.

That language often required me to play tougher than I was. I learned to start with sentences like, “I swear, I have a really high pain tolerance” in an effort to qualify my pain so that the doctors involved would take notice. I learned to give my pain scale number as lower than it was, because if I went too high, those same doctors might think I was being dramatic and write me off. Eventually, I realized that it was my job to carry my past surgical reports with me; those were at least proof of something physically wrong. Something harder to ignore.

This trick was suggested to me after one particular ER visit, the result of a burst cyst that produced pain likely on par with what Rachel Fassler experienced. The doctor on duty refused to give me anything for the pain until he could confirm, via an internal ultrasound, what I was already telling him was taking place. Forget that my insides were on fire and that an internal ultrasound would only mean further aggravating that pain, it was his stipulation before giving me the painkillers I was begging for.

And ultimately, I was led to believe that was my fault, because I had been in too much pain to be polite about what I was experiencing. To speak the language I knew so well.

As a result, in his eyes, I was a drug-seeker until proven otherwise.

It took two hours for him to get that proof and provide me the relief I was so desperate for. Up until then, I sobbed, and vomited, and curled into the fetal position on my hospital bed, searching for the words that would make him see.

“I am so afraid that the doctors and nurses involved will view me as weak, or dramatic, or worse — as a liar, that I downplay the suffering I am experiencing.”
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I am the furthest thing from a drug seeker you might ever meet. My regular doctors know this about me. I hate being out of it. I hate feeling out of control. In the five major abdominal surgeries I’ve had over the course of three years, I never once finished any of the prescription painkiller rounds offered to me. I made a habit of weaning by day three, despite the fact that I was routinely advised to keep up my dosages for at least two weeks. It wasn’t worth it to me. As soon as the pain was endurable, I endured. Again and again.

Even now, I have a prescription of oxycodone readily available to me, waiting high on a shelf for those nights when I might be hit once again by pain I can’t breathe through. But I can’t tell you the last time I reached for that bottle. Which is not to say there hasn’t been pain, because there has been. It’s just that I view those pills as the last resort, especially now, as a mom who can’t afford to be absent.

And yet, nearly every single time I have ever found myself in the ER for pain, I have had to fight to convince the doctors in charge of my care that it was real.

I’m not usually a complainer, I swear.

I have a high pain tolerance.

I’m not a drug seeker.

This is really bad.

Please.

Just days before The Atlantic piece came out, Jennifer Lawrence published her spectacular essay on gender pay inequality. The proximity of these two pieces left me inadvertently comparing them. Even though Jennifer in no way addressed women’s health, the way she discussed how women have been programmed to speak softly in their lives in general, always careful not to ruffle feathers so that they might still be heard, made me realize that is exactly what I have been doing every time I have uttered those words in a hospital setting. I am so afraid that the doctors and nurses involved will view me as weak, or dramatic, or worse — as a liar, that I downplay the suffering I am experiencing, even as I am desperate for a reprieve from that suffering.

Do men have to qualify their pain in the same way? Are they as easily brushed aside and ignored when they show up at an ER crying out in agony?

Having seen two different men rushed to the hospital for actual kidney stones, my gut tells me no. Neither of those men were forced to wait for confirmation before being given pain meds. Neither was diminished in their experience. And both cried out far louder, and far longer, than I ever have in my moments of blinding pain.

The only difference, I realize now, is that they had never been programmed to be silent in their misery.

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