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Screams that No One Hears
Your stories of trying to show your pain in a way others could recognize
This is a roundup of reader responses to our discussion last week of the work it takes to make female pain legible to a world that is primed for male defaults. Our discussion was partially prompted by my piece in Plough, “Let the Body Testify.” I’ll be part of a live discussion of the piece this Wednesday.
Last week, I asked two questions:
Are there moments where you’ve consciously made your pain or distress more legible to others by changing your reaction to better fit their expectations?
Are there times you realized in retrospect that you’d made this kind of adjustment, without even thinking about it?
Melissa offered this answer:
Yes, especially in how I name my pain. I have chronic headaches that can be quite debilitating (they don't go away unless I take a combination of painkillers and sleep while the drugs begin to work), but I know that they're not, neurologically speaking, true migraines. I've had real migraines before—I know the feeling of the needle-fine ice pick through my right eyeball, the complete horror of any sensory input. But when I would get a bad headache and have to skip class, I would tell my professors I was having a migraine because I wanted them to realize that "she is dealing with a debilitating headache and not just being a wuss or trying to ditch the lecture."
Looking back, I realize that I could probably have said "debilitating headache" and gotten the message across; my professors were very kind and understanding people. And it feels sort of like "stolen valor" (and lying) to say that I had a migraine when I knew very that what I had was not technically a migraine. But I was trying to communicate the true idea as best I could.
Here, I think part of the problem is that we accept as “real” suffering that comes with a diagnosis that we recognize. But idiopathic suffering is suspect, even if some of the symptoms are the same. We don’t trust each other enough to respect pain without proof.
Analisa has had the opposite problem:
Only distantly relevant, but I know two people who claim to have allergies to foods they only intensely dislike. As the parent of a peanut-anaphylactic child this offends me, but I also understand it to some extent. They feel like they aren't allowed to have preferences. At the same time, the more people who claim to have life-threatening allergies, the more my daughter's very real life threat is minimized.
Erin described her difficult experience as an elementary school librarian, where everyone around her was suspicious of each other’s illnesses. Taking a sick day and having a sub was so disruptive that everyone looked at each other’s weakness with resentment.
Environments like that are women failing to support other women simply because they think "it's not bad enough for you yet, I (or someone else) have had it worse," which perpetuates the continued idea that pain, discomfort, or needs can all fit into clearly identified pre-existing boxes. I kind of think of this idea as "misery gatekeeping" (a spin on misery poker): you can only be miserable if it's THIS bad, but if it's not THIS bad yet, don't be sad about it, show up, and shut up.
Gemma told a personal story (which I’m only excerpting here) about her experience of childbirth. For her, the problem wasn’t that her doctors couldn’t see her pain, it was that they were so focused on her pain they didn’t see her as a person or consult with her about her options.
The hardest pain legibility problem I have faced was the pain of feeling violated by the way I was treated in childbirth. How do you explain it, when "pain relief" was a central aspect of the process that caused you pain?
By a long process of painful trial and error as to the types of explanations that might land and also be at least part of the truth, I have landed on a version of the story that emphasises medical consent. I was pressured to get an epidural, the doctor told me falsely that it was medically recommended for reasons other than pain relief, I was tired and vulnerable and lying I-felt-nonconsensually on my back at the time, I feared losing what little of their respect I might still have if I "refused treatment."
That's the story I tell. But it leaves out so much. They TOOK MY LEGS. That is closer, but even that is an excuse, almost, for a violation that I can't fully explain, can't render legible even to myself. Because it wasn't just my legs that they took—"legs" are a stand-in for sensation and also for control and also for being fully present, somehow, because I felt that my whole body mattered and I wanted it all with me, I did not want to be parted from it, pain notwithstanding.
I’m grateful to all of you for sharing these stories of vulnerability.