I’ve never been drunk, never once succumbed to peer pressure to smoke, do drugs or get high. I’m not a partier — never have been, never will be. Up until three and a half years ago, the strongest substance I ever took for pain relief was aspirin, despite having a chronic illness and chronic pain since I was seven years old.
I used to take pride in toughing out the pain that all but consumed me. Until I spent half a summer unable to sleep because the pain was so torturous it took my breath away. Most of my body was swollen and purple, a result of broken blood vessels and blood leaking under my skin from vasculitis, and I could no longer do any of the things I love, including writing and walking my dogs.
When I ended up in the emergency room for the fourth time that summer, a nurse told me doctors had no idea how to treat my autoimmune disease, but I deserved to be treated for my pain. He put morphine in my IV and I experienced pain relief for the first time in my life. It was a revelation.
I felt like I could finally breathe again (had I ever truly breathed before, a breath that wasn’t shallow or gasping, shaky or desperate?) Without so much pain to focus on, a gnawing question that had been buried in my subconscious for years finally reached the surface: Why exactly was it that I’d felt heroic — like I was racking up karma and brownie points and moral superiority — by allowing myself to suffer, minute after minute, day after day, year after year?
I would soon realize the answer. Society is just fine with women suffering. What society is not fine with is women choosing what we will and will not tolerate.
When I got my first period, the novelty wore off after a couple days, and I was suddenly struck with a sinking realization: I’m going to have to experience painful menstrual cramping every 28 days for the next 30-some years?!
In the grand scheme of things, it might not seem like that big a deal, but it sets a precedent: Women experiencing regular menstrual pain is just a given — part of being a woman.
It’s not too big a leap for me to come to assume that it’s just “part of being a woman” for me to suffer in silence — for more than two decades — without taking anything stronger than aspirin for my autoimmune disease.
It’s not polite to talk about period pain. But at least the medical community acknowledges it exists. It took 10 years for doctors to acknowledge my autoimmune disease symptoms weren’t “all in my head” — a common line used by doctors when dismissing women’s pain — and another 10 years for doctors to actually treat my pain.
When you’re told you’re “crazy” often enough, you either stop speaking up, or you find another method to cope. My method of coping was to smile through the pain and consider myself Wonder Woman, even though the pain was so excruciating I often feared I’d pass out in the middle of a conversation with friends, my heart racing so much I could barely breathe.
Six months ago, President Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national emergency.
And suddenly doctors are telling me I should go back to just toughing out the pain, even though 78% of the people who misuse opioids were not prescribed them by a doctor and even though the rate of addiction to opioids by chronic pain patients with no history of drug abuse or addiction (like me) has been calculated at only 0.19%.
I argue my case by quoting the emergency room nurse who first gave me morphine — if you can’t treat the disease that causes my disability (Sjogren’s Syndrome) then don’t I at least deserve to have my pain treated so I can continue to write and walk my dogs? I often point to the sign on the exam room wall that says patients have a right to pain management. But doctors ignore the statistics, glaze over the sign and dismiss my plea not to have my quality of life rescinded.
Why? Because society has no qualms about women suffering. It’s just “part of being female.”
Except it doesn’t have to be.
Pretending I’m not in pain doesn’t make me Wonder Woman. But speaking the hell up about the gender bias in medicine and refusing to let pain be a given? I’m pretty sure that’s the definition of an Amazonian warrior — and I’m recruiting an army. Join me.