At four in the morning, I finally fall asleep. Sweat has been pooling in the crease of my neck and ears, and the skin between my forehead and arms. I have spent the night curled up in a ball, face-down, breathing stale air as I wait for the waves to quieten. Ibuprofen? Must have been something I ate.
I hear the sound of my name and a stranger lightly slapping my face. I open my eyes to a set of blue scrubs lifting my head off the hospital floor. An ocean blur. I dimly wonder what comes next. Paracetamol? Must have been dehydrated.
After an hour and a half of uncomfortable shifting at my library desk, I ask my friend to gently wrap her hands around my neck, as I brace back against her knees. I use my own body weight to stretch my spine. People stare. She knows the drill. Aspirin? Must be my posture.
So it goes. I live with chronic pain. Undiagnosed, undefeated, unchanging.
This is a source of worry for everyone that loves me. Yet to me, this is my body and how it moves through life. Growing up with pain was entirely normal for me. From the age of seven or eight, I would recognise the slow burn and lie flat on the floor with my fists hitting my thighs. Waiting for the very worst of it, I knew to relax. I knew it was nearly over.
“I never knew continuous pain to be anything other than normal.”
To be clear, I am luckier than many. I am able-bodied and have rarely needed pain medication beyond an over-the-counter level. I function just fine, most of the time.
Yes, I’ve seen doctors. Yes, I tried cutting out dairy. Yes, I’m doing yoga. I have no answers for myself, let alone for you. But here’s the thing, I never knew continuous pain to be anything other than normal.
I’m so accustomed to my own discomfort that in the rare moments where nothing hurts, I feel gloriously weightless – as if a pair of invisible hands have lifted me off the ground by my shoulders. Magic.
When I try to explain what I feel to a doctor, the same three things will always happen. They recommend I reduce my stress – as if ‘stress’ is something I willingly let walk through the door of my life and curl up in my lap in the evenings. They suggest a couple of blood tests, telling me it will pass. Distressingly, they don’t give me the precious minutes it takes to detail the moments where I literally lose who I am. Wretched time passing in the hardest and longest hours of the morning, as the rest of the world sleeps.
“Pain is diminished when it emanates from the pores of a woman. We are raised to live with our discomfort.”
Further, pain is diminished when it emanates from the pores of a woman. We are raised to live with our discomfort, whether that is through being told to ‘cover up’ on a hot day, experiencing routine sexual harassment with no accountability, or the dismissal of pain by experts whose job it is to heal us.
As women, we become accustomed to living in unease. Research shows that women in the UK wait longer in emergency departments and are less likely to be given effective pain relief. For Black women and other non-Black women of colour, the wait is even longer. Migrant women are often locked out of healthcare access altogether.
Our genealogical health is equally neglected, with seriously debilitating conditions like endometriosis being dismissed as a lowly ‘women’s issue’ or regular period pain. This has been described as the ‘gender pain gap’, which reflects the lack of research and funding into health issues that solely affect people with vaginas and wombs. Period pain is not only normalised but expected, as is the pain from penetrative sex, as a part of myths around virginity.
Women are raised to serve and are taught our value exists in our proximity to the men around us, and so feelings of unease become the default. We’ve learnt to place our own needs second.
For myself, it isn’t hard to see the ramifications of this approach – from the rampant abuse of former doctor of the USA gymnastics team Larry Nassar; to the immediate shut down of the ‘male pill’ trials due to unacceptable levels of discomfort from male participants. Following the news around this public outcry, I discovered at a panel event hosted by Decolonising Contraception that in certain clinical trials, the cut-off point for pain and discomfort thresholds for male participants is typically 20%. For women, it is typically 30%.
So yes, I do not remember what it is like not to feel pain.
What I do remember, is the frustration and despair I felt when I stared, dumbfounded at a doctor who refused to recommend me to a specialist. Especially after insisting I go through a barrage of tests and wasting my time for months. I do remember walking down the street in tears, knowing that sooner or later I would wind up back in the hospital begging for help. Knowing that a nurse would tell me ‘not to wait so long’ to come in next time. Knowing that I would have spent days leading up to my visit in mounting dread, having been told to ‘wait and see how it goes’ by doctors too many times to count.
If our pain is never taken seriously, it is inevitable that our comfort, anger, safety and wellbeing aren’t either. It is unavoidable that our pain will take root under our skin and in our shadows, rather than under a microscope. It feels like an understatement to have to say: this is simply not good enough.
Monika is a Brazilian-Montenegrin poet, writer and multi-disciplinary artist based in London. She is a staff writer at Aurelia. In 2019, Monika was the inaugural winner of Stormzy’s Merky Books New Writer’s Prize. Her debut poetry collection, Teeth in the Back of my Neck, will be released with Merky (a Penguin Random House imprint) in May 2021.
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