Dealing with disbelief

I made the mistake of starting to suffer from chronic fatigue at a point where it wasn’t reliably being diagnosed. My doctor at the time did not believe it existed, and treated me accordingly – with scorn, suggestions that it was all in my head and the assumption that I just wanted to get out of PE. And yes, I did want to get out of PE because PE was hell, for a whole bunch of other reasons no one knew were issues. Whatever else was going on, my distress never seemed plausible to him.

I had no idea, as a small child, that most people weren’t in pain. Other kids did the things I couldn’t do, and seemed to be ok. I’m not sure why I concluded that they were all just making less of a fuss about it, but that’s child brains for you. I certainly had plenty of encouragement to think I was just making a fuss and not trying hard enough.

Now we know how hypermobility impacts on people, what was happening for me is no great mystery. Everything takes me more effort than is typical. Many things cause me pain. I hurt and damage easily. Taking my weight on my hands really hurts me. Also I have a lot of issues with being upside down, I still hate it, I still find it stressful but as an adult I don’t have to deal with people forcing me into those positions.

At this point I’m fairly confident that I don’t express pain – be that physical or emotional – in a way that makes much sense to a lot of people. My default is to explain, but I tend to be calm. This is to do with my coping mechanisms, and being used to pain. It meant I had a lot of trouble persuading anyone I was in labour, and went a long time with no pain relief as a consequence. It may have coloured all of my interactions with the medical profession. There are a number of people in my history I am fairly sure had a problem with it.

I’ve been told I come across as cold, unfeeling, uncaring. I’ve been told I seem manipulative. I guess if you expect people to present pain in more dramatic ways it might be hard to believe a person who is saying calmly that they’re in more pain than they can bear. Panic can make it impossible for me to present this way, but I’m not always panicked. 

Somewhere along the way I missed all the memos about appropriate expression of feelings. What seems normal to other people doesn’t always make much sense to me. I’ve spent a lot of years trying to figure out what it is that gets some people’s distress taken very seriously, and other people ignored. From what I read, I’m fairly sure privilege is a big part of it. The more advantages you have, the more likely you are to be taken seriously about problems you encounter. White men are more likely to get their abdominal pain taken seriously. Black women die in labour in disproportionate numbers. 

How we expect people to behave is clearly informed by all sorts of things. But it isn’t a fair measure. Ignoring distress because it isn’t being presented the way we expect, or assuming a person will overstate because of who they are, is really problematic, and there’s a lot of it out there. Much of it is far worse than anything I’ve had to deal with, but these are the illustrations I have to work with and I hope they are useful.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

9 responses to “Dealing with disbelief

  • druidcat

    This. I still have an inner voice telling me to ‘get over it.’ While I identify events from childhood that I would NEVER ignore if any child (or adult) told me about them. A huge trauma is being told your experience isn’t real or valid. What are you supposed to do?

    Trying to make change by recognising and empathising.

  • donbutler1927

    I had a child who cried and a child who screamed. The child who cried received more sympathy until I realized that the crying and screaming have their unity elsewhere. They are both in pain.

  • ranthia

    Oh yes! It all starts with “my tummy hurts!” Adult: “No it doesn’t!” I never trusted myself to know anything. “Do you like the color blue? I don’t know.” I too seem uncaring to others. I learned how to fake feelings as a nurse, by watching others. But really, I’m totally not in touch with what I’m feeling. I can fee a lot more at age 68. What a web.

  • M.A.

    Oh, yeah. My mother convinced herself that if I just did my exercises and tried harder I’d be “fine”. I’d had two paralytic strokes, for frack sake; I was never gonna be her standard of fine. But I grew up thinking I’d never tried hard enough. A lot of damage is done by people who steadfastly deny the experience of children.

  • karenenneagram

    As a child I suffered for years from constipation – the kind that makes one weep with pain. Doctors (after they’d unnecessarily taken out my appendix) put it down to ‘all in the mind’. (I was lucky, my mother believed me, but she gave me opium for the pain – not the best thing for constipation. Hey ho, she tried.)

    A few years ago I was made to sign a non-compliant-patient disclaimer because I refused to ‘try again’ with a treatment that had more than once caused me to howl with pain. The doctor called in to see me said ‘It’s a bit tender, is it?’ ‘No, it’s agony.’ Last year I was given a local anaesthetic for an angiogram (huge needle and camera threaded into one’s wrist) and they tried to go in too soon. I wept with pain and apologised (yes, apologised!) and they reluctantly gave me a bit more anaesthetic but I could see from their faces I was seen as a ‘troublesome’ patient.

    Yet, I see friends always trying to belittle each other’s pain – they had flu worse, their broken arm was worse, even their childbirth was worse – and I wonder why we compete in the pain stakes.

    And maybe you’ve partly answered it: the people who should be listening and caring didn’t and don’t, so we’re still trying to be heard… with people we trust.

    As for the medical profession, they are I think taught to underplay pain and overplay nasties like alcohol etc. I don’t think they know how to hear any more, poor things.

    • Nimue Brown

      That’s a really good point about how much of this is taught in the first place. There’s definitely a culture. The gut stuff sounds truly grim, I hope there’s something out there that can help, but I know all too often there isn’t.

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