How Disbelief of Women's Pain Affects Us

Let’s just admit it: we, as a nation, as a world, and even as a universe, don’t believe women. We don’t believe women’s accounts of assault, we don’t believe women when they’re upset (raise your hand if a man has asked if you’re menstruating when you’ve been angry or sad), and we don’t believe women’s pain.

There’s certainly a spectrum of mistreatment of women, and I’m aware that as a white, heterosexual, affluent woman, with access to great health insurance, living in a democratic state,I am on the lower end of the spectrum. I know that I will never genuinely understand the struggle of women of color, trans men and women, women in poverty, LGBTQ+ women, etc. No matter how much I can sympathize, I can’t truly empathize.

I can, however, speak to the disbelief of women in the medical field. I’m 1 in 10 women, and almost 200 million people worldwide, who suffers with endometriosis. Endometriosis is an incurable disease that takes an average of 10 years and multiple doctors to diagnose. It is the leading cause of infertility in women.

You may be thinking, if it’s so serious, why haven’t I heard more about this? If those are your current thoughts, welcome to the club. Every day I see subway ads for erectile dysfunction pills or male hair loss medication and I wonder why these minor, non-painful conditions have a bigger focus among modern medicine than a disease that causes women to lose an average of 11 hours of productivity per week due to pain; a disease that affects our ability to have children; a disease that affects us physically, hormonally, metabolically, and even psychologically.

That’s right: I said psychologically. Imagine walking around with a giant open, bleeding wound, but only you can see it. Imagine begging doctor after doctor to help you, only to have them tell you you’re being dramatic. Over time, the combination of constant, intense pain and condescending, doubtful doctors begins to make you feel crazy. It makes you feel completely trapped inside your own body. It begins to make you wonder if your pain is real. If you’re just weak. If you should even bother trying to get help. If there’s anything that can be done.

So much so, in fact, that I’ve struggled with my own belief in my own pain, and my own feeling of validity and worth. Right around the time I was being diagnosed with endometriosis, during my senior year of college, I was sexually assaulted. Almost raped. At the time, I was going from doctor to doctor being told I’m “just sensitive,” I “have a low pain threshold,” even that I was “thinking too much about the pain.” One doctor even told me that if vaginal penetration hurt, I should “just drink some wine first and loosen up” (sure, I’ll just get plastered every time I so much as put a tampon in). When the assault happened, I felt like that was what my body deserved. I felt like that was how worthless I was. I felt like speaking up about it and reporting it would be met with the same disavowal that my claims of chronic, debilitating pain were. I didn’t think I deserved to be listened to, and even though I lived through the trauma, I questioned it myself. Can I actually trust that the trauma I experienced was real? Did I deserve it? Was it my fault? Would anyone believe me if I told them? It took me several therapy sessions before I was able to even call it what it was: sexual assault.

The fact of the matter is that our society’s disbelief of women’s pain, whether it’s physical, psychological, trauma-induced, or anything else, has serious implications. It took me 7 years, 4 doctors, and permanent damage to my relationship with my mind and body before I was diagnosed with a serious disease. And my experience isn’t unique.

Before I had my first surgery to diagnose and remove my endometriosis, I found myself praying that they would find a disease inside of me. The thought of being told by my doctor that the pain was all in my head was more terrifying to me than finding out that I had an incurable disease that would be with me for the rest of my life. Before I underwent my second surgery, I found myself praying once again that the endo had grown back, so that my pain would be “validated.” Is that the way that our medical system should work? Should people be so afraid of the way their doctors might treat them that they pray for a disease?

We need to feel able to trust our bodies. We need to trust ourselves to recognize our own pain. Women don’t lie about many things, but there are two things that I know women NEVER lie about: their pain, and their traumas. We need to teach women and girls that their feelings are valid, and that they can seek out the care and support they need without being made to feel unworthy and insane.

I know that there are people out there who are treated much worse by their doctors. I often think about what trans men with this disease have to deal with. I think about the pain that women without access to healthcare have to endure. Even while taking about 11 medications a day, there are some days I can barely get out of bed. I can afford my doctors, and as a white, heterosexual woman, I know that I am believed by doctors more than many others (which, considering my experience, says a lot).

So, I want everyone who reads this to know that you deserve to enjoy living in your own body. Your pain is real. Your doctors need to believe you. If they don’t, it’s not your fault. Whatever you feel is real, and, although you shouldn’t have to, the reality is you need to kick and scream and yell and demand that you are taken seriously. You are worthy of respect and you are worthy of proper care. And, most of all, I believe you.