When Your Pain Doesn’t Matter, Because You’re A Woman
I had started noticing the bump on the inside of my left hand months before I informed, well, anyone. It was slightly above center, no larger than a bead — much like the pearls on my favorite necklace — but it was painful. I was working as a full-time office assistant and receptionist at the time, so typing on a computer was a constant necessity. With every laborious reach of my fidgeting fingers, I’d feel a lightening bolt of surged energy, singeing nerves from what felt like the tips of my nails to the deep muscle of my shoulder. I took Tylenol and Advil and any other over-the-counter no-name brand I could get my good hand on, but the pain never subsided and, to my dismay, the bump only grew.
Eventually, I informed my then-boyfriend. We were living together, he worked at the same beer and wine distributor I worked at, and before we dated I considered him one of my best friends. I imagined sympathy and concern and a quick recommendation, because he was the kind that liked to have answers. Instead, he seemed bothered. “Find a doctor” was the only piece of advice he had to offer, so I set about looking for a family practitioner who, in turn, referred me to a specialist.
The bump was initially diagnosed as a cyst, and required surgery to be removed. I asked my partner to stay with me at the hospital, but he refused, sighting work and a slue of work-related obligations that he could not miss. I didn’t argue, because I understand being career-driven, career-oriented or just caring about your career in general. He would drop me off, and my best friend would pick me up.
I vaguely remember him walking through the door, asking my best friend how the procedure went. She explained that there were complications; I assisted by slurring my words and haphazardly stringing wayward sentences together. The surgery was meant to be only 1/2 an hour long, and I was meant to be awake all throughout. Instead, they put me under unexpectedly and I was in the operating room for upwards of 3 hours. The doctor couldn’t tell me (or my best friend) much of anything, other than they had to run some tests and I would be in a significant amount of pain. I was ordered to rest during the weekend and, on Monday, I would see him at his office for results and further explanation.
My friend departed, and I was to be cared for by my loving partner. At least, that was the plan I had assumed would come to fruition. I envisioned soup made and cuddles had and constant affection, because those things are healing things. Every time he grew ill, every doctor’s visit, every back injury and every ache in between, I would care for him and comfort him and nurse him back to decent health, so it seemed an inevitable course of action, now that roles were reversed.
Instead, I was yelled at. He wouldn’t bring me soup or water or pain pills because, after all, it was “just my hand”. I could get up and move around. They didn’t operate on your legs. You don’t need help walking. He left me alone, for hours, to go play poker with a group of friends because I was exaggerating. How much pain could you be in, really? Why are you selfishly seeking attention? Why are you acting like such a girl?
I cried a lot that weekend. There were pills for the pain, but there was nothing that could help me forget that, to someone I cared about, that pain wasn’t real. I couldn’t swallow a pharmaceutical and alter my partner’s culturally contrived preconception of a woman’s pain tolerance. There wasn’t a cure for my boyfriend’s ambivalence towards a woman’s suffering.
I knew that what I was experiencing was more than just a bad situation with a horrible boyfriend. In fact, he was and is a wonderful, albeit flawed, man. He is kind to his sister and his mother and to women in general; never misogynistic and far from vindictively cruel. While there are few legitimate excuses for how he treated me, I knew he was acting on a belief that was engrained in him, by a culture that devalues women, women’s health, and women’s pain. To him, I represented the female gender’s collective weaknesses; a frail body that can’t withstand what a man’s body can; a weaker subset of humanity that needs to be constantly cared for; a burden.
On Monday, he drove me to the surgeon’s office. We sat in silence as he took a right off the freeway and a left on that one road I can never remember. We walked into the office building separately. We sat apart from one another in the waiting room. When we were escorted inside the offices, we didn’t say a single word to one another. He sat on the opposite side of the examination room, back to the furthest wall as his disenfranchised face scanned his surroundings.
And then the doctor arrived.
He prefaced the test results by asking how I was feeling. Before I could even get the words out, I started crying. Every tear embodied my exhaustion and anger and sadness and hatred and pain. Every tear was a liquid representation of the words I couldn’t say, and the disappointment that took their place. I wanted to scream and I wanted to yell, but all I could do was cry. In that moment, I realized that my tears were being mistaken for weakness. I knew that my boyfriend was looking at me with disgust; once again convinced that I was just a dramatic, weak little girl looking for the sympathy she didn’t deserve.
The doctor stopped me, reached across from his desk and put his hand on mine. He said it was okay, and then explained the situation I didn’t realize I was in.
The cyst was never a cyst, but a tumor. They put me under because he didn’t know if the tumor was benign or malignant, and he didn’t know if they were going to be forced to amputate my hand. In order to remove every piece of tumor, he had to cut and dig and carve into my muscle, which accounted for the excruciating pain. He received my test results that morning, and thankfully it was benign; a type of reoccurring tumor that I would be dealing with for the rest of my life, but one that would never be cancerous.
I was vindicated and seething, simultaneously. My boyfriend stood up and brought his chair next to mine, resting his hand on my leg while the doctor continued to describe the possible circumstances and explain his future plans for care. I looked in his eyes and saw an immense amount of shame and regret. My pain was legitimate now, because a man had told him it was. I was no longer exaggerating or dramatic. My suffering had been real, because someone else was saying so.
If I had been a man, hurting or in pain or uncomfortable, he would have understood without further explaination because, well, he’s a man too, and if a man admits that he’s in pain then, wow, it must be bad. If I had been a man, he wouldn’t have considered my pleas to be anything other than legitimate, and he wouldn’t have needed a second opinion to concur.
But I’m a woman, and because I’m a woman my pain wasn’t genuine and my pleas were just farcical. Because I’m a woman, I do the caring and because he’s a man, my boyfriend does the silent, noble suffering.
But that’s simply not true. Gender does not determine an individual’s sympathy or apathy. Gender does not determine the amount of pain a person is in. Gender should never determine the amount of care you receive.
My pain matters, not because I’m a woman.
My pain matters because I’m a human.