I grew up in a family where it was normal--expected, even--when in pain to say I'm fine, there's no problem here, to just suck it up and it will be OK. This translated to both physical and emotional problems. It was assumed you'd just handle whatever was making you hurt on your own and not bother anybody with it. I never once saw my mother stay home sick or go to a doctor, even when she was hurt. Her traumatic brain injury? "Oh that was so blown out of proportion." Broken wrist? Nothing to see here. My grandmother went for months without realizing she'd fractured her pelvis.
In middle and high school, when I struggled to breathe while playing sports and coaches brought it up to my mom, she said, "It's just hot out," and "She must not be in very good shape yet." Finally, after a full-blown asthma attack in the locker room that delayed the next game, she took me to the doctor, who diagnosed me with sports-induced asthma. But I'd learned my lesson--don't complain, just deal with it.
I'd learned that lesson so well that when, at 20, I fell hard on my shoulder while snowboarding in Colorado, I thought I just needed to tough it out. My brother and his friends fell on jumps all the time. It was part of the sport, I thought, just a bad bruise. Being an athlete meant dealing with injuries. I shouldn't be a baby, even though the pain was excruciating. I kept snowboarding. And even though I'd barely been able to sleep through the pain, the next day I got up and went snowboarding again. Eventually, I drove myself to the hospital and learned I'd broken my arm over 24 hours earlier. "How did you even get dresed today?" the nurse asked me. " I shrugged. I thought being a strong woman meant handling your pain in silence.
Cut to 6 years later and something felt very wrong. At first, I thought it was a merciless period; there was a lot of blood and horrible cramps for two weeks. I made an appointment with my OBGYN but, when the receptionist asked if it was an emergency, I said no, figuring it would go away on its own by the time my appointment rolled around in 10 days or so. It didn't. The pain fluctuated, so I thought this couldn't be my IUD puncturing my uterine wall, right? Wouldn't that constantly hurt in the same place? So I waited. Women deal with this shit all the time, I thought. I'd been lucky all these years, having such a light and painless period; here's my comeuppance. No need to complain.
About a week before the appointment, something happened. I suddenly got dizzy at work, collapsed and blacked out, then threw up. This is just a strange stomach bug or something on top of the interminable period, I thought. Just sleep it off, it'll get better. It didn't. For days, I got dizzy and lightheaded everytime I stood up. Well, I have a doctor's appointment next week, I thought. I'll just hold out until then. When the appointment finally came around, my OBGYN said they had to test for pregnancy, just in case, though, with an IUD, it was extremely rare. Surprise! Positive. It was the end of the day and they couldn't get me in for an ultrasound to determine if it was viable, though, she said, the bleeding wasn't good. So I had to go home and worry about what the hell was happening in my body. They got me in for the ultrasound the next day and determined the embryo had been fertilized in my left fallopian tube and the whole thing would had to be removed. That day.
The surgeon asked me about my pain level and I said about a 4, thinking it had been worse at points throughout the 3 weeks to a month or so that I'd been dealing with this pain. This is tolerable, I thought. And so I waited. For 13 hours. Finally, I was wheeled into surgery around midnight. It took 4+ hours and, as soon as they cleared me to go, I insisted my partner take me home; I didn't want to spend another minute in the hospital.
The next day as I lay comatose on the couch, on painkillers, the surgeon called me. They hadn't realzied my fallopian tube had ruptured about a week earlier, he explained. "You said you were only a 4 on the pain scale," he said, if it was my fault for not speaking up and advocating for myself. There was massive internal bleeding. I nearly died. I should have had surgery as soon as it had happened, he said, should hav been rushed into the OR the second I was admitted, already days too late. "This is the problem with patient pain scales," he told me. He said he'd have thought any person with a ruptured fallopian tube would be writhing on the floor in pain. I was standing up, able to walk. I was conversing, answering questions. I seemed fine. "You have an incredible tolerance for pain," he said. And even though this was an admonishment, I felt a little proud. That means strong, I thought.
The pain from the surgery lasted for weeks, even months. I wasn't allowed to do much while I was recovering, so I mainly zoned out while watching bad TV or sat in front of the woodstove, watching the fire. Though I was physically healing, the emotional pain was raw and very real. I couldn't engage. I was depressed. I didn't know how to tell my partner that I wasn't OK. I thought, trauma over, everything should be fine. I thought this was my pain to carry. I didn't know how to ask for help.
The following year, still reeling from that near-death experience, I thought I was ready to go off anti-depressants. I wasn't. Everything went wrong inside of me pretty much immediately but I thought, this will get better; I can handle this. I felt like I had to prove I could go it alone, medication-free. I didn't yet know I had bipolar disorder, that going off my meds was a very, very bad idea. I was both physically and emotionally sick for months; it wasn't getting better. It took more than 6 months of suffering before I finally asked my pyschiatrist for a referral to a therapist (it had been a few years since I'd seen one), and to get me back on antidepressants. It wasn't a quick or easy process.
Why is it so hard for me to admit I'm in pain, physical or emotional? Why can't I just tell the people I love, I'm not OK here? Why can't I just say, I need help? Having grown up in a household where you just dealt with your shit on your own and didn't bitch about it, I was convinced my husband wouldn't love me if I was weak, if I couldn't be independent and take care of myself. I still couldn't lean on him, couldn't admit this was the "in-sickness" part of the deal.
I'm still learning -- to listen to my body, to assert my needs, to ask for help. It's a long process, but I'm learning when to say, I'm not OK.