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Home » Articles » The Chronic Search for Relief in the Medical System
Physicians dismiss women’s pain more than men’s. Period.
This unfortunate truth is displayed in full color detail throughout Abby Norman’s book, Ask Me About My Uterus. Raw, bold, and unflinchingly honest, her memoir flashes back to a traumatic childhood while taking us through the relentless pain and endometriosis diagnosis that derailed her life. With her sharp wit and a knack for research, she uncovers the dark underbelly of the fraught relationship between women’s health and the male-dominated medical establishment through the telling of her own complicated tale.
Many of us living with chronic illness can relate to the shock of pain that zapped through Abby’s body on an otherwise uneventful morning – that moment when life as we know it comes to a screeching halt.
The stabbing coursed through her abdomen, as though “on the receiving end of an unseen assailant’s invisible knife.” She tried to manage it, put her mind over matter; but the pain viciously stole her attention. Barely able to sleep, it terrorized her for nearly a week before she finally relented and went to the hospital (despite the bills that would later pile up).
Both the 1-10 pain scale, which she heavily condemns in the book, as well as the physicians who used it did not begin to acknowledge the level of agony she was in. Only once she saw a specialist did a laparoscopic surgery uncover a gnarly ovarian cyst as well as endometriosis.
Healthcare visits often left her ears ringing with pronouncements of “it’s just stress” and “it’s all in your head”
Endometriosis is a chronic condition that often coexists with autoimmune diseases. When endometrial-like tissue mistakenly attaches to organs, tissues, and nerves outside the uterus, it causes inflammation, scarring, and excruciating pain.
One year prior to the onset of her illness, Abby had started a new chapter at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, far away from the sting of recent family trauma that left her homeless and sleeping in her car. The school was her home, her safe haven away from a fight-or-flight existence. She was dead-set on returning to student life as soon as possible.
The lack of support or information given about her diagnosis fueled the hope that the surgery had “fixed” whatever was wrong. But the constant, agonizing pain greedily revealed its chronic nature and she was forced to drop out of school entirely.
Wading through the shifty undercurrent of medical sexism, Abby had no choice but to put on her inspector badge and go to work
Even armed with a diagnosis, healthcare visits often left her ears ringing with pronouncements of “it’s just stress” and “it’s all in your head.” As those of us with invisible illnesses can heartily echo, Abby had “never wanted to be right, only to be well.” Self-doubt, shame, and guilt crowded around her and relief was nowhere to be found – from the pain, nor the belittling.
Abby aptly broadens the scope of her own story by weaving in historical narratives on the treatment of women in the medical system from the 1600s to the 1900s. She explains why gender bias and this dismissive behavior are so pervasive even today, as they are deeply rooted in our cultural beliefs about women.
Wading through the shifty undercurrent of medical sexism, Abby had no choice but to put on her inspector badge and go to work. She poured over medical texts and studies, acquiring serious respect for science as well as a brilliant education in her diagnosis. Her perseverance and ability to assert herself led to an important discovery about her condition.
As endometriosis affects every aspect of life, Abby slowly – but surely – learned to accept her situation. Time spent nose-deep in research and at doctor’s offices never ceased, however, as her health took on new complexities overtime. Undoubtedly she’s tired, yet to this day she persists. Abby is a strong example of the value of lived experience and the power of self-advocacy and research.
Abby’s story, like many others, is long and complicated, saturated with the ever-burning question: why did this happen to me? As a person who has experienced chronic illness myself, including unexplained severe abdominal pain, nausea, and brain fog, I can relate to the distress of constantly searching for answers, dealing with disbelief, and managing pain, all while trying to live a satisfying life.
Doctors tossed antibiotics and other drugs at me left and right to see what stuck
I found myself silently cheering as she very articulately slammed physicians who provided poor treatment and an even poorer attitude. Abby’s stories highlighted the same medical system limitations and downright failures that I have experienced.
At the onset of my symptoms, I was thrown into a chaotic sea of blood tests, exams, imaging, and surgical procedures. Doctors tossed antibiotics and other drugs at me left and right to see what stuck. I sat silent while too many specialists either rolled their eyes and scoffed, or shrugged their shoulders because they didn’t know what to do. I felt trapped.
Luckily, a determined friend of mine was well-versed in holistic approaches to health, where the aim is to treat the whole person – including physical as well as emotional, social, and spiritual wellbeing.
I had no clue at the time, but many people with chronic illness benefit from a harmonious mélange of both holistic and conventional interventions like biologics, surgical procedures, diet change, herbal medicine, acupuncture, supplements, and more.
Managing an illness can be just as financially draining as emotionally
When I first visited an integrative medicine doctor, she sat me down for a full 90 minutes, digging into my health condition without even a whisper of “you’re young you’ll be fine” or “it’s just stress.” Even before the functional labs revealed some major issues, there was simply no denying that I had a physical illness. My faith in medicine had been restored – and redirected.
Many of the women I connect with have parallel stories to mine. Their health suddenly plummets and they struggle through our modern Western medical system with little to no success. Then they become research maniacs, find more holistic forms of care, and are able to manage their conditions or slowly improve. I read Abby’s story through the lens of these experiences, wondering whether she would be given the choice to pursue another avenue and find the care she deserved, too.
Integrative, functional, naturopathic, and Eastern medicine do not come cheap
Abby mentions naturopathy and supplements once, fleetingly. Near the end of the book she states that she’s on a helpful and “fairly uninteresting, low inflammation type diet.” I was hungry for more. How did she get to that point, and what person or research led her to use food in this way?
I was rooting for Abby to explore outside conventional (a.k.a. Western or modern) medicine, acknowledge that other options exist, and pass this on to her readers. The book is structured in a manner that extends beyond a typical memoir. With her narrative forays into the stories of other women who have experienced the same letdowns as well as histories of how women have been treated in medicine, the book acts as an educational piece on women’s health.
The story as a whole serves as an anthem for patients, but it is limited. For all her grievances with our current system, somehow her feet stayed firmly planted within it. While this was a barrier for me as a reader, it highlights the many valid reasons why holistic medicine does not end up in someone’s health journey:
While socioeconomic position plays a monumental role in access, there are ways to incorporate holistic medical care and therapies on a tight budget. Reaching out to a local community of patients with autoimmune disease or chronic conditions can illuminate new pathways. And there are organizations like Chronic Wellness Collective, which offer affordable support, education, and programs in whole body wellness for people with chronic illnesses – a valuable companion to conventional or other medical treatment.
Holistic medicine was my own antidote to the “quest to make doctors believe in women’s pain”
For me, the kinds of patient-centered care that look for root causes (namely, functional medicine and modern naturopathic medicine) and treat the whole person were the only spaces where doctors wholeheartedly believed in both my pain and my insights. They were my own antidote to the age-old struggle: the “quest to make doctors believe in women’s pain.”
Abby’s bold, well-researched, and relatable memoir is a must-read for anyone with chronic illness or a license to practice medicine. She vividly describes the plight of the patient within the constraints of modern medicine in a way that speaks to both physicians and the people they treat. Ask Me About My Uterus brings awareness to the limitations of our current system, while encouraging women to never give up.
Empowering messages from people within the community keep the rest of us (including me!) moving forward. We’ve got this.