Nobody Believes That Black Women are in Pain, and It’s Killing Us
My pain is real and the medical system is broken, misogynoir is more pervasive than what is generally perceived, and Black women deserve to been seen.
By Jazmine Joyner
I was an antisocial 7th grader who wanted nothing more than to read books and watch movies. Being the new kid at my middle school, I had no friends and spent most of my days in the library reading “Fear Street” books. My closest friend was the librarian Mrs. Stanley, a tiny white woman with coke bottle glasses and a blonde pageboy haircut. I would eat lunch with her in that library, talk about books, and what I was learning in class. I felt truly invisible in my school and in an effort to appease my father (who loved sports and thought I should try out for some) and to make some friends, I tried out for the track and field team. Practices would start off with running and conditioning, something I particularly hated.
Cardio has never been my strong suit, and back then I struggled to even finish a mile. It was during one of my first practices that I felt a sharp throbbing pain in my lower left abdomen. It felt like I was being burned and stabbed at the same time—it took the breath from my lungs.The pain would often show up as soon as I started running and I would fall to my knees on that dead grass, gasping for air and holding my side. I told my coach about the pain I was experiencing, and she said to me it was just cramps. I had recently started having periods so I had no idea what was right and what was wrong when it came to menstrual pain. So when she said it was cramps I just took her word for it, she had to have been right. Right?
Turns out she was so very wrong. The pain just got worse and it wasn’t just when I ran or was physically active, it happened all day, every day. I would stand up to go to my next class and the razor blade like “cramp” would spring to life and send me abruptly back down into my seat. I would walk in between passing periods bent over like a praying mantis, clenching my teeth, sweating like crazy, trying my hardest to get through the day. I went to see my doctor and when I voiced my concerns that the cramps where constant even when I wasn’t on my period, she told me that I was overreacting and that it was normal.
So I took Motrin and continued to push through the daily pain. One night I woke up vomiting, the cramps had reached a level I can only describe as full blown labor contractions (which I later learned was very similar, if not worse to the end stages of contractions). I was crying, rocking, and folded like a lawn chair. I couldn’t keep anything down. I was bleeding through every pad and tampon I put on, and I can remember thinking I was dying, that this was it I was going to bleed to death and die. I built up the strength to hobble to my mother’s room. It was around 3:00 am, and I was the only one who was awake in the house. I knocked on her door, walked in, and she took one look at me and leapt out of bed.
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We rushed to the hospital where the nurses just kept saying I was having an awful period, that I was being dramatic. I was vomiting in between uncontrollable crying bouts sitting on the emergency room floor clinging to a translucent white plastic trash can filled to the brim with bile and other gross stuff. And still these women refused to try and help me. It took my mom (who has been a nurse for over 20 years) a little over an hour to convince them to give me an ultrasound. They begrudgingly did so. By that time I was extremely dehydrated, exhausted, and close to passing out. They hadn’t given me anything for my pain because you know, I was just the 12-year-old Black girl being theatrical.
The minute the nurse put the ultrasound wand on my belly she immediately changed her tune. Everything was urgent now, they called in an emergency surgeon, I was given pain medication, and they told my mom I had a softball sized cyst growing on my left ovary that had caused the fallopian tube to corkscrew. The cyst could rupture any moment sending coagulated blood to my heart, killing me instantly. I was luckily rushed to surgery in time. I lost my left ovary and fallopian tube, and I learned later on that this loss could’ve been prevented. The early signs showed themselves months before, but no medical professional would take me or my mother’s concerns seriously. We were just a Black woman and her child being dramatic to them.
Over the years I have been diagnosed with several ailments and am both chronically ill and disabled. Each diagnosis took years to obtain. I have been gaslit by the medical community my entire life. My pain and knowledge of my body has been questioned at every turn by white doctors whose education has been historically steeped in anti-blackness.
Black women’s bodies have been abused by the medical profession for hundreds of years. J. Marion Sims is considered the “father of modern gynecology.” Sims was a surgeon from Alabama who performed a series of experimental procedures on enslaved Black women in the mid-1800s. None of these women were consenting to these procedures and were often operated on without the use of anesthesia, or numbing agents. The inhuman treatment of these women perpetuated the belief that because of the color of our skin, Black women and Black people are biologically more adverse to pain than white people. This myth has stuck with us for generations.
When Black women bring up our hardships we are confronted with the “all women matter” argument. Yes, historically women have been dealt a shitty hand when it comes to the medical industrial complex. Rather than being diagnosed with physical or mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety, women were routinely diagnosed with Hysteria, a now debunked condition that is defined the by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as a “psychoneurosis marked by emotional excitability and disturbances of the psychogenic, sensory, vasomotor, and visceral.” Instead of treating the real illnesses that women were suffering from, they were being misdiagnosed, and carted off to sanitariums where they were sometimes given lobotomies which is a procedure where the doctor would permanently damage the frontal lobe to turn a once “unwieldy” patient into a “calm and docile” woman. These deeds were often used not only as something to help heal the unwell, but to manipulate and control free-spirited women of the time, like that of Rosemary Kennedy, whose family subjected her to a lobotomy to “cure” her of her mood swings.
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Women throughout history have been mistreated and abused, but to ignore the specific misogynoir Black woman and femmes experience within, and outside of the medical institutions of the United States, is to erase the history of pain and disrespect Black women’s bodies experience every day.
It’s not just the physical pain of Black women and femmes that is completely overlooked, but our emotional distress is continuously ignored and belittled. To quote Malcolm X, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”
We are consistently viewed as loud, angry, and abrasive. All these adjectives used only when we express ourselves or try and defend ourselves. This stereotype is used against us every day, and we are subjected to the microaggressions that come with being seen as “the angry Black girl.” As a Black femme, I have a target on my back from the moment I wake up, to the moment I go to sleep. Everything about my body is seen as a political statement. My hair, my clothes, the tone of my skin, my curves; I am always hyper-aware of my Blackness and femininity and the vulnerability of both those intersections. A white person finding a part or all of me a threat could mean the end of my existence. Just ask Sandra Bland, Erica Garner, Venida Browder, Rekia Boyd, Malissa Williams, Decynthia Clements, Korryn Gaines, and the list goes on.
I have fibromyalgia, a condition which causes overactive nerves, creating widespread pain throughout my entire body. Every day I am in constant, unyielding pain. The only way I can describe it is to imagine you are about to hop in the shower. When you think the water is just right you jump in, you immediately know you underestimated the temperature of the water, and it hurts as it runs down your body. That feeling is what I feel all the time. The pain gets so terrible that I can’t move—I go to the emergency room, crying, unable to walk or maneuver, and they refuse to give me pain relief. Again I am gaslit into believing it’s all in my head that nothing is wrong with me and my pain is tolerable. While I see the white patients in the beds next to me receive superior care, pain meds, and human decency, I am told to leave.
The University of Virginia reported in 2016 in a study about the medical treatment discrepancies due to race that, “A substantial number of white laypeople and medical students and residents hold false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites, and demonstrates that these beliefs predict racial bias in pain perception and treatment recommendation accuracy,”
Many of the white medical student’s surveyed in this study believed that Black people had less sensitive nerve endings, that our blood clots much faster, and that we age slower—all ideas that were in vogue during the 19th century. In the modern age, it is wild to see and experience the racial bias that comes with trying to receive medical care. When you’re a Black women or femme in the ER looking for relief from intense chronic pain, the first thing any doctor thinks is that you are on the hunt for pills. This has happened to me more times than I can count at this point.
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But this disparity isn’t something that only affects lower income chronically ill Black women and femmes like myself. One of the leading causes of death for Black Women in the US is pregnancy and/or childbirth-related problems. Serena Williams, world-renowned professional tennis player, and businesswoman, almost died giving birth to her daughter Olympia. In her op-ed for CNN Serena details her post-birth fight to survive the physical complications that occurred after giving birth.
Just last year I had spine surgery in early April 2016, it was to fix a bulged disk in my lower spine that was pushing on my S1 nerve causing me extreme pain. The surgery didn’t take. What was worse than it not being successful was that the pain was now astronomically worse than it had ever been—I couldn’t stand, walk, sit, or lay down. Anytime I would stand up, the pain would be so bad that I would black out. I called my surgeon, and the nurses told me to take pain medication and that I would be alright. No one would schedule me an appointment to talk to the doctor.
After weeks of struggling to use the bathroom and blacking out, I finally convinced a nurse to give me an appointment. I explained to the nurses that I had zero mobility and that I couldn’t even fathom how I would get to the doctor’s office, and then walk from the parking garage to their waiting room. They basically told me I was shit out of luck and that I had to figure it out.
I am lucky because I have amazing friends who help me when I am at my worst. My oldest friend agreed to take me to the hospital. After an arduous ride from my 3 story condo to the hospital, she had to hold me up as we slowly made our way to the check-in. At this point I had a cold sweat going, I could barely see, but I was determined to get help. I made it to the check-in where the nurses at the desk looked immediately alarmed at my condition. I checked in, and my friend and I made our way to the office. At this point, there was no way I was going to make it much longer. My vision was going out, my breathing was ragged, and I was starting to go limp. My friend dragged me to the office door and banged for help. It swung open, and I was lifted into a bed by one of the orderlies. My surgeon took one look at me and admitted me to the hospital, I was scheduled to have surgery later that week.
I bring up this story because it took me literally passing out in an elevator and being dragged into the doctor’s office for the staff and my surgeon to take my pain seriously. After that ordeal, I avoid the doctor at all cost. At this moment I have been having gynecological issues that I can’t get help for, even with my medical history. I hear stories about Black women and femmes who have been treated terribly by doctors and nurses, who shame, ignore, gaslight, and erase the severe pain we experience every day.
I wanted to write this piece because more often than not I don’t receive the medical care I deserve. My pain is invisible to the world around me and it’s infuriating. The stories I’ve shared in this essay are the tip of the awful experience iceberg I have lodged in my brain. My pain is real and the medical system is broken, misogynoir is more pervasive than what is generally perceived, and Black women deserve to been seen. We spend more time trying to convince our doctors to provide us with care than we do actually receiving it. The abuse Black women and femmes continue to face in this country is abhorrent. But with white supremacy being woven into the very fabric of our country, I honestly see the erasure of Black women and femmes’ pain getting much worse before it ever gets better. I promise you I feel pain and I can’t wait for a world where I don’t have to prove that statement of being true.
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