Content Note: This extract contains references to sexual violence and ableism.
What comes with my condition, my pain or whatever we will call it on a given day, is the looming spectre of impostor syndrome. Yet another syndrome – a syndrome of a syndrome of a syndrome. An impostor on pain – the worst kind of intrusion one could make. I tell myself that my pain isn’t enough, it mustn’t be as bad as others’, so my warped logic leads me to the conclusion that I must be making it up. I read and study medical patriarchy, the inherent misogyny of the medical industry, and though I should be soothed by the recognition of medical gaslighting and the inaccuracy of medical practitioners when it comes to feminised pain, I find myself falling further into the hole of self-doubt. Maybe I am a hypochondriac, or worse, its etymologically feminine opposite: hysterical. This is another, unwritten, symptom of any chronic, culturally and medically contested illness.
Maybe if it was worse, I’d know; and even more, if it was worse, they (the doctors, society) would know. I feel guilt for being able to stay in bed. I feel sick with it, sick with the sickness. Sick with not being able to be as productive as capitalism tells me I should be. I try to take a day off and find myself doing my taxes instead. I try to finish writing at 7 p.m. and watch TV to relax, but continue filling my brain with news articles, Instagram posts for someone’s life-saving fundraisers, Twitter threads on abusive men. There’s a certain special routine of doubt and guilt reserved for those who live with chronic illness. Chronic illness can be seen as biographical disruption – some days you’re fine, your ‘normal’ baseline self; other days your life halts, you become a ghost, you’re not who you seemed to be. I wake up and don’t feel too fatigued, go to work and meet a friend for coffee, or have a two-hour long Zoom reading group. I make myself dinner and stay up reading until midnight. I’m fine. Then, the next day I’m incapacitated. Temporarily blinded by a migraine or struggling to stand because of my hip pain. This pendulum nature of our days leaves plenty of room for the webs of doubt to seep through in the liminal spaces. In line with what Maya Dusenbery explains in Doing Harm, I fall into the double bind of the woman in pain: I’m either hysterical, overreacting and seeking attention for something that can’t be that painful; or I’m so calm and collected, a calmness I only perform so that the doctor may deem me ‘sane’ and, believe me, that I can’t be as unwell as I say. It seems this bind goes further than the doctor’s office. I internalise this to my own body. If I’m truly expressing my physical pain, I’ll think I’m making it up – being dramatic or lazy. Or, if I’m grinning and bearing it, I’ll tell myself it can’t really be that bad. By the world or by ourselves, we risk being yellow-wallpapered, overpathologised as a hysterical woman in fake pain. Or we risk being gaslit, being told we’re fine and that nothing is really wrong.
Like so much in this book and in life, the fact of surviving sexual violence interlinks with most things. Like sickness and disability, impostor syndrome creeps into feelings around survival too. In both cases, you are doubted by those around you and arrive at a place of self-doubt. You blame yourself: for not exercising enough, for inviting him back to your place. You doubt your own experiences because society is unremittingly woven into your individual life. Your own bodily reality is called into question – is it real? Am I making it up? Does this happen to everyone else too and I’m just making a big deal out of it? Traces of illness and violence can both be supposedly proven or disproven by institutional authorities. If your bloods come back with a biological marker, or if your rape kit finds evidence of an intruder, then you’re partially safe. If nothing can be found? ‘I’m sorry, there’s not much we can do to help you.’ The medical gaze pervades both of these institutions; if they can see into your body, see that you’re telling the truth, then maybe you’ll be believed. If not, there’s nothing wrong, nothing happened, so get over it. But we shouldn’t have to get over it. We’re not impostors in either world. If we’re in pain, we’re in pain. If we’re traumatised, we’re traumatised. It’s only when these simple facts can be accepted that we’ll finally be able to move along in life with the pain and the harm beside us.
This extract was taken from “What Our Bodies Tell Us”, P138-140, The Way We Survive: Notes on Rape Culture, published by Trapeze Books in July 2021. Order now.*
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