What is it about a diagnosis that makes us suddenly feel our suffering is legitimate?
Does slapping a label on a smattering of discomforts and symptoms suddenly make the suffering I’ve endured for months more intense when viewed in retrospect? Of course not. Then why do I feel the need for a doctor to give my feelings a name before I allow myself to have them?
I am currently 30 weeks into my third pregnancy and not exactly shy about expressing my discomfort and annoyance with the entire reproductive process. I’m a terrible pregnant lady; I’ll own that. However, despite the fact that I feel like my body is literally falling apart at the seams, I have yet to actually succumb to any medically treatable pregnancy complications. I’ve passed my glucose tests with flying colors, so far my blood pressure has stayed under control, nothing other than my sincere disgust with how much pee one human can produce in a day came out of my 24 hour urine test, and my placenta previa cleared up on its own.
By all accounts I am a fairly lucky, healthy, 31-year-old three-time mom.
The doctor wasn’t even concerned when I arrived at my monthly OB appointment panicking because of sudden swelling, chest pains, fatigue and dizziness. I’d spent the previous two days convinced that my good health fortune had run out and I was about to be told my symptoms were, in fact, astutely recognized signs that something was very wrong.
Here’s the worst part: there was a part of me that actually wanted to receive that news. Not because I particularly enjoy spending my days worrying beside a NICU bed in the hospital or because I want my baby girl to be born severely premature. Of course I would endure any pain and suffering that life could dole out to spare her even one of those trials. Yet, there I was, sitting on the cold, hard exam table in the doctors office with my stomach in a twist wondering whether she would confirm for me that the pain I was in wasn’t “normal.”
Therein lies the problem.
Pregnancy is not “normal”… except that it is.
If a 30-year-old man appeared at the doctor’s office complaining of pressure in his chest like someone was inflating a balloon to the point of bursting behind his ribs, such extreme pelvic pain that rising up and down from the sofa brought tears to his eyes, fingers swollen twice their normal size over night, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue, I’m fairly certain he would be whisked away immediately for further testing.
Every day women experience a myriad of ridiculous symptoms that become part of their daily routine to the point that they don’t even feel justified in complaining.
So I found myself secretly hoping for something new to tell my friends and family when they asked how I was doing, something that couldn’t be ignored: a medical diagnosis. Maybe then I would deserve an extra nap or a little more help around the house. Maybe then people would stop looking at me with disappointment every time I told them I wasn’t feeling well that day (for what felt like the four hundredth time).
As relieved as I was, I have to admit I felt a pang of disappointment and embarrassment that I would have to go home from the doctor that day and explain that there wasn’t anything wrong: I had just made it all up. But had I? Just because my symptoms fell under what we consider to be “normal” pregnancy aches and pains doesn’t mean I don’t deserve a little empathy.
Two weeks later I was diagnosed with pregnancy-induced anemia and put on iron supplements. I’d been feeing under the weather and extremely tired for weeks, but I never said anything to anyone; It was just my pregnancy rearing its ugly head again, and if it was completely normal than I should be able to tough it out. I trudged through the days feeling like my body was weighed down by sandbags or like I was wading through quick sand.
Of course, the moment I put a medical label to my exhaustion it felt instantly more legitimate. I’m not failing as a pregnant lady or complaining for no reason; I had a genuine medical condition. It wasn’t my fault.
I felt vindicated.
Then I stopped and considered how ridiculous it was that I felt relieved to be less healthy than I had thought. I was no more deserving of sympathy or help than I was the day before the doctor called with my blood test results, and it’s disturbing to me that I would feel that way.
I’ve heard people complaining that our society over-medicates simple conditions such as pregnancy, but I’m starting to realize that I’ve become part of the problem. I’ve been completely indoctrinated into the culture of needing a diagnosis to legitimize every ache and pain I feel. But I’ve decided that this trend, at least for me, stops here.
I’m giving myself a new diagnosis: a third pregnancy. I’m no longer going to feel embarrassed because I can’t lift my thirty-pound toddler or because I’m too tired to clean the house or write anything of substance on my blog for weeks. I don’t need a nap or an extra pair of hands around the house because there is something wrong with me. I need them because I’m tired and that is enough.
Sometimes we deserve a little sympathy just for being us.