When a Doctor's Advice Awakened My Own Doubts About My Pain


Today was an amazingly productive day. I got a lot of things done, including baking both cookies and cupcakes. And yet, I still took Tylenol twice, reduced my subluxed sacroiliac joint half a dozen times, got nauseous twice, and had to lay down to rest and ice three times. And this was a good day. The day before yesterday I spent almost completely in bed, and when I did force myself up to do some housework, I ended up back in bed after a few minutes, crying from pain and frustration.

The doctor I saw yesterday didn’t see any of this. He spent 15 minutes with me, listening to a brief medical history of the past four years and doing a physical exam. At that point he told me that I need to exercise, get out of the house, and return to work as soon as possible.

Maybe I didn’t explain well enough how the pain and fatigue impacts my life. How I do physical therapy, but must carefully monitor my body to try and determine whether the pain I’m feeling is “good” or “bad.” How I want to exercise and get out of the house, but most of the time I end up injuring another joint and get set back for weeks. How I cry thinking of the hikes I may never go on again. How I want to work, but between my pain and my brain fog it’s impossible right now.

Yet in the brief time we spent together, he reignited my doubt. Maybe I’m exaggerating. Maybe I’m not that sick. Maybe I’m just lazy. Maybe I just need to suck it up and try harder.

The doctor wasn’t even mean. I’m sure he meant well and thought he was helping. In a way, that makes it even more insidious. It’s easier to ignore someone when they obviously don’t have your best interests in mind. Instead, he used his position of authority to give me advice that was unhelpful and invalidating. And that is unfortunate.

A little validation goes a long way when you’re in chronic pain. We live in a culture that tells you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and tough it out when things get hard. It takes willpower to slow down and listen to your body. I have to remind myself often that it’s not lazy to rest when I’m ill or in pain, or that just because I’m not feeling pain at this moment doesn’t mean it wasn’t real. My pain is real.

In the end, I allowed the doctor’s words to get to me. The doubts he awakened were my own. It reminded me that I still have a ways to go in fully trusting myself and feeling secure in my knowledge of who I am.

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