When I came down with a host of symptoms that doctors didn't understand, it seemed they saw me as a middle-aged, hysterical, crazy hypochondriac. Suddenly, my liberal arts education was useful to me in a whole new way.
What do you do when you develop low-grade fevers, swelling, enlarged lymph nodes and a host of other symptoms, and all your doctors can do is shrug their shoulders and say they can't help you?
I saw my doctor at the first signs of illness, but despite fainting, a trip via ambulance to the emergency room, repeat visits with my family doctor, specialists and many blood draws (I lost count after eight), I remained sick and mostly undiagnosed.
Once it seemed clear that I wasn't having a heart attack, even the emergency room's approach was to have me sit in the waiting room for hours. Finally the ER doctor admitted he didn't know what was wrong. He sent me home.
It seemed the doctors saw me as a middle-aged, hysterical, crazy hypochondriac.
Hysteria is an ancient term originating from the word uterus or womb. It's been used to describe all sorts of women's conditions. It culminated in an actual medical diagnosis, accompanied by treatment aimed at dispelling "emotional excess" through a variety of strange and sometimes medicalized sexual treatments.Psychological ailments
Some medical professionals thought hysteria was a way psychological ailments expressed themselves through physically visible health issues, such as fainting, shortness of breath, anxiety and fatigue. Sometimes the cure involved tonics or elixirs that often contained laudanum or alcohol.
In the mid-1990s, I took an upper-level Ivy League university seminar with Prof. Mary Jacobus. When we discussed feminist literary theory and criticism and 19th-century definitions of terms such as hysteria, I remember thinking, "This is ridiculous. Thank goodness we don't face these crazy things anymore."
Today, history and a somewhat better grasp of medicine enable us to see that women who went to those predominantly male doctors for treatment felt desperate because they actually were physically or mentally ill. Terrible discomfort causes anxiety, fatigue, depression and a whole host of other issues.
Over time, women's health has improved enormously. Now we know that all sorts of real health issues — migraines, cancers, hormonal imbalances and more — could have forced women to seek medical treatment.
Though there have been vast improvements, women's issues remain problematic. For example, women's health research lags far behind men's health research, and there is still an enormous wage gap between men and women.
Health care remains another unequal frontier. I was reminded of this daily over a six-month period when I became ill. I remembered hysteria from my undergraduate seminar. Suddenly, my liberal arts education was useful to me in a whole new way.
As the primary caregiver for my twin kindergarteners, my first responsibility was their well-being. Despite ongoing fevers, I wasn't as aggressive about my health as I could have been. I remember seeing Prof. Jacobus's daughter in the seminar room at Cornell University, quietly colouring. Maybe there was no school or she was sick — but the professor also struggled with child care.U.S. diagnosis
Finally, a physiotherapist who specialized in lymph issues suggested what might be wrong. She suggested a naturopath, who seemed far more certain about which tests I needed done — outside of the provincial health-care system. I got my answer $1,300 US later.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines, I had chronic Lyme disease. A few hours after I got that lab report, a doctor at a walk-in clinic handed me a prescription for several months of antibiotics.
My relief was enormous. When the doctor said she hoped the prescription relieved my suffering, it made all the difference.
I'm still in the early days on the antibiotics, but I felt hope again after getting a real evaluation, diagnosis and medicine for treating the problem. Even if my case is more complicated than just Lyme, the antibiotics likely could do little harm.
I asked no fewer than four doctors if I might have Lyme. All of them dismissed me immediately. Despite a recent trip to the southern U.S. and lots of time outside in Manitoba, both places where ticks that carry Lyme are prevalent, none of the doctors were willing to explore that further.
Lyme disease is still poorly understood. The tests used for diagnosing it aren't great, either. However, the U.S. has many hundreds of thousands of cases a year. This isn't an exotic ailment anymore.'Women's' concerns
We study historical trends, cultural theory and even medical changes because they're interesting intellectual pursuits. However, that Cornell class taught me a good deal more. After stints at Oxford and Cornell, Prof. Jacobus left Ithaca to become a professor at Cambridge in the U.K. Despite a top-notch academic career, she too struggled with child care issues — "women's" concerns that haven't changed as much as I'd hoped in that seminar.
Hysteria is no longer a valid medical diagnosis. However, it's good that I learned about it from such a bright academic. I recognized it when I went to the doctor, asked what was wrong and felt as though I'd been dismissed — and even mansplained, once or twice — with no solution in sight.
Recent research has indicated that the gender of your doctor may affect whether you leave the hospital alive. Women may practice medicine differently. They're also societally trained to listen more carefully.
It's all too easy to decide that a patient with difficult or strange symptoms is not ill but just hysterical. Resolving a medical mystery may be harder intellectual work than resorting to bias. It's the easy way out.
My English class in feminist literary criticism taught me analytical skills, but its historical lessons also proved useful. Persistent, bright women, whether in classrooms or literature, overcame a lot to be healthy and meaningful contributors to society. While sick, I struggled to manage child care and to work productively.
Thanks to one university seminar, I remembered and challenged that silent diagnosis of hysterical hypochondria. I problem-solved by working outside the system. One expensive lab test proved me sane indeed.
Joanne Seiff is a freelance writer, knitwear designer and educator who lives in Winnipeg.
- British Columbians to march in solidarity with U.S. Women's March
- Drilling companies on life-support as oil price continues to slide
- How history could make strange bedfellows of Obama and Trump: Keith Boag
- Kids in provincial care staying longer in hotels and other 'last resort' places
- Tampered lock and disabled router: Douglas Garland triple murder trial hears evidence from Liknes home
- 'A little piece of good in the world': Free pantry project expands in Lethbridge
- Ontario children and youth with ADHD often prescribed antipsychotics, study finds
- Winnipegger headed to Washington as women on both sides of border join anti-Trump march
- Tories scrap NDP plan to combine health cards with drivers' licences
- Pallister sticks with large provinces in calling for more federal health funding
- Why not speaking French is such a disadvantage in Conservative leadership race
- Justin Trudeau's language 'misstep' in Sherbrooke could have political fallout
You might also like
- Lena Dunham, America Ferrera among celebrities at women's marches
- Former DUP Health Minister reveals four family members run boilers under RHI scheme
- PICS: Thousands of women protest against Donald Trump around the world
- Co-pilot passed out in cockpit before landing
- UK PM to meet Donald Trump
- What happens to Donald Trump’s Twitter account now that he’s president?
- With false claims, Donald Trump attacks media for reporting crowd sizes
- How Trump’s executive order impacts future of the Affordable Care Act
- Trump praises the CIA, bristles over inaugural crowd counts
- World jittery about President Trump’s ‘America first’ inaugural speech
- Patriots vs. Steelers: The stats, streaks and point spread for the AFC Championship game
- Unconventional Preview: Patriots and Steelers have plenty of history, but it hasn’t been much of a rivalry
- Powerful South Carolina political consultant implicated in indictments of a veteran state senator
- Will Donald Trump get a second Supreme Court nomination?
- "Hazing" rituals await Supreme Court's "junior justice" Neil Gorsuch
- The hunt is on for Planet Nine. Here's how to join it
- Trump approves controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline
- Trump praises 'Fox & Friends,' renews old feuds in early morning tweets
- Rex Tillerson finally answers question from NBC News' Andrea Mitchell
- First Read's Morning Clips: The Latest in the Russia Investigation
- Spicer: 'I've let the president down'
- Russian President Vladimir Putin met with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday
- OMB Diriector Mick Mulvaney: Washington's 'a lot more broken' than Trump thought
- Trump attacks conservatives over failure of health care bill
- A very consequential week didn't go well for President Trump
- Health Care Showdown: Republicans look to go big or go home
- No deal on health care bill after conservatives meet with Trump
- CA gov on those supporting health bill: 'Their name is going to be mud'
- Give it to me straight, doc: Is Obamacare dying?
- First Read's Morning Clips: Waiting for CBO
- 14 People Share What's It's Really Like to Have An Ex Who Is Now Their In-Law
- The Internet Is Freaking Out About The Way This Chef Cuts Pizza
- Malala Yousafzai becomes honorary Canadian
- Text of Malala Yousafzai's speech Wednesday to a joint session of Parliament
- Controversy over video comparing abortion to Holocaust shown in Catholic high school
- Foul play not suspected in deaths of four people found in burning N.B. house
- Plans to bring high-speed internet to remote First Nations with 3,600 km cable
- Deadly wrong-way collision kills four in Quebec
- Gov. Gen. David Johnston reflects on Vimy and horrors of war
- Canadian accused in Yahoo hack denied bail, judge criticizes parents
- Attention, Gardiner commuters: You've got one more week to use the York-Bay-Yonge off-ramp
- Alleged hitman in brazen Toronto shooting sent message about 'contract killing,' Crown says
- After 6 suspected overdoses, Toronto councillors want amnesty for users who test drugs
- How do you fix child care in Toronto? Get all 3 governments to spend billions on it, report says
- Review of York Region District School Board finds 'culture of fear,' 'systemic discrimination'
- Peel school board steps up meeting security 'to ensure people are safe'
- 'The feather and the Bible were together': A tragedy is helping to mend a city's racial divide
- 5 things we learned about the changing nature of news from The National in Conversation
- 'We hear you': Sudbury city official says cyclists, pedestrians will have a voice at city hall
- Any cuts made to Saskatoon's budget may be permanent, city manager warns
- Council approves demolition of low-rental housing for college residence
- 'It's just not a strong signal': Residents in rural P.E.I. asked to test their internet speed