The Double Jeopardy Of Being Woman

I lived with multiple undiagnosed physical and mental health conditions for more than 10 years. When I sought treatment for unbearable pain and weakness during periods, sometimes having to be admitted in the hospital as an in-patient, I was told girls these days just don’t know how to bear pain. I was given painkillers, advised to use heating pads, and sent away. It took 10 years for doctors to even acknowledge the amount of pain I was in, let alone suggest treatment. By the way 'treatment' is painkillers and heating pads, so thank you revolutionary medical science (read sarcasm). As for my mental health issues, it took me a long time to get over my own conditioning and bias towards going to a psychiatrist. When I did consult some, I was lying all the time, getting judgemental vibes from some counselors, never able to bring my actual thoughts to the table. This lead to being mis-diagnosed 4 times in 3 years. This is not entirely my fault though. Certain psychiatrists felt the need to slot me in a diagnosis as fast as possible and not explore other options. In the end, it has affected my functionality adversely, to the point that I have realised I am functional only about 20 days a month. But I’ve also accepted that this is okay.

As a girl who was always an overachiever in school, I was always told I would do great things. To do these, I knew I couldn’t get trapped in patriarchal norms set in most Punjabi families- being 'homely', getting married early, managing a job and babies, serving the family as the perfect angel, participate in all religious ceremonies and festivals with zest, in short be a manic pixie dream 'wife'. I knew the only way out was to study and do so well academically that I would be excused for the delay in being a perfect woman.

I gained 3 degrees over a span of 9 years, pushing myself through the health issues, believing everything would be better once I was earning my keep and free of family pressures. I was delusional. Things only got worse with my first full time job. When you work for a social cause, you are emotionally connected to your work in a way that’s more personal than a job where you are performing for yourself. I let myself get caught up in the constant race to prove productivity and efficiency, to the point when my dysmenorrhoea would force me to stay in bed but I would still work on my laptop, promising myself that this would be the last time. Heaven forbid someone think me incompetent at my job. The consequence was that with no time for self care, I ended up burnt out and broken down within months.

I won’t say I’ve learnt my lesson after a year. I recently worked through a 102F fever, and I am ashamed for not putting my health before my work. I have found some relief though, by identifying  behaviors that help me tackle my conditions better.

Writing helps. Writing this article is helping. Poetry is helping. Talking to my partner and helping him identify my symptoms makes for a smoother life at home. He knows when to leave me alone and when to shower me with care. Spending time with my pets calms me down during anxious mornings. I have learnt that morning routines make me anxious, so I try and keep everything ready the night before, sometimes even washing my hair in the night time because I know I usually can’t bring myself to do it in the morning.

The point is to give yourself a break. It’s okay if something as ridiculous as bathing at night instead of morning helps you. Just do what feels right. As a woman I have always been conditioned to be a caregiver but I have found ways to let myself accept care when I need it, and not feel guilty about being a less than perfect woman.

About the Author

Dr. Ishmeet Nagpal