Black Women and Our Unstable Relationship with Pain


Before my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I thought being “sick” meant that someone was feeble, bed-ridden, and jaunt. Essentially, I associated sickness with weakness. I couldn't be more mistaken. My mother is not and has never been any of those things. When you look at her, you’d see a tall, slender woman with a youthful sense of style. If you knew her, you’d know that she is an avid bowler, yoga and tai chi practitioner, and rides horses when the weather allows for it. She wasn’t “sick” in my mind or to the human eye. Internally, however, cancerous cells were flowing through her bloodstream and, at times, affixing her organs.

The journey is at times confusing and intimidating. We couldn’t see the war zone until it produced fevers and chills. Throughout this journey, doctors have told us her “levels” are balanced all while admitting her to intensive care units.

The Duality of Black Womanhood

As Black people, our identity is rooted in the duality of our heritage and the lens of Western society. We, as women of color, wear an additional mask of that reflects strength and femininity.

This association with strength sometimes negates our livelihood. It is so important to advocate for our own health because sometimes the systems in place to address pain don’t recognize it. Look at Serena Williams, a world-class champion (and in my mind, a goddess). She spoke about standing up for her health and demanding a CT scan which would ultimately reveal blood clots in her lungs during her pregnancy. If an athlete, who is trained to push her body to the limits, has to fight for tests, what hope do the rest of us have?

You Know You Best

Whether it is a chronic disease, chronic pain, or even mental health, we have to provide the space to say our pain exists. It’s time to give validity to our pain to prioritize our health. It is not “in our heads” or something that can be healed with prayer or a good day’s rest.

It is up to us to advocate for our wellness. I've seen my mother flat out refuse treatment because she was not comfortable with it at the time and that is her right. It turns out that trusting her instincts was the best decision she made for her wellness.

Show up for yourself.

What Is In Your Control

I was at the helms of a half million dollar fundraiser when I ended my engagement. I noticed my hair began to fall out, I lost weight, and broke out in hives. I would secretly make several trips to Immediate care centers on my lunch breaks until I ended up in the ER. One physician very bluntly said, “Whatever is stressing you out needs to go. You don’t have white blood cells to fight off infection. Your immune system is nearly nonexistent. I don't want to see you again.”

Suffering in silence caused my body to shock itself into submission. I was doing such a disservice to myself by trying to have the appearance of strength, fighting through work projects that it manifested physically.

I finally went to my boss for much need mental health days. It resulted in a successful event, more importantly, a healthy me.

Yes, that is my neck by the way...

Speaking up is the best way to save ourselves. You choose the environments in which you heal. I began to take time off work when I needed it, and more importantly, seek counseling as needed. I found agency in understanding how I could impact change rather than feeling like I was out of control.

Some Battles Are Not Yours to Fight

If anything, my caregiving journey taught me that there are unseen battles that we ALL must fight. Those invisible wars are not for us. We lose the fight when we refuse to relinquish control to a higher power and the Universe. The sooner I realized this, I was able to be my best self. The fight didn't appear as hard because I chose to focus on what was in my scope of power to change.

I'm grateful that I learned to redefine sickness. It upended my association with strength in the process.

Also see:

Chronic Pain, and the Denial of Care for Black Women (re.wire)

The Long History of Discrimination in Pain Medicine (The Atlantic)

7 Times We Decided People of Color Don't Feel Pain Like White People Do (Mic)

#vulnerability #strongwoman #strength #usingyourvoice

© 2020 by Brittany Maria Wright. All rights reserved.