Patron Saint of Broken Bones
In third grade, I started wearing braces on both knees. The pain was always moving from one knee to the other — a sign, one doctor would tell my parents, that it wasn’t a real injury at all and that maybe I was making it up. Sometimes the pain, sharp and cold deep inside the joint, was in my ankles or my wrists too. Exactly how it feels to break a bone.
My parents took me to pediatricians, orthopedists, and rheumatologists. I had x-rays and CT scans and MRIs, and each time I couldn’t wait to find out what was wrong and to see my pain mapped out in gray against the skeletal image of my bones.
Sometimes my classmates broke their ankles and wrists, and they came to school with casts in neon colors and collected friends’ signatures like trophies. Everyone could see that they were in pain, and it was something to be admired or a story to be told.
Sitting in doctors’ offices, I ,too, waited for my casts. But, my results were always the same: nothing was wrong.
Several doctors suggested growing pains. Two sent me to physical therapy. One suggested counseling or more attention at home. Mostly they all told me that it was probably all in my head.
By the time I hit my twenties, the pain in my joints had gotten bad enough that I frequently drove myself to urgent care clinics, hoping for any kind of relief. My medical records were full of these late-night Hail Marys when I couldn’t take the pain anymore. To a healthcare provider, this looks like drug-seeking.
I still wore a rotating array of braces and splints on whichever joints hurt that day, even though no one could prove anything wrong with any of them. To a society that tends toward disbelieving women, this looks like attention-seeking.
The worst thing a good patient can want is a prescription for painkillers. The worst thing a woman can want is attention. So I’ve been trying for a long time to perform a certain type of not wanting. I mostly stopped going to urgent care and wearing braces because none of it mattered, as long as I had no proof.
The first time I broke a rib it was from coughing. I rolled over in bed and felt the pain blooming across my body.
When the doctor walked his fingers across my rib cage, I winced, and he knew he had found the exact spot where I hurt. “You’ve probably cracked a rib,” he said. “An x-ray can tell us for sure.”
A radiologist lined me up against a lead plate and posed me, turned me like he was taking my mugshot, and then together we looked at the images. A dark line, like a hair, ran jagged across my rib.
The exact shape of my pain. Proof.
I’ve broken twenty-three bones in my life. When my broken bones first hit the double digits, a friend told me that I should pray to a Patron Saint of Broken Bones.
I imagine my Patron Saint as a woman — I would never pray to a male saint about my pain.
I don’t mind the idea of finding faith in something, the idea of believing. And the thing about broken bones is that they have to be believed.
With each new pain in my body, I weigh the risk of ignoring a serious problem against the tired routine of pointing to a number on a pain scale and paying a copay to perform my pain in exactly the right way for a team of doctors to still not believe me.
I’ve never cried when I’ve broken a bone. And I never cry at all in front of doctors because any emotion I show can be used against me.
But once, I did. I was in so much pain that I was certain I was dying, and no one in the ER would give me drugs for the pain. I let myself cry until I was wailing. Finally, a doctor came to my side and he said, “You need to stop getting hysterical.”
I never got painkillers that night. I never got the doctor to take me seriously. As soon as I was crying, I was too easy to dismiss as a woman in hysterics.
In college, I was running on a treadmill when I felt something snap in my foot.
The way I felt in the doctor’s waiting room was the way I had started to feel in every waiting room: already defensive and ready to argue and prove my pain. I was ready to be told that nothing was wrong.
When the doctor showed me my e-ray up on her computer, she didn’t accuse me of anything.
Instead, she pointed to a gray spot on the screen and said, “You can see right here where it’s broken.”
And I could.
My body hurts just as much every day as it does when I have a bunch of broken bones. A broken foot, a broken hand, a broken rib — these are not pains that even register in the everyday inventory of my body’s pain.
In emergency rooms, I’m asked to assign my pain a rank from one to ten. It’s a useless metric. I would describe the pain of broken bones as cold and concentrated but it would never occur to me to give it a number. There’s no objective way to communicate pain.
Since I have to assign it a number, I do. A broken bone is usually a four or five. My everyday pain on a good day is a seven or eight. I’ve never described any pain as a ten; I understand that it will be taken as hyperbole.
But broken bones give me what my word alone cannot: the validation of a gray spot on an x-ray. They give me a cast, a crutch, or a splint — a visual signifier that all is not well with my body.
Broken bones are a reprieve from a lifetime of not being believed.
I admit that I’ve considered slamming my own hand in a car door. I’ve considered throwing my rib cage against the hard back of a chair and ignoring the animal impulse of my brain that tries to stop me before I get hurt.
Sometimes I fantasize about a simple injury, like a bone with a clean break that indicates a precise kind of pain.
The truth is that I do want attention. I want my pain to be recognized and validated and paid attention to. I want to be seen and believed as a person in pain.
The truth is that I do want drugs. I want adequate medical care for the pain I’ve felt for my entire life.
These are not bad things. When I fall asleep to fantasies of grizzly fracture, that’s what I tell myself: These are not bad things.
If there was a Patron Saint of Broken Bones, I would pray to her: Please, let this pain appear, dark against the skeletal image of myself, as something broken.
In order to survive in a world that dismisses the reality of chronic pain, I’ve started to believe the world. I’ve started to not believe myself. This is a tension I have yet to resolve.
I’ve started to believe that some pains count more than others and that “real” pain can be proved. If it doesn’t appear on an x-ray, then I must be wrong about what I feel.
This tension is a sign of a very sick healthcare system that is built on a foundation of dismissing women’s pain. If for twenty years every authority says that something is false, you will believe that it’s false. Even when it’s your own body, and your own pain.
These days I pray each new pain is a break.
I pray: Please, let me be believed.