The other day, my friend asked "can you imagine having chronic pain in the 1800's?" I immediately recalled a short story I read in college — The Yellow Wallpaper.
"You see, he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do?" The narrator of the story is at a loss for how to get her doctor husband and brother to see her invisible illness. They tell her that the very worst thing to do is to think about her condition, that doing so will only make her sicker. Boy, if I haven't heard that before.
The woman and her husband rent a mansion for the summer, and she's immediately uneasy with the decision. Everyone around her tells her it'll be good for her, she'll be able to get fresh air and exercise, and the change of environment will help with her poor mental state. Sound familiar? I thought so.
This story was published in 1892. When I read it in 2009 I felt as if I was reading a memoir of myself. Here was this woman, a woman trapped in a time period that felt so long ago — and she was experiencing the same treatment of her illness as I had received. She feels guilty for not getting better, and for not fully appreciating the help others have given her. She struggles with the treatment plan put in place for her. She is ordered to not work, get plenty of exercise and take pills at every hour of the day. She also struggles to define what she calls her "nervous condition."
If you haven't read The Yellow Wallpaper, I strongly recommend it. It is relatable to all of us suffering with an invisible illness, both mental and physical. It perfectly captures in a very personal way just how women with unseen pain were regarded not too long ago. Most women were passed off as "hysterical" when they complained of their pain. Unfortunately most of us have experienced modern day treatment reminiscent of this throughout our own medical journey.
I remember sitting in class as each student read a paragraph out loud. When we had an open discussion about what we read I really wanted to share my story, and how easily I could relate to this woman — but I stayed quiet. I was embarrassed that like the main character, I would be thought of by my peers as crazy or self obsessed. This only made me more like the lady trapped in The Yellow Wallpaper.
This story is a perfect depiction of what can happen to a person when their condition is ignored and their pain is not believed. Although it is not a story of triumph, it is a story that must be heard. Read it here, and let me know how it made you feel.