Defending yourself usually means defending your body against physical violence from another. That’s not a terribly controversial statement, though there can be some debate over exactly what “violence” encompasses. We know it can come from strangers, and from acquaintances, even loved ones. We often characterize it as something that involves the creation of an injury that we can see and measure: bruises, cuts, broken bones. Sometimes, we’ll even allow that violence can include active neglect, allowing an injury to fester and worsen or even the creation of serious illness by neglect, like letting someone starve to near-death.
I spend a lot of time reading and watching reports about the things that affect women and it’s occurred to me that there’s a category of self-defense that we often forget about. I haven’t thought to write about it much here, and it’s even one that I’ve suffered myself.
It’s a different sort of self-defense because there’s no situational awareness kind of trick to spotting it, and there’s no tool like pepper spray or a gun for defending against it. There isn’t even much in the way of classes to help you deal with it, but you can learn to deal with it and there are coaches who can help you.
I’m talking about advocating for your health, for finding answers when you know something is wrong with your body or mind. For going to the doctor and going again, and getting second opinions. For finding the time and energy and money to get treated. For not letting the idea that you’re too crazy or too demanding get into your head so that you just give up.
There’s nothing easy about knowing that part of you doesn’t feel right, is even painful, and not knowing what to do about it. It’s even worse when you finally pull yourself together and the person who’s supposed to know better dismisses you. Are they being “violent”? I don’t think it matters. What matters is that you find a way to defend your body.
One of the biggest issues is the dichotomy between how well you know your own body, and how well a doctor knows all bodies. They are, in fact, experts about human biology (and if psychologists or psychiatrists, about the human brain), to the extent that medical science knows how it all works. It’s important to acknowledge and respect that, but not at the expense of realizing that you are an expert at knowing how you feel and what is normal for you. They might be able to benchmark you and tell you that no, most people can’t really do that thing with your knee or shoulder you thought everyone could do because you’ve done it your whole life. They can interpret images and scans and test results, some better than others. They have the knowledge base to string together symptoms that might seem unrelated to you.
You, however, are the only one who can accurately describe the pain that you’re in or the strangeness you feel. You are the only one who knows what isn’t normal for you, what’s new now and has never been part of your life before even if it’s every day for everyone else. You might even be the only one who can point out that your blood counts have changed over the years because you kept track and your new doctor didn’t have your old records or didn’t look back far enough in your file. Navigating that unassailable knowledge of self against the expertise of the medical profession is difficult, made more so by the attitudes of many professionals (and who can blame them? There are certainly some crazies out there. But they aren’t you either.). Not to mention, just like you probably don’t appreciate being told how to do your job, doctors can understandably get their backs up too, when you come in waving some research from Dr. Google, no matter how on point it may be.
Sometimes it means preparing yourself for a doctor’s appointment like you’re preparing for an important business meeting, with notes and rehearsals to make sure you are able to express how you’re feeling and the direction you’d like to take with your testing and treatment. You’ll need to remain open to their suggestions, but that doesn’t mean you need to put up with not being listened to and heard or that you need to be put up with being dismissed. The distinction between “oh, just take these pain meds and come back in a few weeks if it still hurts” and “I’m not sure what’s really happening here but let me send you home with this prescription while either we look into it further or you call me if you notice these particular symptoms” is profound. And which one do you deserve? Certainly the latter.
Sometimes it means going to another doctor, whether you’ve fired your first or are just heading for a second opinion or a specialist’s take. That strategy can be denigrated as “chasing a diagnosis,” but historically, women have often had to. The average time from symptom onset to diagnosis for several disorders specific to women, or for women as compared to men, can reach to the decade mark. Ten years of knowing something isn’t right, but not being able to find out what that is and how to treat it calls for a little doctor-shopping and diagnosis-chasing, I think. Can you go too far? Sure. But you can also err on the side of not far enough, and the consequences there are often worse than wasting time, money, and energy.
Sometimes, it means figuring it out yourself: exploring what it could be, trying things that could fix it. It’s of course better to stick with “can’t hurt, might help” kinds of home solutions, but there are so many of them out there. And even if the science is shaky or it seems kind of a weird mystical woo, if it helps…does it matter? You might need to let go of a formal diagnosis in those cases, but you might be able to feel more right in yourself. Even doctors will tell you that there isn’t always a magical pill or procedure that you can go through to fix something, but perhaps you might want to try this particular diet, that particular type of exercise, a daily dose of meditation. You can do that yourself too. You don’t have to wait for a medical authority to tell you so.
And isn’t that what self-defense is about? Protecting the integrity and sanctity of your body? And shouldn’t protecting your health and advocating for treatment for your body and mind be part of that?