Sorry I’m Sick – Women and Chronic Pain

Sorry I’m Sick – Women and Chronic Pain

By Liza Zoellick.

Women are more likely than men to struggle with chronic pain. That is a well documented fact. Women also experience a great deal of dismissive behavior from doctors, even across gender lines, though much of the data seems to suggest it’s more prevalent in male doctors. Is this why so many women feel a need to not only explain their illness to people, but also apologize for it? I am inclined to believe that women are afraid that if we cannot explain our illness, give a cohesive, or logical explanation for its origin, that we might be seen as weak or lazy. In my opinion, this extends even in a broader sense beyond chronic illness/pain, to everyday illness and even menstrual issues.

I am focusing here on women and how it is to be a woman struggling with chronic issues and the need to apologize for being sick. In my case, I have had a few very horrible weeks. I had been on what I felt was an upward swing, but I came crashing down hard from it and spent about 80% of the last few weeks feeling horrible. Even as someone who understands that this illness is not my fault, that I did not wish this on myself, I still have trouble not apologizing for it. This need to apologize extends to my kids, and my husband who works hard to support all of us since I cannot work and am still waiting on disability. So I apologize for not being able to do the things I once could, I apologize to my kids for not being able to be as active with them and to my husband because I cannot work. I know I am not alone either. I have read blog after blog and article after article about women apologizing for being sick. I have also talked to women on various support groups on Facebook and women on Twitter who also confirm a need to say “I’m sorry.” In fact, while not a scientific poll, I did poll one of my Facebook groups and found that out of 102 women: 79% feel a need to apologize or have apologized for being ill, 10% have not or do not feel a need, and 11% have at least sometimes apologized. Again, while not scientific, I think it is a glimpse into what many of us feel. In a way it is ironic because as I have said, I know this is not my fault and I think among all of us, we know it is not our fault.  And an apology, by the very nature of it, implies culpability in some way. So why, when we understand that this is not our fault, do we feel the need to apologize?

After much reading I came across something that made sense to me. According to Karina Schumann, a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, much of what may cause women to apologize more in all aspects of their lives is a need to promote harmony in their relationships. This instantly made sense to me because women are more social, we are the caretakers to our family and extended family, we are seen as nurturers and even as young girls we’re often taught to keep the peace and keep the balance within our home/family and our social groups. *[http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/no-apologies-needed-study-reveals-women-men-article-1.443567] However, even though I can see the origins of it, I still feel that women should not apologize for being sick yet, maybe there can be a balance struck. Maybe instead of saying “I’m sorry,” and implying culpability for being sick, we should instead say, “I am sorry that this affects you too?” I feel some of this originates with our own, personal loss of who we once were, because who we once were before illness/pain got hold of us is different than who we are now. I’d like to say that if you can reconcile between those two people and forgive your body for the betrayal of illness that you can move on and not feel a need to apologize. But I think of all the things I struggle with every day, forgiving myself is the hardest, so why should it be surprising that I am compelled to say “sorry,” or that other women feel the same? In an effort to help curtail the apologies, here are a few things you shouldn’t apologize for:

  • Bad Days:

You are doing the best you can. Remember that even the non-ill have bad days, so why can’t you? Also, don’t sugar coat the bad days either. Chronic illness is real. Chronic pain is real. People need to see it.

  • Saying No:

We want to please others and keep harmony, but you have to make yourself the priority. This is not an act of selfishness, it is an act of self love because the only one who is going to suffer because you over extended yourself, is you.

  • Being Untidy:

This is a huge source of irritation for women, because as progressive as the world might be, women are still seen as the care-taker of all things inside the house. We all want our house to look like it could be photographed for the cover of Good Housekeeping, but often times we are unable to keep up with such high, personal expectations. It’s okay. No one has ever died because the breakfast dishes are still there after dinner. If you cannot enlist help from someone, accept what you can and cannot do.

  • Others judging:

Unless someone lives with chronic pain/illness, they are not going to understand what it is like. However, it is one thing not to understand and still be supportive and have a desire to help someone, and to not understand and judge someone over what you think they can and can’t do. You should not apologize to someone over their lack of understanding the situation and you need to surround yourself with those people who will support you.

  • Good days:

When life becomes about good days and bad days, and bad days out numbering the good, there is no logical reason at all why you should apologize for having a good day. The nature of chronic pain/illness is such that even our good days are not 100% so we need to be able to receive those good days without the added pressure of suddenly feeling like we are not allowed to live our lives. So live and laugh and don’t apologize for finding joy.

This is Liza’s second contribution to the National Pain Report. She is a delegate to the International Pain Foundation who lives in Houston.

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Authored by: Liza Zoellick

There are 13 comments for this article
  1. Byron Hood at 9:50 am

    Lisa< I see you're in Houston. Is there any way you can contact me? My wife is a chronic pain sufferer, and we live in the Galleria area.

  2. Liza Zoellick at 12:21 pm

    Thank you for the comments and I’m really so very happy that I touched a chord with all of you. It really gives me a lot of joy to be able to write and bring chronic pain/illness to the attention of readers. My blog is http://lovekarmafood.com if any readers are interested in other topics I do cover there.

  3. Michele Youngblood Howe at 9:49 pm

    Everything that you wrote about is exactly as I have or could say. I got so tired of apologizing for basically living!, that I have chosen to live alone with my animals so that I won’t feel the need to apologize for not being perfect and in good health. It’s sad and I do get lonely, but I don’t have to feel badly bcuz I am sick, once again, or don’t feel sociable or have to think of some ridiculous excuse just to not sound like I’m making the same old repetitive saying of “oh, I just don’t feel good today”. Why does society make women feel as if we must always be there for someone, regardless of how we feel? Do men feel this same guilt? I doubt it!
    I’m printing this out and putting it on the fridge where I can see it every day and be reminded that I don’t have to apologize for not living up to anyone’s, including my own expectations!
    Thank you Lisa, for such a great article and the freedom to say NO!

  4. Notasheep at 11:03 pm

    Amen and thank you for addressing the needless guilt I personally feel.

  5. Cherylmarie at 10:11 pm

    I even apologize to my dog !! I was sick this week for 3 days. She is so loyal she doesn’t leave my side. So she laid in bed for 3 days with me. Wont even hang out with hubby. And I’m constantly telling her I’m sorry. That she deserves better , someone who could walk her everyday and play. I always feel guilty about my pain and how it affects everyone, family, cancelling plans with friends, and my poor baby dog.

  6. Christine Sparks at 7:57 pm

    Thank you so much. You have struck such a chord with me that I will be re-reading this many times. I’ve gotten to the point where I can be honest about how I’m feeling, but I still feel that I need to put a positive spin on it so that I’ll be seen as worthy and not a downer for my loved ones.

    And I’m doubly grateful to you for putting this well-written piece together when you were not feeling so great, just to bring support and understanding to the rest of us!

  7. Diane Sbur at 1:30 pm

    Thank you for your comprehensive and honest accoconstantl of the many struggles, myself included, confront on a daily basis. I had just completed my Masters in Education, in my early 40’s, when I reached the limit where I was unable to work. No one was more disappointed.and yet; one would think I brought it upon myself/or was making it up. It has been a long road. I have a great PCP and advocate for myself. It is exhausting on top of the actual illness’

  8. Larry F at 12:16 pm

    Sorry, but after 30 years of what has become all limb CRPS, which began following an accident six months after marriage, and which, after two decades of multiple doctors, multiple meds, unpredictable good and bad days ( with unpredictable good and bad hours), and eventual living on disability creating a growing chasm in the world of our family vs. the neighbors standard of living, and finally resulting in breaking my wife’s commitment and our marriage, I find the idea of turning the issue of chronic pain, like so much in the identity politics of today, ridiculous and short sighted, but dividing the pain community might at least bring a big happy face to the DEA, CDC and PROP.

  9. Vicky Swift at 10:39 am

    Liza, well said! I agree with everything you wrote and live my days full of guilt and remorse. My husband had his life taken along with mine. I live pain med to pain med. Doc attempting to reduce dose, it’s getting clear we may all get future dose reductions. Sometimes that makes it a good or bad day. If I’m on a new med to try and cure infection, get beat down by cytoKene storm. It’s very hard to manage. Praying for a cure, or any good help at all.

  10. Joanna Pinne at 9:13 am

    Thank you Liza. This is just great. I stopped apologizing a long time ago. A bit of cranky humour helps me when dealing with others. I have learned to set boundaries with others because of my illness, and I’m pretty strict about them if I need to be. I do not tolerate being condescended to by the medical profession. My illness has made me in some ways a stronger person. Thank you for writing this, it’s really great!

  11. Grace Smith at 8:57 am

    Reading this was just what I needed today. I feel like a failure when I can’t take care of everyone and everything. Thank you for this very well written article!

  12. Sherry at 7:56 am

    I do not ever apologize for being ill. I did not choose this illness and if I have to make concessions because of my illness I do so. I say no. I go to bed early. I ask for help when I need it. Sometimes I stay in pajamas all day and watch netflix. I also seldom complain to anyone . I journal and sometimes share my struggle with my husband.

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