Pills for Breakfast: What It’s Like to Be a Woman in Pain

Pills for Breakfast: What It’s Like to Be a Woman in Pain

Being in pain every day, all day, is hard. But when you’re a woman, there’s a whole extra layer to the situation that makes everything that much harder.

It’s not just the expected stuff, like being told by a doctor that your bra is too tight and that’s probably what’s causing the excruciating pain in your right ribs that’s so awful that you literally want to jab a knife into your side and rip the bones out.

Or, after you change your bra, being told by the same doctor to just “calm down” because you’re probably just stressing yourself out, and that’s what’s causing pain so severe that you have to stop mid-conversation multiple times a day and lay flat down on the floor because you just can’t bear the agony of standing up.

pillsdin300No, it’s the other stuff too. It’s the things you don’t expect.

Like being accused of being a sexual assault victim, because that’s the only thing the doctor can think of to explain why it hurts like the end of the world when someone touches your ribs.

Or having a male doctor get uncomfortable examining your ribs because GASP! your boobs are right above them. Didn’t he go to medical school? Has he never seen a cadaver? Would he be so shy if it was a male patient with chest pain?

And then there’s stuff that you can’t even be sure of.

Like did that male doctor just give me Aleve for my level-10 pain because he really thinks that’s going to help? Or did he just think that, as a woman, I was probably exaggerating?

And, did that other male doctor accuse me of being an amazing actress just trying to score pain meds because he does that to every patient he sees on opioids? Or did he do that because I was a wee woman?

There’s also the stuff that bothers you, because you’re a Type A woman.

Like how you suddenly have to ask for help for everything. How you have to literally ask people to drive you to work, and do your laundry and even go over to the dining room table and grab your medication because you’re in too much pain to do any of it yourself.

And how asking for help means giving up control. So suddenly your towels aren’t folded the right way, and you have no idea where your favorite yoga pants are, and you have no say in what flavor yogurt you eat because you’re way too sick to go to the grocery store yourself. And it makes you crazy, but you have no other choice but to let it all go.

Except when you don’t let it go, and you try to do it all anyway. And so you work until you drop, and then you go home and do all the housework, and then you go on a date with your boyfriend and you end up screaming in pain in the ER because you really can’t do it all any more. You can’t even do some of it.

Then, there’s the stuff you hate.

Like when your boyfriend pretends like he understands how much pain you’re in, but then has a totally different reaction when one of his male friends tells him he endured the same thing and it was excruciating. And suddenly your boyfriend is way more sympathetic.

Or when you get genuinely upset about an emotionally abusive situation at work, and your boss tells you that it’s probably just because you’re so moody from all those pain meds you’re on.

There’s also the stuff you hate to admit.

Like how, as a woman, it’s especially hard to endure the most common side effect of medication — weight gain. And how, you hate that so much of your own self-worth is wrapped up in how you look, even when you’re in so much pain that you literally want to kill yourself to make it stop. And how you keep taking the meds and gaining the weight because you have no choice, but you also, simultaneously, fill up with shame knowing that you no longer come anywhere close to society’s definition of beauty.

Or how you can no longer stand up long enough to shower and blow dry your hair every day, and so suddenly you find yourself going a full seven days without a shower. And you know people are totally judging you for it. And they are judging you all the more harshly because you are a woman, and women are supposed to put an effort into their appearance at all times.

Or worse, how you finally decide one day to endure the shower, and hold the blow dryer, and sit on the toilet seat cover so you can do your makeup, and you take 30 minute breaks between each step so that you don’t wear yourself out. And then you put on a nice outfit and you go out to Steak & Shake and you run into someone you know and they say, “Wow! Well, you certainly LOOK great!” implying somehow that you can’t really be that sick if you’re wearing pink lipstick.

And there’s also the stuff you don’t even want to think about.

Like how you’re only 30 years old, but you’re in chronic pain every single day, which doesn’t exactly make you a great catch. So will you ever really be able to have children? And can you even think about having a kid when you can’t even take care of yourself most days? And anyway how would you even carry a baby when you need seven different medications just to survive?

So yeah, being in pain is awful. And being a woman in pain is also awful — but for a whole bunch of extra reasons.

Crystal Lindell

Crystal Lindell

Crystal Lindell is journalist who lives in Byron, Illinois. She loves Taco Bell, watching “Burn Notice” episodes on Netflix and Snicker’s Bites. She has had pain in her right ribs since February 2013. It is currently undiagnosed.

Crystal writes about it on her blog, The Only Certainty is Bad Grammar.

The information in this column is not intended to be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Only your doctor can do that!  It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s personal experiences and opinions alone. It does not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of National Pain Report or Microcast Media.

newest oldest
Notify of
Mike Eckert

Many of the above treatments cost alot of money and you spent enough but you want to at least get by, if not find a permant solution or cure, if there even is one.

trudy myers

I have been dealing with chronic severe pain now for years-I went through all the horrors you talked about. It makes for a sad angry life. I am under medicated now and my MD is making me go to behavioral health-which is ridiculous-I am now 54, dependent on the low dose of pain meds I can get. I have to supplement the dose with aleve, high dose motrin and asprin. I pretty much hate all pain doctors at this point

Simon Balfre

Why is it guys are never truly understanding of chronic pain and how debilitating it can often be?

I’m guessing that it’s because most of them have never been through it.

Nor do they realize that the old wives tale of “feeling under the weather” is a reality.

If only the ones who’ve never been through it could experience it for just one day.

Johnna Stahl

“Like being accused of being a sexual assault victim, because that’s the only thing the doctor can think of to explain why it hurts like the end of the world…”

Been there, accused of that. Not just once, but time and time again by the same doctor.

Great article, gracias.

How true all that is Crystal. Before getting my rollator, it was hard to have anyone believe me till I tell them where my TN, Autonomic nervous system problems, and my peripheral neuropathy were diagnosed. I need to remember to tell people who say such stupid stuff to get on the phone and call any of my docs on a list I still need to make up. They should be able to call my primary doc with no problem at all. I have a feeling they would back off pretty quickly.

I was told I have a somataform disorder, meaning it is all in my head and not a neuro condition at all. I should have told him to call my other docs. Found out from another neuro that he was really nasty to people who he thought didn’t have a neuro disease but wonderful with those who did. He was one of the worst docs I saw. I keep getting worse or this summer has been very hard on me, not sure. I am also 60, the older I get the less likely some of my chronic problems won’t be covered by Medicare. Doesn’t matter what you do at times to try and get a little better, no one will truly believe you. HUGS sorry for all you have been through.


I cannot agree more with this article. And yes Crystal, being a mom of two young girls and working full time in a corporate job, it is more difficult. But we are tough and make it through. I have endomitriosis which is a main causal factor for much of my pain but the doctors are leery for pointing to endo for my rib pain. Which for me is on my left side. I had to bring my husband along when asking for pain relief as if I was a junkie wanting to sell it on the black market. Are you kidding me? Those three pills that you have me are my life savers. I would never. Pain doctors are the same way. They look at you as though you are asking for meds when you know you are being judged. I travel a lot, have a house to upkeep and work to finish. I have small children and a husband which whom thank God is caring. But life is tough and yes, there are some days in which I just want to me in a ball and cry. You aren’t alone.


I cried when I read this, I feel exactly the same way. Thank you for writing this, it sure helped me to know I’m not the only one. (PS, I aldri suffer from pain in the right ribs, and I have endometriosis- which they had to operate to diagnose)


Crystal, I personally would not want an orthopedist touching or noticing my breasts. I would be unnerved by a rib examination for that reason, and quite frankly I think it is a good sign when a doctor shows that kind of “shyness” as you put it. Frankly, I am tired of getting the opposite from doctors – doctors who told me that a simple breast reduction will fix my kyphosis, which is not only untrue because breast reduction will not only failed to strengthen the muscles in my back and stabilize my vertebrae, but I am repulsed by the idea of a doctor who does not specialize in women’s issues even looking at or noticing my breasts. Sexual harassment by doctors is a very real issue, and I am deeply fearful of it. If a doctor can’t think with his brain instead of his groin, then he should have his license revoked.

Kurt W.G. Matthies

Crystal - I get it, even though I happen to be a male. With me, it was equally idiotic remarks like “perhaps you shouldn’t carry your wallet in the back pocket,” or, “have you considered having your desk ergonomically arranged?”

It is unfortunate that many physicians believe that only they and other physicians have the brains to think about these things.

My pain began at about your age, a couple of years earlier — I’ve been living with it for a long time — next month, God willing, I turn 60.

Let me leave you with one piece of advice that I know will help. No, it’s not a lotion, a new bed, medical marijuana, or any other “magic bullet.”

Find yourself a good pain psychologist with whom you can develop a therapeutic relationship. These relationships can last many years. I met my pain psychologist 19 years ago, and it was a high point in my medical history. He helped me again yesterday, coincidentally.

Pain psychology is not like you see in the movies, where you lay on a couch and explore your feelings about your parents.

Pain psychology is a branch of health psychology, and a good pain psychologist knows as much (if not more) about the medical aspects of chronic pain and its management than most pain physicians.

They help with education about your condition, with managing medication, finding alternative therapies, working with you on CBT treatments that help distract you from pain, keep you aware of current therapies you (and especially your doctor) may have not have heard about, and can even help in finding other local doctors who are more qualified than your current batch of highly esteemed, white-coated clowns.

In my opinion, a chronic painer without a pain psychologist is like a swimmer, alone at sea, swimming against the current. In real terms, these people are only receiving a fraction of medical treatment available to them, that treatment favored by their current set of doctors, and doctors are biased.

It’s a much larger world of pain solutions when you have a pain psychologist, and we need every solution we can get, because there is no cure, only treatment.


Agreed, with all of it!!!! I hate that in order to get complaints of medications not working well for my pain taken seriously at my pain doctor’s, I have to bring my HUSBAND along. It seems as if the doctor only listens when (1) a man is talking and (2) when there’s a corroborating witness to my pain, as if pain is a crime and denying pain meds is the punishment. It’s extremely frustrating for me to have this happen, and for me not to be able to do half the stuff I used to do - I went to MIT for undergrad and UCLA for my Ph.D., and I’ve worked in some of the top medical schools in the country doing cancer research, but I had to stop… I’m now a medical/scientific writer so I can work from home and sit down most of the day.