How to tell the difference between a body memory and a medical emergency? Good question. I have visited emergency rooms more than once with a panic attack that I mistook for a heart attack and have ignored the pain of a strep abscess, ending up spending five days post-surgery in the hospital.
Over the years, I’ve gotten better at sorting things out. About once a week I ask myself, “Do I hurt anywhere? Does it hurt more or less than last week, or does it hurt differently? Have I told the doctor?” I also check to see if I feel generally, bodily, sick or if I have any of the classic warning signs of disease, like lumps or changing moles.
I’ve found that discussing things I am not sure of with a friend is a great help. I pick some body who is neither a total stoic nor a hypochondriac and ask for a reality check. Sometimes just hearing my own words helps me make a decision.
Education (first medical books and now the Web) is also very useful. I was able to decide I was getting carpal tunnel syndrome rather than having mini strokes when I learned that one of the early symptoms is tingling in the hands – everywhere but on the inside of the little finger. A wrist brace, better posture, and more frequent breaks from the computer solved that problem neatly.
We were taught to bear pain, not to talk about it (certainly never to strangers), and to dissociate from it completely. No wonder it is hard for us, as adults, to know when there is something seriously wrong.
It takes prolonged practice to learn to tune into our bodies. We have to make a conscious effort to feel things that others notice instantaneously. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.
And now I have a little motto for my fridge: “When in doubt, check it out.” It’s embarrassing and sometimes expensive to be an alarmist, but it can be lethal to ignore or dissociate away pain or other symptoms.
Survivorship Journal Volume 10 Number 2