It Took Me 30 Years to Get Medical Care for Child Abuse

When I was fifteen, my mother beat me up. That wasn’t unusual, but this time she happened to cause enough permanent injury to change the course of my life. When it was over, my upper spine was compressed, the top vertebra of my neck was fused to my skull at a bizarre angle, and my jaw was misaligned. 

Because of the jaw problem, I went into adulthood unable to eat properly, and I didn’t even know it because I had been that way so long that I thought it was normal. I had no idea why I was so skinny, why I had so much jaw and head pain or why the room would sway around me whenever I stood up.

The doctors couldn’t figure it out, either, even though my problems would have been easy enough to find if anyone had looked. On TV, dedicated, altruistic doctors work like medical sleuths, refusing to stop digging until they find out what’s wrong with their patients. But my reality was nothing like that.

My doctors tended to make snap judgments, diagnosing me early with some common condition or other based on only a few of my symptoms. When my other symptoms didn’t fit, they just told me I was imagining them. They would take my blood pressure and send me away with a prescription for something useless like antibiotics or pain pills. Most of the doctors seemed more like factory supervisors than sleuths. As an incoming patient, I needed to be sorted into one of the clinic’s treatment tracks as efficiently as possible, and there were only so many tracks. Once I was assigned a track, any information that conflicted with that track became irrelevant.

Photo: Engin_Akyurt on Pixabay
My complaints of jaw pain were usually dismissed with a quick, “Oh, that’s dental. You’ll have to see a dentist about that.” On the rare occasions when I could afford to see a dentist, the response was too familiar. “Jaw pain? See your doctor about that; we only deal with teeth here.”

Sometimes, the staff of a doctor’s office or hospital would be especially cold toward me, doing as little as they could, rushing me through an abbreviated exam and all but pushing me out the door. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t want to help me when I was so obviously in desperate need. I was so underweight that my bones jutted out and so weak that the light had gone out of my eyes. Then one doctor put it into words: “It’s not going to work,” she said. “You can stop trying because you’re not going to get any narcotics here.” Once again, I was diagnosed before I was even examined. They had sorted me into the junkie track, which meant I was a bad person who both didn’t want help and didn’t deserve it.

Photo: Joergelman on Pixabay
People outside the medical profession jumped to their own conclusions about me, too. In their minds, I was the ultimate dieting guru, or I had a drug problem, or I was struggling with bulimia, or I was lazy. I developed a ruthless work ethic, teaching myself to tolerate high levels of pain and other symptoms to push myself beyond exhaustion to dangerous extremes. Still, I would hear others praised for their hard work, while I myself was only told I had “room for improvement” because I had taken too many sick days or not been “engaged” enough.

Looking back like this makes me extremely thankful be alive. Things would get worse before they got better, but I did eventually find a doctor who took the time to consider all my symptoms and make a real diagnosis. After more than thirty years, I'm finally able to do something with my life. 

And I hope to put my experiences to good use. Maybe I can help save someone else from spending thirty years looking for medical care, or even from needing it in the first place.