The Burden of My Anxieties (2017), reflecting on how stress and trauma, such as domestic abuse, can impact on women’s health. By Joy C Martindale.
I have a burning pain. It hurts and keeps me awake at night. I am afraid of it. Standing up I can feel the exact sore spot with my fingers, yet the doctor insists I must lie down to be examined and then we can’t find it.
“Let’s do an ultrasound scan”, he says, “to rule certain things out, however it won’t show an ulcer. For that, we would need to insert a camera down into your stomach. That is an invasive technique, so let’s try this medicine and do the scan first.”
For over two years I have been collecting scraps of washed-up cloth from my local beach. All sorts of materials: pieces of socks, shirts, gloves, tea-towels, dresses.... Plenty of it is soft and tactile. I am sewing the fragments together to make an abstract work: The Burden of My Anxieties.
But this piece that I have been stuffing and stitching is bloated. I look at its bulky centre. Something isn’t right. I’m going to investigate. I pick up my dressmaker’s scissors; they’re weighty and sharp. I choose my point of entry, and I snip, snip, snip all the way down the middle. The opening I form is like an opening through flesh. Released, soft folds of material gently spill out.
Making a symbolic cut through my textile work to enable me to look into its inner workings marked the beginning for me of addressing the impact of my situation: I was facing a trial in which I was to testify about the domestic abuse I had experienced. When I became ill with a suspected stomach ulcer I knew that my symptoms were the result of stress, but not knowing what was physically wrong with me induced further anxiety. I muddled along trying various prescribed medicines and experimenting with natural health remedies.
One day I heard a report on the radio that highlighted other women’s experiences of illness. A general medical practice in Devon run by Dr Jonathan Cope has identified that its most frequent attenders are between 30 and 55 and more often women than men. Specifically, the Beacon Medical Group’s study has revealed that 37-year-old women make the highest number of contacts. I am also 37 and I have wondered for some time if my health problems: anxiety; low immunity and frequent trips to the GP following childbirth are issues commonly experienced by women of my age.
“The results show that this group receives higher rates of prescriptions for antidepressants and analgesics and higher than average rates of referrals and investigations,” stated Dr Cope when I wrote to him to find out more.
“Sometimes physical symptoms are the manifestation of psychological distress,” says Dr Cope. “Unnecessary and unhelpful over investigation fuels further anxiety. We believe that mental health services are not sufficiently funded to address this group. They often don't meet the threshold to be accepted by services for treatment until they reach crisis, which is poor.” A liaison psychiatrist now works with the practice to help develop an approach that moves from focusing on a patient’s symptoms to one that begins to address a patient’s whole wellbeing.
The Burden of My Anxieties’ has been the expression of my pain and at the same time my therapy. I feel the burden of my own anxieties but the suffering I have felt when I have been in crisis is a commonly shared experience, and research such as Dr Cope’s project clearly points to this. With this work I want to say to other women who are struggling - you are not alone in feeling this way.