Voices from the edge

Reading through the free-form responses to our Women’s Heath Survey has been a heartbreaking task. The stories from women throughout England were both shocking, but unsurprising in equal measure. Shocking because of the difficulties in getting a diagnosis, (and these were about pre-pandemic experiences) either because of a GP refusing to take symptoms seriously or because of a lack of suitable specialist clinics. Unsurprising, because these are stories I hear daily from my friends and colleagues in CII. Why do women with chronic pain in Suffolk not have accesses to the same services as women in London? Why can you get a diagnosis as an adult for EDS if you live in one county, but not if you live in the next-door county?

We received 1,871 responses that covered 6 different aspects of the difficulties that women with chronic illnesses face. The overall theme was that of medical ableism, a failure to understand our conditions or listen to our experiences.
These quotes are the voices of those women, they deserve to be heard.

Disbelief

Being disbelieved seems to be a rite of passage for so many women with chronic illness and/or chronic pain. These are just a few of the responses that were given to our question about the impact of being disbelieved;

“Being disbelieved makes you question everything you know about yourself and your conditions and leads into a dystopia which undermines everything in your life.”

“I have developed anxiety about being believed & taken seriously especially with professionals, I struggle with a sense that I am seen as worthless by society in general. I have become apologetic and unassertive.”

Disbelief has a very negative impact on psychological well being;

“I used to be extremely independent and I’m finding my self-esteem has gone down a lot since I’ve needed help. There are such a huge amount of physical obstacles in the way when you have to use a mobility scooter or a wheelchair, it makes you feel that society doesn’t want you around and sometimes it makes you feel like you don’t want to be around.”

Self-blame is also common;

“It took a long time and a lot of heartache to get my head around the fact that my life didn’t look like I thought it would, and the fact that I was constantly being gaslighted by medical professionals and especially the DWP meant that I did and still do struggle with the idea that this illness is somehow my fault.”

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It’s Our Community

Catherine Hale spoke at It’s Our Community, a conference on social care reform. Catherine explained the high prevalence of energy limiting conditions and the psychological impact of not being believed.

I was a social care user back in the 1990s. I’ve had my chronic illness for over three decades and when it was really acute, and I couldn’t wash feed myself, or go to the loo, I had a care package. But later years when things were less severe, my needs were harder to grasp because my impairment was invisible and poorly understood. The social care system completely let me down. As a disabled lone parent I had no support.

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Accessing Support: A system geared toward physical impairments

Sarah Campbell asks whether chronic illness needs its own set of responses to social security, employment and social care.

I have a combination of both a chronic illness and a progressive muscle condition, offering me insight into both “worlds” of invisible fluctuating illness and visible physical impairment. Some issues are extremely different while others are shared. But so far I’ve found that accessing support is often biased toward purely “traditional” physical impairments.

As a wheelchair user, there are many access barriers ranging from getting an adequate wheelchair in the first place, to housing, transport, social care etc. But the law is generally on our side, precisely because disabled people fought for those rights over the past decades.

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