“Being a woman is hard work”, Maya Angelou.
There can be little doubt that fibromyalgia has become very prominent as a serious social and personal condition that affects primarily women. In fact, it is said by some that it is an epidemic of great proportions. Loss of work, physical impairments and challenges, intense pain, decreased income for many, increases in medication consumption, burdens on the health care systems and family disruptions are among the many serious outcomes of this debilitating syndrome. The numbers of people, mostly women, often middle age-aged, who suffer from this condition far outnumber the numbers of those who suffer from such a horrific life threatening disease as HIV/AIDS, even though fibromyalgia is not in and of itself a threat to life. While I do not suggest that comparisons should be made, or pitting one bitter struggle against another, nonetheless, both HIV/AIDS and fibromyalgia suffer from social stigma, as did the tuberculosis epidemic of decades ago.
Among the interesting facts about FMS is that the numbers of people affected are not precisely known; many go undetected or underreported. There is no ‘scientific’ test with which to make a diagnosis, unlike other epidemics, such as the relatively recent SARS scare that Canadians experienced; nor is the general public afraid it can be ‘caught’ from others. However, like many other epidemics there is a degree of shame with admitting one has this condition as there are many skeptics who do not believe the syndrome even exists. Physicians are generally loathe to ascribe the label and yet, fibromyalgia and the ‘symptoms’ are universal across countries, cultures and various ethnic groups. Morever, it is a condition that affects mainly middle-aged women. It has become a label that people are stigmatized with and not anxious to advertise about being one of its sufferers. I theorize that is because it has become known as a ‘women’s disease‘, based upon perceived undesirable weak personality characteristics of females. Equally as interesting is the Gulf War syndrome which I equate somewhat with fibromyalgia in my book. The veterans with this condition are often stigmatized as well. Are they also perceived to have ‘peculiar’ mental conditions that show signs of the so-called ‘weaknesses’ of women? There are many questions to be asked regarding why conditions that are invisible to medical testing are considered to be non-existent to many.
While I decribe in great length the reasons why I believe women are more prone to fibromyalgia in my book, I am still unable to find others who have reached the same conclusion that I have. In fact, with the new Lyrica medication now being advertised on television, the doctors who even question the very existence of fibromyalgia have become more vocal about women who complain and are unable to adapt to pain. In a recent article of the New York Times, January 14, 2008, they ask if the ‘disease’ is real? Once again I submit that fibromyalgia is not a disease, but a dis-ease of highly sensitive persons. Happy as I am because the American College of Rheumatology has recognized it as a ‘diagnosable disease’, I am saddened that it is considered a disease, searching for such things as a viral cause, without recognition of the social conditions that precipitate fibromyalgia.
Those medical disbelievers cited in the New York Times should walk in our shoes and then ask themselves if we are just weaklings or women with unusual intuitive, sensitive, and empathetic gifts that have over-stimulated our nervous systems. These are the kinds of people the world could benefit from if there were more of us!
Perhaps we are the canaries in the coal mines, rather than people who do not ‘adapt’ and are ‘chronic complainers’. It is easy to understand how our nervous systems have become over-stimulated given the ways in which women are expected to function in societies where women’s gifts of sensitivity are demeaned and stigmatized.