Q&A with Lara Parker, author of Vagina Problems: Endometriosis, Painful Sex, and Other Taboo Topics
US-based Lara Parker is Deputy Director of Buzzfeed, and has spent the last decade struggling with a host of ‘vagina problems’ – chronic illnesses including endometriosis, pelvic floor dysfunction, vulvodynia and vaginismus – as well as pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD).
In this powerful, visceral gut-punch of a book, Lara writes about her experiences navigating the American healthcare system as a woman with vagina problems, and learning to manage life with chronic pelvic pain.
I was particularly struck by the following two extracts, which chime so much with the stories I hear over and over again in my work.
From chapter 5, ‘Why Won’t Doctors Believe Us?‘:
‘I’ve often seen the question posed: “Is there gender bias in the medical community?” This question always makes me want to laugh. Not because it’s funny, but because I can’t believe people are still questioning this when it’s not something that is up for debate, in my opinion. It’s been shown in multiple studies that there is a clear gender bias when it comes to the way medical professionals treat women – especially women of color. I bet that if you ask any woman in your life if they’ve ever had an experience where they felt like the doctor dismissed their pain, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who says no.’
From chapter 11, ‘A Letter To The Doctors Who Didn’t Believe Me‘:
‘At this point in my life, I no longer need your validation. I don’t need you to tell me that I was right all along. I don’t even really want your remorse. I just want you, and all doctors, to do better. I want you to listen to your patients when they tell you they are in pain. I want you to realize how incredibly common things like endometriosis and pelvic floor pain are. And if you are not equipped to treat these things, then I want you to be able to admit that and refer us on to someone who is.’
Vagina Problems: Endometriosis, Painful Sex, and Other Taboo Topics was published in the UK on 1 November. Hysterical Women spoke to Lara about the book, her drawn out fight for diagnoses and treatment, and what needs to change for chronic pain patients.
SG: Why do you believe it took so long to start getting the answers you needed about your Vagina Problems?
LP: I think there are a couple of reasons why it took so long; lack of awareness around how common these conditions are, an inability to effectively communicate how much it was impacting my life, and doctors who simply did not do their jobs.
The bottom line is that pain that primarily impacts people born with a uterus or vagina is simply not regarded as something that is important or should be paid attention to. So either it was doctors not understanding the problem or overlooking it, or simply not caring enough to value the pain I was experiencing.
What have you learned about the general state of women’s healthcare and chronic illness over the course of your ten year journey?
The thing that I’ve noticed time and time again is that often it’s not even that doctors have a lack of information or don’t KNOW that these things happen, it’s that they just don’t care. For a long time I really thought that it was just a lack of knowledge, or because these conditions were rare, which simply isn’t true.
You talk about the book as something you wish you’d read ten years ago – what’s the one key message you hope readers take away from it about living with chronic pain?
I really hope, above all else, that readers find the book validating. In my experience with chronic pain, I rarely ever found something or someone who was validating to me, who told me that it was ok to be upset, who told me that YES my pain really was that bad. If I can be that validation for just one person, it’s enough for me.
What advice would you give other patients about how best to advocate for yourself?
Never underestimate the instincts you have about your own body. You don’t need to have attended medical school in order to look inward and listen to your body. And remember that doctors always work for you. Always.
The book feels like such a powerful rallying call for patients everywhere – how do you see this conversation moving forwards?
I really hope that the conversations shift to centre patient narrative and move away from doctors. Doctors have had ample opportunity to speak up and have their voices heard, but the people who live with this type of pain have been silenced for years. We’ve been told that our pain doesn’t matter, that it’s our fault we became sick, that we just need to try a little bit harder, that we’re weak. I really hope this ends.
I loved your “doctors have had their time” Instagram post, and the Letter To My Doctor chapter – have you had much engagement from doctors about the book, or willingness to engage in the issues?
I wish I could tell you that I have, in fact, had good reception from doctors about this particular subject or a willingness to examine themselves but sadly that has yet to be the case. Doctors are put on a pedestal and treated as if they can do no wrong, as if they are Gods who are changing lives for the better. But for every life they save, there are thousands of lives they have ruined or harmed because of medical gaslighting or trauma or lack of care. The pedestal needs to come down, but I find that it’s hard for doctors to look inward.
Finally, Hysterical Women runs two regular features on Instagram, #ShitMyDoctorSays and #HealthcareHeroes. I’m sure you’ve got dozens, but do any particular quotes immediately spring to mind that you’d submit to these?
#ShitMyDoctorSays: When I was speaking about my inability to eat food without discomfort and the fact that I never have an appetite because I am constantly nauseous, I was told to take tums every day. FUCKING TUMS. I spent $300 and 45 minutes of my life to be told to take Tums.
#HealthcareHeroes: The acupuncturist who went to a weekend seminar on hormones and acupuncture to learn how she could better help me with my PMDD and various other issues. She didn’t have to do that. She did it because she fucking cared.
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