I have produced a new textile work, The Burden (2017), that reflects on how stress and trauma, such as domestic abuse, can impact on women’s health.
The accompanying article to my work proposes that the suffering women feel when in crisis is a commonly shared experience and it considers the role of GP care, in particular the work of the Beacon Medical Practice in Plymouth, in supporting women’s mental, physical and emotional wellbeing.
I have a pain, a burning pain just above and to the right of my tummy button. 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.
But how to look inside me?
“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 anonymous fragments together .
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 on my health of my own real-life 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 the stress I was undergoing, but not knowing exactly what was physically wrong with me induced further anxiety. I muddled along alternately trying various prescribed medicines and experimenting with natural health remedies.
One day I heard a report* on the radio which highlighted other women’s experiences of illness and the care they receive when they seek help. A general medical practice in Devon run by Dr Jonathan Cope** has identified that its most frequent attenders are between the ages of 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: a background of anxiety and stress related issues; 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, which are often negative or equivocal,” 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 current mental health services are not sufficiently well funded to address the needs of 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 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.
Joy C Martindale (2017)
*BBC R4 World at One’s (7th February 2017) news feature on innovations in the NHS. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qptc