#42. Ready, set, advocate!

I realize this will shock some people, and send others into peals of mocking laughter, but in some areas of my life I have trouble advocating for myself. Clearly, in other situations, I do not have this problem. I have the opposite problem, where I can’t stop advocating for myself. And I certainly don’t have trouble standing up and being a loud mouth when it comes to defending others.  It has been suggested, in fact, that I might take this Mama Lion behavior a bit too far at times when it comes to people I love.

Well, I’m just crazy like that.

At present, I’ve noticed I have a tendency to stick up for myself mostly in situations when the stakes aren’t very high – like if there are beets on my salad when I asked for none. I understand that, for many folk, that’s just what one does. It’s not a big deal to send back a dish that’s not hot or speak up when you’ve been overcharged by a few dollars. For many years, though, I couldn’t find a voice to stick up for myself in any capacity. I was, in the sexual parlance of certain communities, a bottom.

I was too shy and self-conscious to speak up when someone cut in front of me in line, when I asked for red and they sent me blue, when they asked me if I minded and I really did, but I just wanted everyone else to be happy. I was too afraid to upset people.

Later on, when I started to find my voice, I did what many people do when they get a new gadget: I abused it terribly. I overused it. I couldn’t stop myself from speaking up. “Hey! I was next in line!” “I said no mustard!!” “YOU HAVE ELEVEN ITEMS IN YOUR CART!!!”

The good news is that there is balance, people, and I’m proud to say that in many areas of my life I’m working on finding it. Okay, maybe not many. A few. A few areas.

One area, however, in which I continue to have terrible trouble advocating for myself is when it comes to people I perceive to be in authority. Then, I’m just a shy and terrified five year old who doesn’t wanna get in trouble and may be in serious danger of peeing herself. Not that that ever happened. Nope. No, siree.

At the top of the list of these quote-unquote authority figures are medical professionals. Whenever I step inside a doctor’s office, my spine seems to disintegrate and I almost maniacally start downplaying and dismissing the reasons I came in the first place.

Now, part of it is due to the very long and boring journey of having several concurring conditions about which doctors have varying frustrating opinions – ranging from “You’re making it up” to “You’re not making it up, but I can’t really help you, so go away.”

Thus, for the past few months, when the jaw pain caused by my braces has been setting off the worst and longest-lasting fibromyalgia flare-ups in years, I’ve done…precisely nothing. I like to tell people that this is because  I have crappy health insurance and I can’t afford to go running around to this doctor and that only to be told there’s nothing they can do, often with the rather strong implication that it’s all in my head. (Crazy women with their hysteria!)

But the real reason is I’m afraid. I’m afraid I’ll get in there and I’ll be hyper aware of How Important Doctors Are and how little time they have and I don’t want to bother them with the reality of my condition. So I will downplay it, employ the ol’ tried-and-true self-deprecation to talk me (and them) out of thinking there’s anything to be done. Accordingly, they shrug their shoulders and I leave, disappointed and with a hefty out-of-pocket charge for the visit. It cost me about $150 every time I chicken out. It’s an expensive habit to have.

I’ve probably written before on this blog – because, let’s face it, it seems like I’ve written everything before– that I am not a person easily motivated to make change. (I know, seems a tad ironic.) I usually have to be in deep discomfort of some sort, physically or emotionally, before I’ll let go of any self-destructive or self-defeating habit.

People, this is one of those times. After nearly eight weeks with a headache and jaw, neck and shoulder pain so bad I cried daily, I decided it was time to make a change: I would Advocate for Myself with the big, scary medical professionals.

The week kicked off with The Big One: admitting to my doctor – clearly and without apology or downplaying my symptoms – just how bad the pain was and telling her that I needed more help than I’d been getting. In doing this, I noted that my fear of Authority Figures isn’t my only stumbling block –  it’s also my ridiculous ego. I feel like not being able to handle constant pain is some sort of personal shortcoming. Who do I think I am? She-Ra?

Not only did I express clearly how much pain I was in, but I did something I haven’t in over a decade of chronic pain: I asked for strong painkillers and some muscle relaxants. This issue’s a tad rife with anxiety for me, as I am a person in recovery.

Now, I’ve never abused pills, but early in my adventures with chronic pain, doctors would shove me out their door clutching prescriptions for hydrocodone and vicodin. (I have come to realize that dealing with patients with chronic pain must be very frustrating for doctors, who are invested in finding solutions to heal their patients. Admitting they’re unable to do so must be hard for them, but they can write about that on their own damn blogs.)

Anyhoo, I never took many of the drugs prescribed. Partly because I was extremely paranoid and sure that it’d be one vicodin, then me face down in the gutter with a dirty smack needle hanging out of my arm. The reality was simpler: I just don’t like the way those drugs make me feel.

So I’ve made it a perverse point of pride that I have – perhaps somewhat stupidly – tried to “manage” my pain with ibuprofen and ice packs for the better part of 15 years now. Asking for something stronger was a big, difficult step for me, surrounded by so much anxiety.

I almost had myself convinced that I was making it all up – a sort of 15-year running gag leading up this moment when I could get a my paws on a diazepam. I was sure my doctor would know I was just an untrustworthy, drug-seeking addict. Worse, I knew she’d be right!

Instead, my doc was really helpful. We talked at length about my options and she prescribed me a couple of stronger but relatively safe medications to try out. And while they’ve helped a little (although I’ve been perhaps overly cautious in my consumption of them) ,what felt best about the exchange was the fact that I had been honest about how bad I felt. That part felt like the real triumph.

Enough so that, after several visits with a terrific massage therapist who tortures me with intra-oral massage to relax my jaw muscles from the inside, I finally conceded that my braces are the central problem in this nightmare. I mean, I pretty much knew that already. But bolstered by my conversation with my doctor days before, I decided it was time to advocate for myself with my orthodontist.

I made an appointment to have a consultation with my ortho which, embarrassingly enough, goes on the books as a “parent conference,” since most of his patients are a third my age. I was nervous about going in and saying, “Look, I’m in excruciating pain and this isn’t working for me. I don’t think I can do this anymore.” Part of it is because my orthodontist has a very…strong, excitable personality. I was afraid that I’d try to express myself honestly to him and end up walking out with a second set of braces on top of the ones I have, convinced he knows better than I do what I need.

As nervous as it made me to say it, though, I was able to tell him that this simply wasn’t working for me. He suggested I hang in there for eight more weeks – as opposed to the scheduled four or five months – so we could get things just perfect. Now, there was a time not so long ago – maybe last week, even – when I would have capitulated. He’s the boss, after all. He’s the expert. He has degrees. What do I have? Teeth?

Instead, I told him that was out of the question for me. I told him I understood he wanted me to have a perfect smile, but that I was less interested in perfection and only interested in pain reduction. He asked if I thought I could hang in there until Christmas. I was doubtful. I acquiesced, but not before making sure if I couldn’t take it, we could just end the whole thing at my discretion. “You’re the quarterback,” he said, which was apparently some sort of sports analogy that I took to mean “yes.”

I felt pretty good about that. A little puffed up, even. It was weird. Who knew that standing up for yourself and not just rolling over could yield results? Well, probably everybody else. Still, the results of this change seeped over into other, less significant areas of my life this week.

You’ll probably think it’s dumb, but I have a tendency not to return things I’ve bought that I don’t like. Small things. Part of it is that I’m too lazy and part of it is that I’m sheepish about the whole thing, like the fact that I don’t like something I’ve purchased is some sort of failing on my part. (I just used the word “part” three times in that sentence and have no intention of correcting it. Lazy!) Or I don’t want to, I dunno, bother the nice people at the store.

Yesterday, however, bolstered by my medical triumphs, I gathered up some items that had been sitting around not returning themselves and headed out. On the way to Ulta to return a heated eyelash curler I’d bought on a whim (don’t judge! It’s not like I have standards!), I mapped out my conversation with the clerk in my head. If she asked why I was returning it, I’d say it was broken. No! I’d say it was a gift for someone and they didn’t want it! Much better.

Seriously. Why on earth do I think about this stuff? Am I worried that the clerk is going to judge me? Didn’t I try to change that recently?  Clearly it didn’t take.


Because…when I returned it and the cute, young hipster girl at the register asked me if there was anything wrong with it, I said…“Yes. I didn’t think it worked well.” In other words…I told the TRUTH. AGAIN!

Next, I went to another store where I had bought some items just the day before – only to get home and discover a significant coupon that would have saved me a bundle. Oh, how I wrestled with the ethics of this. After talking to my sister – a retail vet who pays full price for nothing – I decided I’d go back and claim my discount! You should hear the stories my sister tells of people and their shady doings, trying to return stuff to stores under the worst and most dubious of circumstances. Not me. I was on the up and up. People ask for price adjustments all the time. It’s my right as a consumer!

Except,  I had a whole cloak-and-dagger scheme worked out. The plan was this: I’d wander in and innocently return the items. They would ask why. I would say they were the wrong color. Then I would wander around the store for a few minutes, posing as a regular shopper. Then I’d repurchase the items I had bought the day before, using my massive coupon, making sure to go to a different cash register so that the person who processed my returns wouldn’t catch me in the act and know what a terrible person I was.

Side bar: do you have any idea how embarrassing it is admitting all this stuff to you?

Instead, I had a change of heart when I walked in the store. I was, after all, on a week-long roll of just showing up and telling the truth and asking for help. It seemed to be working, so it was worth a shot. I stood in line to get to the cashier. When it was my turn, I said, “I bought these yesterday and then I got home and discovered I have this coupon…” I didn’t even get to finish my sentence when she smiled and said, “Why don’t I just return them, then re-ring them up for you with the discount?”

Yes. It was that easy. I didn’t melt. She didn’t give me dagger eyes – in fact, she was super nice and helpful about it. I’m not new to the planet, so I know that people won’t always be this gracious in these situations, but I have the sense that even if she’d been judgy about it, it wouldn’t have bothered me that much. People return stuff all the time – why do I have to be the sort of person who makes a federal case out of it?

Because, I suppose, if I wasn’t, then there wouldn’t be this blog. And you’d actually have to be doing something productive right now. So aren’t you at least a little bit glad I’m this crazy?