Am I the expert?

woman sitting on chair while leaning on laptop
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I’m angry. It feels good to say it. I only register a small amount of guilt for this unlikeable, unfeminine emotion. Maybe one day I’ll have none.

This year I’ve spoken to people in senior jobs where I needed to enlist their specialist skills. These were not just senior professionals but leading, highly paid professionals. Men at the top. And my experiences left me questioning everything. They left me with the taste of disillusionment and frustration.

Diagnosis

The first was in a medical context. The pain was getting worse. The nagging suspicion that there was a problem. The inconclusive diagnoses, lack of clarity, Google searches that never helped. So I referred myself again.

Months on the waiting list followed for an important meeting with an important consultant. And finally I sat in front of him as he scanned the computer. “So your name is x, you are aged x, you have received x results…” he began briskly. “Sorry, um…” I tried to interrupt in the traditional British way. He ignored me and continued confidently reeling off the medical history. Of someone.

The problem was it wasn’t me.

“Um….no actually!” I eventually managed to get him to pause. He looked at me and raised an eyebrow. “That’s not my name or my age. Are you looking at a different patient?” I asked. He was.

Face palm. Not a great start!

Consultation

Now that case could be an honest mistake, perhaps from an extremely stressed person with lots of patients on the list. I give him the benefit of the doubt.

But fast forward to a few months later and this time I’m with another medical consultant in his office. He asks about my symptoms. Feeling nervous and stressed on the train from work beforehand, I’ve noted them down on my phone so I can read them back. I want to be thorough and not forget anything. I explain this is what I’m doing, as I pull up the notes on my phone to read.

“Put the phone down” he tells me. “You don’t have very long with me, your insurance won’t cover much. You have the cheapest type of insurance policy by the way. We are here together, we must have a conversation.” If that sounds unsettling and intimidating written down, imagine how it felt to someone already worried and about to explain personal medical details. I can now barely get the words out as I try to explain things. He reels off a list of symptoms at speed. “Well that’s not quite accurate…” I try to clarify before realising he is dictating a statement into a recording device. He tells me he’s recording a letter which his secretary will send me later. A letter about me. To me. With his interpretation of what I’ve said. Not what I actually said.

I’m referred for tests which cast doubt on previous test results and eventually lead to a minor operation which involves both investigation and treatment. When the opportunity finally comes around, I am unsure whether to even go ahead with this operation because by this point I am not sure whether I trust my own recounting of events.

Let that sink in: I no longer trust my own experience and knowledge of my body. Because I am not the expert. Am I putting myself more at risk with pointless procedures? Am I wasting people’s time and finite resources? I lie awake worrying. Eventually I steel myself, grit my teeth and go ahead.

As I wake from the anaesthetic, one of the first things I hear from the consultant is “You were right”. Problems were found and resolved.

I am ok and I was right. But why was this all so difficult? Why did it take years? Why did I feel so undermined throughout, spending hours and weeks doubting myself?

Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth.

Simone de Beauvoir, quoted in Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women

The law

Only a few weeks later, I find myself in need of legal advice. Once again I’m in a conversation with a well-qualified professional man. I’ve researched to find a firm of specialists in the advice I need, read reviews and checked the cost. Despite feeling like I’ve done my homework, I’m caught off guard when the lawyer calls unexpectedly and launches into information about the case over the phone. “Can I receive the advice in writing so I can read through and keep a record?” I ask. “Well I can’t be expected to write everything down!” he replies. “That would be considerably more expensive”.

With the tone set as one in which he refuses my very reasonable requests as his customer, I go on to ask him my questions about the case. Each one is treated with derision. I can tell that he hasn’t fully considered the documents we are reviewing, perhaps having only given them a cursory glance 5 minutes before. Without knowing anything about my experience, he tells me that certain circumstances won’t apply to me. I point out that they do. I have to push and justify myself in order for anything to be done. He tries to dissuade me from querying the details, suggesting I am wasting time. A stressful situation becomes all the more so through this process. I walk round the block a lot of times wanting to scream.

Once again, by the end I doubted my own ability and decision-making. Clearly I hadn’t researched this firm well enough and had made a poor selection. But then I thought more about it and came to the conclusion that no actually, this is not my fault! I have the right to receive advice to the standard I expect, just as I had the right to have my medical concerns heard and recorded accurately.

What it boils down to is…

Others may be experts in their fields but I am the expert on me. No-one else knows better than me what happens in my body, what I feel and what I consider important.

And if people are not listening to that, they are not the experts for me.

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