The Strong Black Woman Goes to the Doctor

“So you see, there’s a pattern here,” I said. “The women in my family wait until we’re at the point of disability or death before we bring a problem to the doctor.” My doctor buried his face in his hands as he laughed – at me and with me. We were finishing up a 45-minute diagnostic interview, which was laced with plenty of humor as we talked about parenthood, marriage, and my chronic failure to pay attention to health issues.

This visit should have happened a year earlier. But after a few rounds of calling the clinic to reschedule my follow-up visit last spring, I finally told the receptionist, “I’ll just have to call you later.” I was glad to have finally found a primary care physician who practiced holistic medicine (and accepted health insurance!). But the clinic hadn’t seemed to catch on to that fact; they kept scheduling his patients for 15-minute slots. There was an inevitable backlog in his daily schedule. I’d wait an hour in the waiting room and then spend another hour with him.

Now add the commute, which was 30 minutes in one direction and 45 minutes in the other. In total, a visit to the doctor took over three hours of my day. And I just didn’t have the time. It was the end of the spring semester, crunch time for students and faculty alike. I had too much to do. So I just kept putting off the visit. Before I knew it, it’d been a year and my doctor had left the group practice to start a new clinic, still pretty far away. Plus, I was now a mother and I didn’t want to spend my precious baby-free moments at the doctor’s office. I had too much to do.

In retrospect, this seems really obvious – I had fallen off the wagon in a major way. I was back in the throes of Strong Black Woman syndrome – taking care of everyone and everything but me. But until that doctor’s visit, as I realized the similarity between myself and the other women in my family, I hadn’t known that I’d relapsed.

To be honest, I’d probably only made – and kept – this doctor’s appointment because of my mother’s urging. My mother and her sisters were worried. In the past year, two more family members in their generation have been diagnosed with degenerative and debilitating neuromuscular or neurological conditions. This brings the grand total to five – out of fifteen. It’s more than scary.

As my mother told me about the latest diagnoses, she also told me of the worries that she and my aunts had for my generation. She urged me to get back to my doctor soon and let him know that we needed to be on the lookout, especially because the most recent relatives were not diagnosed until they reached the point of disability. Most likely, they’ve had symptoms for years but didn’t notice them, didn’t take them seriously when they did notice them, and decided to worry anyone about it once they suspected it was serious. Now, I haven’t asked whether this is the case; I’m simply speculating as to what might have happened. But I feel pretty secure in my speculation. After all, I am the women in my family. I am my mother’s daughter and my aunts’ niece.

That point became all too obvious just minutes after ending the telephone conversation with my mother. When I related the information to my husband, he immediately asked whether it might have anything to do with the muscular problems that I’ve had, and largely ignored, for at least six years now. Quite frankly, the thought that there might be a connection had never occurred to me.

So yesterday, I – a Strong Black Woman in recovery – went to the doctor. After that lengthy diagnostic interview, I thought I had given an exhaustive list of my ailments. But the physical revealed my tendency for minimizing my problems: “Your allergies are nowhere near ‘under control.’ You’ve got all kind of swelling up there.” I guess that would explain the pressure that I’d been feeling in my head and face all morning. “Wait, do you have back pain? I feel tenderness here, and here, and here.” Had I failed to mention that? Oops, my bad.

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