It’s the name of a Grey’s Anatomy episode, albeit actually the one before where the quote I’m about to share comes from, one that I watched for the first time in the middle of my third year of university. It was during a time where my mind was waging a battle against itself, so much that finishing the last stretch of my degree seemed even harder. I remember looking at that episode title…The Great Pretender… and feeling like it was an indictment of everything happening in my head. The episode is part of a series of fantastic episodes during the show’s 11th season where Amelia Shepherd (pictured above and played by Caterina Scorsone), Derek’s little sister who is also a neurosurgeon, is attempting to remove Nicole Herman’s (Gina Davis) terminal astrocytoma. In these episodes she faces a crisis about her own abilities, having been overshadowed by Derek her whole life. This is the quote that stuck with me from those episodes:
“My whole career I have been the other Dr. Shepherd. He’s the real one, I’m the other one. Right now this plan of mine is theoretical. It’s just talk. But at some point I am going to slice into Dr. Herman’s brain. And I have this sick feeling that when I face that tumor, I will discover that I am not just the other Dr. Shepherd — I am the wrong Dr. Shepherd.”
What I was dealing with had nothing to do with brain surgery, or even my career, but that theme of feeling like a fraud or like you would eventually be proven wrong about everything you thought about yourself was palpable for me during that time. Re-watching the episode last night I thought about all the ways I still feel like the great pretender. Back then my fear was that I, like Amelia fearing that she was the wrong Dr Shepherd, was the wrong patient. Somehow my surgeon had chosen wrong and picked this girl still functioning, not in pain all the time, and still holding down two jobs and a full-time degree, to go looking for endometriosis inside of. I felt like I was wasting everyone’s time and I had thought so since the first time this kindly doctor handed me a surgical consent form. The reason I took it was because part of me wanted to believe that my pain wasn’t normal and someone could do something about it. I’ve written in previous posts about the mindset that women are taught to believe growing up, that everything that happens during menstruation is normal and ‘our lot’ and furthermore that we’re not to talk about it. I was very much in this mindset, having convinced myself of the normality of my pain and trying not to complain too much. I was in pain every month but for the days or weeks that I wasn’t I would forget how much it hurt. Pain is like that, when you’re in it you don’t remember what it’s like not to hurt and when it’s over you don’t know what you were so worried about…until it happens again. During those days and weeks I felt like a fraud.
Now that sounds rather arrogant when I look back on it, I somehow thought that I knew better than a leader in the field of endometriosis who thought that I had it. No, no, I knew better and there was no way I had it (sorry Dr T, you were right). My mind tore itself apart between this feeling of fraud one week and the pain the next week that would convince me that no, I did need surgery. I both wanted and deeply feared surgery, knowing that I needed it but was fearful of the actual business of doing it. The thing I feared even more was waking up from that surgery and finding that every moment I had been foolish enough to let myself think that I had endo would be repaid with the destruction of that identity. I spent every minute I wasn’t studying or working thinking about all of this, which actually isn’t as long as you’d imagine because I had two jobs, which cemented this identity of mine as the great pretender. What solidified it even more was that I didn’t let anyone know this was all I was thinking about, I pretended to be okay even when I wasn’t and the few times I went to try and tell someone it came out wrong or I couldn’t bring myself to. Part of me was afraid that because I had been quiet about my pain for so long, people wouldn’t believe me even when I said I had hurt for a while but just didn’t say anything. I became exceptionally good at pretending that I was one hundred percent fine.
Even now that I know I have endometriosis there is a doubt, perhaps because I doubted it for so long that I really was expecting a different outcome. I still don’t fully understand what it means to have endometriosis, for me. I have heard many stories that share elements that are similar or identical to mine, but I have also heard many that make mine seem minor…unable to function, infertility, pain that never stops. Though at the moment my pain feels exceedingly bad, I still associate it with my IUD and not with endo…at least not yet. Sometimes it’s as though I’m waiting for someone to say it’s a mistake, it’s not really there. This is why follow up and having someone on your side to say, it’s okay now and we’ve got this, is so important with this disease. Doubt is a huge part of it. Dr Kate Seear in her paper “The Third Shift” describes how many women when they are diagnosed with endometriosis initially feel relief which later gives way to surprise, shock, or other emotional reactions. Furthermore, the information they had access to was often overwhelming with many struggling to decipher which sources were reliable and what action to take to mitigate their disease process. Uncertainty about what it means to have endo is only perpetuated through this confusion, as well as the many hours we often devote to thinking about everything associated with this disease.
I don’t know how long it will take for me to stop feeling like the great pretender, like I finally belong among my endo sisters. I only hope that it will come from fully understanding what was found during surgery and getting to the bottom of the fundamental questions anyone has about chronic disease: what does this mean? What has it done to me? What will it do?