The Millions

The Ascent of the Sick-Girl Narrative

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I recently saw a playwright I had studied with at a cafe. Her mother had just been hospitalized and this led to a discussion of how women’s symptoms of heart attack often present differently than the “typical” signs we’ve been told to look for. Nausea and vomiting, pain radiating up the arm, shortness of breath, fatigue and sweats. Not crushing chest pain. Gender plays a role in how an illness presents and how medications work, and it can affect prescription dosages too. Women make up half the population but most medical research is biased toward men. My grandmother also suffered from a few heart attacks with atypical presentation. It was a challenge to persuade her to go to the doctor then, or ever. While her reasoning was never explicitly stated, it was clear that she would rather die than spend more time institutionalized, which was how she passed a number of her middle years, due to schizophrenia.

Women make up a disproportionate number of mental health cases, too. We are twice as likely to suffer from depression. Twice as likely to develop an anxiety disorder. At greater risk than men for developing bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder. As I have been thinking more about women and illness, I’ve been struck by the proliferation of memoirs about women’s illness published recently—and there’s more on the horizon, including Anne Boyer’s much-anticipated memoir, The Undying, recently excerpted in The New Yorker. There were enough that I started thinking of these memoirs within their own subcategory, what I came to call “sick-girl narratives,” a term that aligns with Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl. The only requirement for the Young-Girl is that “she” is a model citizen, i.e., consumer:

The Young-Girl is not always young; more and more frequently, she is not even female. She is the figure of total integration in a disintegrating social totality.”

The Young-Girl is ever consuming, is desirable; she is spectacle, a brand, a handle. In this way, the healthcare industry has made us all Young-Girls as our bodies have entered its labyrinthine system.

The healthcare industry is this country’s largest employer and accounts for nearly 20 percent of the GDP. It may not be apparent to readers of this site, but I have been working in healthcare for as long as I’ve been out of undergrad. My first degree was in pharmacy and for nearly 20 years I have been writing alongside working in hospitals, in long-term care, and now for a drug company. I’ve had a good glimpse of healthcare’s

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