by Britt Hultgren, MD
The following is an excerpt from Dr. Hultgren’s review of Tender Points, a personal account of life with Fibromyalgia. The book was published by Timeless Infinite Light in 2015.
Dr. Hultgren’s full review of Tender Points can be found at Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.
The author deftly uses form to underscore her sentences. Ample blank space throughout the book—some pages only have a few words—reminds us that pain can be as much about absence as it is about presence. Absence, in the sense of not being seen or heard, is part of everyday reality for many people suffering from chronic pain. Alternatively, absent from most people’s lives is relentless suffering and stress. The freedom that comes from pain’s absence is not something those with chronic pain can know.
Yet for all her truth telling, Berkowitz reaches some questionable conclusions about physicians and the field of medicine. For example, she uses Carl Morris’s Culture of Pain as a touchstone, equating the historical view of hysteria with the way we currently view FM, as a diagnosis in which mostly male physicians can imprison poorly understood female patients. She also revisits one of Morris’s more contested points, that pain should be viewed as a mystery, rather than a puzzle to be solved. This is a false dichotomy: a both/and approach is typically employed for poorly understood medical problems. Pain is a mystery and a puzzle, and it should be approached with deference to both. After all, as a result of problem solving and refusal to see it as purely a mystery, Hysteria has become (mostly) a bygone medical diagnosis.
But none of these dead-ends limit the power and utility of the book. Tender Points immerses the reader in the experience of someone who is suffering from chronic pain. Each page turns us to see, hear, feel, and gradually understand that experience. It’s not always clear, it’s not always clean, but it always crackles with bright personal truth.
In healthcare, many of us know we should believe women, and believe those with chronic pain. But clinical conditions mandate skepticism beyond the purely intellectual, and we are generally required to face a problem as a balance of both/and: believe and question. But we must do a better job at understanding the experience of those with chronic pain and FM to inform that balance.
I spent time listening to some of the bands Berkowitz references in her book. The song “Rebel Girl,” by Bikini Kill carries these lyrics: “When she talks, I hear a revolution.” The fulcrum of this line is “she talks, I hear.” That alone is a revolution for many of us, because hearing is necessary for understanding. And reading Tender Points is an excellent way of hearing—of listening—to better understand women with chronic pain and Fibromyalgia.
Britt Hultgren, MD. His leading interest areas include Narrative Medicine, nutrition, low-resource medicine, disaster and infectious medicine, and care for vulnerable populations. His selected publications include The New England Journal of Medicine and Jordan Business Magazine.