The Empathy Exams came into my life at the right time. I’d been experiencing a flare up of anxiety, which, on certain days, manifested in panic attacks. Though at the time, I didn’t know the skipping heartbeat and unnerving, misdirected surge of adrenaline was panic.
I read an article about the book and its author, Leslie Jamison, online, though I don’t remember where.This book is a collection of essays — which I love — but the title was what really caught me: empathy. I needed empathy. I was reluctant to talk about my health concerns for fear of seeming melodramatic. I wanted to understand why I was having these issues now and maybe in learning there would be some healing, some piece of mind. A book seemed like a perfect helper for a bookish person. I picked it up at a Barnes and Noble the day I read the article. There is a drawing of a heart on the cover.
The Empathy Exams wasn’t about anxiety or panic attacks explicitly. As The New York Times summed up “The damaged physical body, the gulf between sufferer and witness, this is Jamison’s territory.”
The readers travel to Mexico, Bolivia, Nicaragua with Jamison, to Texas, to a conference with Morgellons, a community who believes they have a disease where mysterious fibers emerge from the skin, to Tennessee for the Barkley Marathons, a trail-less race through spiky, hilly wilderness. She writes about the West Memphis Three; she interrogates our notions of sentimentality and female pain.
The title essay, “The Empathy Exams,” had the greatest affect on me. At least in broad strokes (heart, doctors, hospital) it was closest to my own story. Incorporating threads of her own medical history (tachycardia, an abortion), Jamison described her experience as an actor for med students. She played a patient with a name, a medical history, a list of symptoms adding up to a condition for the doctor-student to diagnose. She evaluated the student after their 15-minute encounter:
Checklist item 31 is generally acknowledged as the most important category: ‘Voiced empathy for my situation/problem.’ We are instructed about the importance of this first word, voiced. It’s not enough for someone to have a sympathetic manner or use a caring tone. The students have to say the right words to get credit for the compassion.
I evaluated my own doctors and found them wanting. The general practitioner, a woman who appeared to be my age, was so ready to offer a prescription, she rushed through my appointment. Her manner said she had lots to do and needed to go, go, go. One cardiologist kept interrupting me with so many questions as I tried to detail my family medical history that my thoughts got whiplash. Another cardiologist, a tall white-haired man, seemed patiently bored as he told me I was having panic attacks. He said he saw a lot of people my age with problems like mine.
I think he said it to alleviate my concern — his voicing of empathy — but it made me feel a little foolish. I’m a drop in a bucket, couldn’t I see that? I left the cardiologist’s office relieved but still feeling alone. Who else was in this bucket with me?
In the final essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” a piece on the ways pain has been fetishized, condescended to, and ignored, Jamison asks, “How do we talk about. . . wounds without glamorizing them?”
How can I talk about my pain when nothing appeared wrong (no bruises, blood, maimed limbs) while worrying I’d come off as melodramatic or attention-seeking? A nurse in cardiology said to me, “You’re too young to be here.”
Jamison answers by writing at the end of the essay, “I want our hearts to be open.”
I think that applies to both the sufferer and the witness. Jamison believes in the work of empathy: that to empathize with someone involves more than imagination. Too often our “empathy” is projecting our own ego onto someone else when someone else has their own story, their own perspective. To get at theirs we must also voice questions, listen, see the greater context.
Though I consider myself an empathetic person, I admit my own failings. I did, after all, buy this book because I needed someone to empathize with me. I’ve used this essay to talk about my own wounds. But that’s part of the point. In order to receive empathy, you must also give it. The Empathy Exams shows the myriad of complicated ways people suffer, and though it’d be foolish to say I understand now — as if a light bulb just blinked on above my head — I do feel that the distance between witness and sufferer, whichever one I happen to be, is a little closer.