Lived Through This

When Your Disorder Doesn’t Exist

‘Medically unexplained’ symptoms are as misunderstood as they are common. Here’s what I wish people knew.

Nicole M. Luongo
Human Parts
Published in
12 min readNov 10, 2020


Distraught woman covering her face while lying on the ground against a black background.
Photo: Hailey Kean/Unsplash

At 24 years old, my stomach hurt. A lot. It wasn’t “gastrointestinal discomfort” (though multiple doctors tried to argue about my diet), nor did it indicate that I was menstruating (I was anorexic and hadn’t done so in years).

This was a “my abdomen is being sliced down the middle by a jagged instrument while a third, more decisive tool churns my insides apart” pain. It was wrenching, twisting, mechanical. The pain started in my sternum and spread down, sideways, outward, and inward. Standing was bad; sitting made it worse. It took my breath away. To this day, its intensity is unmatched.

I’m 31 now, and the pain is still here. It still shocks me with its acuity.

As I write this, the pain begins at my left rib cage and cuts diagonally, decimating the organs in its path. I can see the pain — it is textured, colorful, relentless — and if I focus too intently, it ascends toward my head. The pain makes me dizzy. It makes me want to scream. Tomorrow will be similar but different, simultaneously predictable, mundane, and grotesque.