It’s 2018, and individuals with any form of mental illness are encouraged to push past the unrelenting stigma and be open about their struggles. The more we talk about it, the easier it will be to normalize it, right? At least, that’s what we hear.
The reality isn’t always so simple, though.
A few weeks ago, just around the change from summer to autumn, I started having some trouble catching my breath. I’m asthmatic and am blessed with a metric shit ton of seasonal allergies, so I expected it was a bit of an asthma flare. Upped my allergy meds. Broke out a new inhaler.
But it started waking me up from a dead sleep, that feeling of being unable to catch my breath. It felt as though I had to take three or four short breaths in order to get one whole deep breath. I wasn’t coughing. Wasn’t wheezing. But after about a week of this, my husband was concerned and asked me to go get checked out. It was late on a Sunday afternoon, so I went to the Urgent Care nearest us. Filled out the form. Honestly wrote down ‘Wellbutrin’ and ‘Zoloft’ in the spot that asked which medications I took daily.
The doctor comes in, glances at my chart. Says, “I see you take Wellbutrin and Zoloft.”
“Do you have an anxiety disorder, then?”
Again, my honest answer. “Yes, I do. But this feels like it’s asthma.”
She checked me over briefly. “You’re not coughing.”
“No, I’m not. But my chest is tight, and it’s hard to catch a full breath.”
She looks me up and down. Takes a step backward. (I mean, you stand too close, you catch the crazy, amirite?) “I think this is an anxiety flare.”
I didn’t even argue. I mean, anxiety is weird, and maybe it was just coming on me differently. I said usually my anxiety flares come with sweating, hammering heart, panicked thoughts. She responded this could be just an unusual presentation.
I said, “Okay.” That’s it.
She went on. “But I’m not giving you any Xanax today.”
What? “That’s cool, because I didn’t ask you for any.”
“You know that’s addictive, right?” She’s looking down at me then, over her bifocals.
“Okay. But again, I didn’t ask for it.”
“Let me ask you this. How long have you been taking these two medications?”
I think back. “Zoloft, about a year. Wellbutrin since February.”
She nods. “Mmhmn. Okay. And do you know what set off the problem? Anything in particular?”
“Uh, yeah.” I shift uncomfortably on the exam table. The paper crinkles beneath me. “Both of my siblings died, and I had a hard time dealing with that.”
“I see. And what did they die from?”
“Both of them? Hhmn. Do you think you have lung cancer?”
“I could see why you’d think that, why you would worry you have tumors in your lungs. That would make you paranoid.”
“I’m actually not paranoid. I don’t think I have cancer. I came in with what I thought was an asthma flare.” Now I am getting anxious, and swinging my legs. Getting twitchy. It’s hard to sit still. It’s also getting difficult to look this very judgmental physician in the face, because she’s not listening to me at all and is making a helluva lot of assumptions.
She presses her lips together. Glances down at her clipboard again. “Right. Right. Listen, I know how this works, with people like you. I can tell you flat out, I am not giving you a Xanax prescription. Trust me, I’m doing you a favor.”
“Can I leave now?” I hop off the table. Sling my purse back over my head, so it hangs crosswise. “I’d like to leave.”
“I’m sure you do,” she says. “Since I’m not giving you any medication.”
So, being honest about which medications I take to manage my anxiety disorder automatically makes me, by turns, I guess, a liar, paranoid, a hypochondriac, AND a drug seeker. That’s cool. Super cool. I was so angry when I left, my hands were shaking as I held the steering wheel.
In fact, if she’d had access to the entirety of my medical records and scoured them with a fine tooth comb, she’d have seen zero instances of me abusing substances of any kind. I barely even drink alcohol. And I’ve never in my life even had a Xanax prescription. Never.
Fast forward to the present time. For several years, I’ve had a problem with my left shoulder. I’ve got some joint issues in general, and this shoulder in particular will act up now and again. It begins with pain and stiffness from the shoulder blade and moves into the joint, shoulder, and down the side of my ribcage. Inflammation sets in. If I don’t get something to get the inflammation down, it’ll end up freezing and then I’ve got a real problem, because I spend forty-plus hours a week typing at work, plus, you know, this writing gig I do in my “free time.” So in the spirit of being a responsible adult, I called my family physician on Monday to see if I could get in to see her. I know what I need – either oral steroids or a steroid injection to kill that inflammation. But my doctor is retiring next month, and her receptionist said she’s completely booked until the day she leaves. I was directed to go to the Urgent Care.
Well. That’s cute, right? I’ve been trying to talk myself into going for the last four days. Can’t seem to muster the gumption to go. Because now I feel like if I walk back in there, saying I’ve got pain and need something for the inflammation, it would be just my luck to get the same doctor and she’s going to think I’m there seeking pain killers. Or more Xanax. Or who-the-hell-knows-what. Nope. I just can’t do it. Instead, I’ve been eating handfuls of Motrin every four hours. Icing the shoulder. Applying heat. Doing stretches. Every day the joint locks up more and more.
For as much talk as there is among medical professionals regarding mental health care, how much has really changed? Has anything actually changed? Because it’s sure feeling like being open about my situation only gets me more judgement. More assumptions made. And it’s certainly discouraging me from seeking the medical care I honestly probably need. It’s really frustrating.
If I don’t see out the mental health care I need and take my medication daily, I’m a crumbling mess unable to function and barely able to care for my family. BUT, if I do take my medications and am open about it, apparently it’s assumed I’m a drug-seeking liar out to get my hands on whatever pills I can. How do I win in this situation?