How chronic illness didn’t cause my anxiety

Two years ago I was sitting in a support group meeting when one member said, “Everyone with a chronic illness has PTSD.” The way he said it was so matter-of-fact that I was really surprised. It was the first time I had considered the possibility. After a moment, I decided I didn’t agree. I knew I didn’t have PTSD. I still don’t. But I understand much better why he said it.

Today I was emailing with a close friend about some anxieties I have. They all have to do with my health issues. Even the anxieties that don’t seem to be about my health issues, like anything job-related, can be traced to the lack of security I now feel because of my health issues. She asked if I might have PTSD. I’d thought about that before, so I know I don’t have it. I had checked the diagnostic criteria and while I have lesser versions of many of the symptoms, I wouldn’t get that diagnosis. I’m sure of it. So what do I have?

I have years of pain, exhaustion, nausea, diarrhea, and other symptoms. I have inexplicable symptoms that pop up at very inconvenient and completely unexpected times. I have years of the fear of not knowing what caused any of it. I guess that’s all to be expected.

But I also have anxieties that were completely preventable, the ones caused by society. I have years of disrespect, disbelief, and condescension behind me, not only from friends, coworkers, and acquaintances, but also from doctors. I had doctors mistreat me both emotionally and physically. I was a terrified teen who was falsely assured it would all be ok. Even then I knew the adults didn’t really know that. I was a scared young adult whose fears weren’t acknowledged at all. I worry about my health, my present, and my future every day, sometimes a lot and sometimes just a little, and I hear nothing more than platitudes from medical professionals, if that.

I have lost people close to me. I’ve missed out on more life experiences than I care to think about. My friendships, romantic relationships, and career have all been altered. My health has affected where I live, how I spend my free time, and even my ability to get a dog. There is no part of me that has been untouched by this.

And yet I’m one of the lucky ones, because my anxieties aren’t nearly as severe as they could be.

Still, I’m aware of them. I’ve been noticing them more and more lately. I don’t think they’ve gotten worse. I think that as my physical conditions have stabilized, for the first time I have the capacity to acknowledge the emotional toll this has rung. And while there’s the occasional larger symptom, mostly I notice small things. Talking to a friend about tattoos is fine as long as we’re talking about body parts where I haven’t had much pain, but when we talked about one particular popular spot, one where I’ve had my worst and longest pain, one that has involved the most mistreatment by doctors… even just typing this out my heart is beating more and I feel tense. Talking to my friend about tattoos there gave me a feeling that was completely unfamiliar. Being touched in certain places upsets me horribly. If a doctor touches my shoulder, my thigh, my back, I’m fine. But if they touch my wrist I just about jump through the roof. The pain there isn’t so horrible anymore, but the memories are. The memories of doctors asking if pressing certain areas would hurt, and when I said yes and asked them not to, they did it anyway just to see my reaction. The memories of doctors intentionally dislocating my wrist because they saw in my chart that it was possible and they were curious. The memories of me asking them not to, of me telling them how horribly painful it was, and of them doing it anyway. Who would do that to a scared 17-year-old? But they did. More than once. The memories of a doctor telling me I should stop complaining because others had it worse, and me leaving the office in tears.

When I see a new doctor I steel myself. I walk in with my medical history, my list of medications, and my questions for them. I’m all business as I interview them. But inside I’m quaking. I ask them specific questions and it appears I’m checking their abilities, but it’s more than that. I need to find out how they’ll treat me and I listen closely for the answers. I try so hard to figure out if they will respect me. Will they listen to my opinions about my own body? Will they take me seriously? Will they read research articles that I bring them? Will they scoff at my chosen treatment methods? Sometimes I get it wrong, but I try so hard to figure it out at that first meeting. I refuse to be treated badly any more, so at the very least, I try to make that much clear. I suffered through that for more than 20 years and I won’t do it again.

Sometimes I think about it all and I wonder, how could I possibly have come out of all of that without being somewhat scarred? And yet, I did ok for so long. Somehow, I managed it all. It was just the last few years that pushed me over the edge. It was getting so much sicker. It was having the doctors say there was nothing more they could do for me. It was doing my own research and having doctors tell me I was wrong, when I knew in my gut I was right (and if you’re a regular reader, you know that I was.)

And it was years of fighting with insurance companies and the social security agency to “prove” that I was really sick, to fight for the benefits to which I was entitled. That might have been the most scarring of all. It was stupid and unnecessary and hurtful, and I will never forgive any of the people involved in the creation of that process for treating sick people like criminals.

I’m generally a happy person, but sometimes I hear things coming out of my mouth (or being typed here on this screen), and I’m shocked at how angry and bitter I am. I don’t mean to sound that way, but I just can’t help it. And really, can you blame me?

It’s important to remember that anxiety can be a condition of its own. You can have anxiety without any physical illnesses. It’s also quite possible to have both, but have them be unrelated. It just so happens that I’m focused on my own type. I know that any anxieties I have are related to my chronic illnesses. It just so happens that the illnesses themselves aren’t what traumatized me the most. It’s the way people treated me because of them.

I wish you, dear reader, the best of luck with your own situation. I sincerely hope you are treated better, while I sadly realize that many of you are not, and many are treated even worse. I hope so much that one day these preventable anxieties are actually prevented.

(And since you might be wondering, no, I’m not in therapy. I would like to be, but I can’t see a private practitioner with my health insurance and I do not want to go to the major hospitals for personal reasons. So until I get different insurance or can afford to pay myself, I won’t be going. But again, I’m one of the lucky ones, because I’m functioning ok. And I’m very thankful for that.)

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