Normalizing the horrid ways I’ve been treated

For seven months my therapist has spoken with a woman who fights hard for her health, who does her own research, fights with insurance companies, argues for the tests she needs, pushes her way in to seeing the best doctors. So it’s no surprise that when I expressed my fear that I might one day just give up the fight, my therapist asked a question to which she thought she knew the answer: “But is there really any chance that you will give up?”

She definitely looked surprised when I said yes, but it was the look on her face when I told her why that surprised me.

Here in Massachusetts, there’s a large doctor network (Harvard Vanguard now, previously called Harvard Community Health Plan for you local folks) where the doctors refer patients within the network, read each other’s notes about patients, see each other’s patient test results, etc. These days this isn’t so unusual, but back in the 80s and 90s it was. Going to these doctors seemed like a good thing, because they communicated with each other. I spent my entire childhood and my early adulthood there.

When my therapist asked if I might really give up I said yes, because it’s so exhausting to keep fighting. And who knows if getting better is even an option? Sometimes I really want to just give up, to say that this as good as it’s going to get and I’ll maintain what I have, but there’s no point in trying for more. And then I do it anyway. Even though it’s exhausting and all-consuming and overwhelming. But maybe one day I won’t. After all, I gave up once before.

I’m not talking about taking short breaks, while knowing I will resume the fight again in a few weeks or a few months. I’m talking about actually giving up, choosing to stop trying altogether. After all, it’s what the doctor told me to do.

I had been undiagnosed for around 7 or 8 years. I had seen many doctors and even had exploratory surgery which yielded no answers but did manage to permanently increase the pain. Sadly, one downside of that doctor network is that I only saw the doctors that I was referred to, and I was referred to the ones who could properly diagnose me, like a rheumatologist. That would have been very helpful. Instead I saw surgeons, orthopedists, and other specialists who didn’t have any answers. Of course, I was also sent to a psychologist, but that didn’t help the pain for now-obvious reasons.

I will never forget the day, almost 20 years ago now, when I saw yet another doctor for yet another opinion, endured yet another painful examination, and was told to stop coming in. She didn’t mean I should stop coming to her office, but to the entire network of doctors. She made that very clear. And since the other doctors hadn’t been able to help, had been condescending when I suggested that perhaps my different symptoms were related (it was years later that I found out they were in fact related, and earlier treatment could have helped a lot,) and generally hadn’t tried to help me if there was no immediately obvious problem they could name, I gave up. I was done.

For a couple of years I stopped seeing doctors for anything more than annual checkups and acute situations. I didn’t even consider attempting to get better. I would simply be in horrible pain every minute of every day for the rest of my life.

Obviously that didn’t last forever and one day, practically out of the blue, I decided to take advantage of my ability to see a doctor without a referral for the first time in my life. I found a rheumatologist and was diagnosed within a week of that visit with an autoimmune condition. It was my first correct diagnosis. But before that, I had given up.

You would think my point in telling you this would be to show the value of self-advocacy, doing our own research, etc. That’s not my point today. That has been my point in many other posts and it will be in many more to come, but today my focus is on how I have normalized that horrible incident with the uncompassionate doctor. When I casually mentioned that the doctor had said I should stop coming in, I saw the look of horror on my therapist’s face. She’s not naive. She has worked in the medical system for many years. She knows this kind of things happens, but she hasn’t normalized it like I have.

That’s not to say I think it’s ok. And if someone dared say that to me again, I would react very differently now, that’s for sure. I certainly wouldn’t stand for anyone saying that to someone I care about. But back then, I was scared and shy and tired of trying, so I accepted it. And over the years I have seen and experienced so many forms of terrible treatment by medical professions and by the systems that are meant to support our health that I am no longer stunned. I am sickened and angry, but no surprised.

I don’t like that I have become so jaded, but I guess that is what 27 years of chronic illness does, at least in the U.S. medical and benefits systems. And what I find even sadder is, I know I’m not the only one.

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