When Doctors Made a Crushing Comment About My Symptoms


I was recently admitted to the hospital for four days. I was in a high acuity room, which is somewhere between standard admission and intensive care. Initially, I felt well cared for, despite repeatedly being given things I was allergic to, but we’ll save that for another day.

Then, on the third day during rounds, the doctors told me they didn’t know what was wrong, but there may be a “psychological component,” and either way, I would be going home soon. I was caught off guard and managed to get a meek “OK” out before they left my room. After thinking a moment, I requested just one doctor come back to speak with me about their decision. The doctor explained they felt I was sick for so long that I got used to it and wasn’t trying hard enough. Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, I began crying. Well, not just crying. It was loud, “I-can’t-make-intelligible-words” sobbing. In between sobs, I tried to say, “I just want to play with my son again. I really feel I’m trying hard,” and continued to sob loudly after the doctor left for over an hour.

I have had many friends and strangers tell me stories about doctors telling them their illnesses were all in their heads. I had never heard that myself. Even though I had several diagnoses, I figured at some point in my life I would hear this, too. Having that forethought, I thought I would handle it well. But I didn’t. I shut down, was deeply depressed and barely spoke for two days. I left the hospital just as sick as I went in, and on top of that, I felt terrible about myself.

I saw how damaging that simple statement had been. My husband offered evidence of how hard I’ve been trying, and it was possible the doctors felt a need to give a diagnosis before I left. I have left hospitals many times with the “I don’t know” statement. While that can be disheartening, it’s not so crushing as “It’s in your head.”

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I don’t expect everyone to know what’s wrong with me all of the time. After all, doctors are human, too. I know I’m quite complicated with five autoimmune diseases and have grown accustomed to the “I don’t know” response.

The “It’s in your head” statement is counterproductive and painful. This statement puts the blame back on you, the patient. It says the problem is not in the mechanics of your body; it’s inherent in who you are. You’re not trying hard enough to be well. I’ve either faked a mountain of lab tests, imaging, respiratory tests, vitals and nurses rushing to alarms, or I don’t warrant enough concern, simply because my symptoms don’t fit a clear textbook pattern. Just because they don’t fit together, doesn’t mean I don’t feel their consequences.

I understand this is not the way they hoped it would come across, but this is the way it is often perceived. I’m not one to complain without any ideas for solutions, so I’ll offer this: I would much prefer to be told, “I’d like to start you off with a counselor to speak with, since being ill for so long can be difficult and stressful.” This would get me to the same end goal of receiving counseling without the added feeling of ineptitude and being unheard. It refocuses the problem on your body rather than who I am as a person. Lastly, if doctors are really unsure about your symptoms, that should be their response.

Follow this journey on Tiny Salutations.


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