To the Cardiologist Who Finally Believed It Was More Than My Anxiety
I’m writing this because I know somewhere out there someone is putting off seeking help for there physical health because they are afraid their anxiety will be used as an excuse by the doctor to say “nothing is really wrong.” We’ve all worried that it’s “all in our head.” Anxiety can sometimes make you terrified to do anything for fear that you will be dismissed as “melodramatic.” Some healthcare professionals see that as a green light to ignore anything you say and blame everything on “anxiety.” The problem happens when doctors don’t bother to make sure it is, in fact, “all in your head,” when it turns out – it’s not.
I was 18 years old in college, working three jobs, didn’t have health insurance and on top of my “normal” racing heart that often seemed to skip beats, I had been having inexplicable, sharp pains in my chest and the left side of my body, as well as shortness of breath for three days. Finally I broke down and went to a clinic by my school. They did an EKG, and a guy in a white coat walked in, took one look at it and said, “There is nothing wrong with you, everything is normal.” He told me “It’s anxiety. It’s in your head. You’re just creating it. It’s all in your head. Go home and breathe in a paper bag like they do in the movies. You’ll be fine.” And he left. And I’ve never felt as stupid as I did in that moment. And I never again said a word of it to anyone.
Fast forward 12 years and I had only seen a psychiatrist since then. But after 12 years of my “psychiatry is all I need” approach, I was forced to once again see a “real” doctor after I passed out suddenly at work one night. Over the years my heart had daily episodes of “racing” and “skipping beats.” But there was no way I was ever going to say that to anyone again.
Until I walked into the office of the cardiologist who would change everything.
The nurses did an EKG, checked my vitals and told me everything was fine (here we go again). 15 minutes later, a guy in scrubs and a white coat walks in, and I was prepared for a repeat of history. He was young and southern, like me. But I knew something was different about him – because he didn’t just introduce himself, order some tests and leave. He stayed, he asked questions, he listened to my heart. Eventually, after half an hour, he decided to order some tests. Unlike the last guy however, my new cardiologist never even implied that my anxiety was the problem, whether he was thinking it or not. He was determined to rule out everything.
When I returned less than a month later for a follow-up; I had been through lab work, event monitors, echocardiograms, the works. I knew it was all in my head and I was fully prepared for him to tell me so. With no hint of surprise or sarcasm, he told me plainly, “Those ‘skipping’ beats, those are PVCs. That ‘racing’ heart from walking five feet, we call that inappropriate sinus tachycardia. And oh-by-the-way, here is your echocardiogram – see that little defect right there? Mitral valve prolapse. But there are things we can do to help you feel better.”
Then it hit me – he just told me it’s not “all in my head.” Suddenly there I was, desperately trying not to have a complete breakdown. He had no way of knowing what a sense of relief that was. The only thing I could say through the tears was, “You mean I’m not insane?”. And to his credit he kept a straight face and told me, “No, you’re not insane. I promise.”
I wasn’t floored because of what was wrong — I was floored because something was wrong. And even more so because this sarcastic southerner had not only found it, but had bothered to look in the first place. Anxiety didn’t stop him from believing me. Anxiety didn’t mean it was “all in my head.” Anxiety didn’t mean anything to him. It was just a box I had checked. And with that, he cast doubt on 12 years of self-blame and self-hatred. I finally wasn’t the sole cause of all my problems.
When I returned to my psychiatrist a week after that and told him everything, he made one of those statements that seemed to validate everything I had been through: “You know, I wonder how many times over the years your anxiety has actually been caused by these heart problems and not the other way around?” I knew then that I had done the right thing.
You should never give up on your health if you believe there is something worth pursuing. You know your body and your mind better than anyone else. But more than that, you should never give up because someone makes you feel like you don’t deserve to be taken seriously. One of the most difficult parts of getting help, is finding someone who can and will help. Don’t settle for anyone who dismisses you or makes you feel less than. No doctor has a right to make you feel like you don’t deserve to be taken seriously, just because you have problems “in your head.” That’s a cheap excuse used by lazy physicians. Like with anyone in life, find doctors who make you feel like you are valuable. Because you are.
To my cardiologist — who believed me when no one else did — thank you for giving me back part of my life I didn’t know I had lost.
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Thinkstock photo via VeryUlissa