The Mighty Logo

Why Doctors Mistook My Anxiety for 'Asthma'

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

“It’s just her asthma,” the doctor told my mother while I clutched her arm preparing for my first trip halfway around the world. This was one of the many excuses or misdiagnoses I would receive during my childhood and teenage years, which ultimately ended up being diagnosed as anxiety and OCD. It only took 30 years.

Mental health diagnoses in the 90s and early 00s were slim to none. I was misdiagnosed left, right and center. When I was diagnosed with insomnia in my early teens, I was told I had too much caffeine during the day. When I had night terrors and parasomnia in my childhood through my 20s, I was told it was because I didn’t relax before bedtime. When I had irritated bowls throughout my late teens and 20s I was told it was because I had irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). When I was shy around anyone, I was told it was because I was just being silly.

“It’s just her asthma.” This was something I was told over and over growing up. That, or “It’s just an intolerance.” I tried so hard to make myself better, figuring out what I was intolerant to, causing myself to turn away from food and develop a mild eating disorder.

Looking back, I see these are all signs of my “high-functioning” anxiety. There were nights where I would lie awake in my room frustrated with myself about not being able to sleep. Being a 7-year-old not being able to sleep when the household was asleep is the scariest feeling in the world. Other nights I would sleep walk around the house ending up on the landing or in a different room or have dreams about getting smaller and smaller into a corner of a room. I was told I would grow out of it, as many children experience sleepwalking and night terrors.

I didn’t think to tell my doctor about the trapped noises in my head. If I heard a sharp sound or word, this would circle around my mind until I would drive myself “insane.” I would become increasingly frustrated. After therapy during my late 20s and speaking to a doctor who was trained within the mental health sector, I found out this was an early sign of OCD and intrusive thinking.

When I was in my early teens, I was diagnosed with asthma because I was short of breath often. The doctors would wonder why one moment I was OK with breathing and sometimes I wouldn’t be able to breathe. They sent me off with an inhaler and told me I’d feel a lot better. It didn’t work, and I stopped taking the medication. This was then diagnosed with anxiety when I was 29 years old. I would be having little panic attacks and not realizing what they were.

I visited the doctors about something I had read about panic attacks and my low moods. The doctors would advise I was just going through puberty and there was nothing to worry about. I tried to explain when I was out of breath, I would feel dizzy and my chest would tighten. I tried to explain my hair was falling out and that going into large crowds would scare me. The doctor said again that I was just a nervous person and I had asthma. They gave me the pill to “sort” my moods out.

During my late teens, I was constantly nervous, feeling sick and dizzy. I started to have toilet problems, and everything I would eat would go through my system within half an hour and I couldn’t understand why. I took myself to the doctors again, telling them I thought I was experiencing panic attacks. Again, they would tell me I was asthmatic, and I shouldn’t eat wheat because I had IBS.

This then manifested into an eating problem. I started to stop eating the main food groups and foods, worried my tummy would turn against me, only eating plain chicken and Haribo sweets, until I ate very little then I would binge. The doctor would say I was overweight, which would spiral me into binge eating because I felt like I couldn’t win. Again, another mental health illness that was ignored.

When I was 19, I went to a house party. I was talking about my morning routine, thinking it was normal. I had a few drinks, so I was chatty. I began to explain that I have to switch all the plugs off before I leave the house otherwise the house will burn down, or something may go wrong. A girl stared and me and shouted, “You have OCD!” I was thrown off, and I didn’t know what she was saying. Little did she know I used to have to run up and down the street thinking my front door was open and checking the locks, checking all my plugs inside the house. Causing me to be late for work and meeting people.

When I was 21 years old, I was off to travel around America with my friend. The weekend before we left, my body shut down. I spent the day in bed, not being able to breathe. Being told I was asthmatic, I thought I was having an asthma attack. I began taking my inhaler more and more to the point where I could not breathe.

The emergency doctors were contacted by my mother, who was panicking on the phone. She had mentioned that during the week I was fainting in the shower and being sick. She couldn’t work out what was wrong. I again, thought it was just me eating something that didn’t agree with me or my asthma.

I then found myself at the emergency doctor. He took some tests and spoke to me in a soft low voice and he put me on oxygen. He looked me in the eyes, softly talking to me, calming me down. I felt better automatically. He had slowly and carefully told me I was having panic attacks due to my travels, it all began to make sense. I had been like this ever since I could remember!

I opened to him and told him about my intrusive thinking, panic attacks, my breathing, sleep walking and tummy issues. He told me it sounded like I experienced panic attacks regularly and that I couldn’t die from them, I just needed to learn how to manage them.

I left feeling better. At 21 years old I felt like I knew what was causing my problems, and that would be the end of it. I can tell you, it was not. Little did I know, I would have years of sleepwalking during the first week of new jobs, pushing relationships away with my constant questioning and attachment issues. I hated getting close to people. I worried about social situations, had panic attacks at gigs and in large crowds. I refused to speak to new people, and if I spoke to them, I always came across a little “odd.” Jittery and nervous.

When I was 24, I went to a doctor and told them I wasn’t feeling too good and I wanted this feeling to be “gone.” I carried on throughout my 20s, confused with what was happening to me, closing off to people around me, pushing people away, falling into my shell and not wanting to branch out.

Only when I hit 29 and started researching mental health did I realize I ticked some boxes and went to see a doctor. I was older, wiser and armed with information. I saw a new doctor, who was young and listened to me. He explained the options, medication and therapy. He told me I would need to see him every week, so he could keep an eye on me and made sure I felt comfortable and not struggling. I told him about my sleeping and acting my dreams out. He advised this was called REM Disorder and that it could be linked to my anxiety. I explained about my tummy, my whirling thoughts, my obsession with plug sockets and being scared most of the time. I went through everything. He listened and nodded. I left happy, I was referred to a therapist, given medication and I was getting the support I needed.

I am not angry at my early doctors for misdiagnosing me, nor am I angry at the doctors for ignoring me when I raised concern. I am so happy there are so many charities out there for mental health and it is not being ignored. Growing up during a time where mental health was looked down upon, and you fell into two brackets was hard I admit, and it was confusing. Knowing I have the support, and I fully understand my mind (sometimes!) puts me at ease.

Since taking my medication, seeing a therapist and being a lot more open with my friends when I am struggling, the sleep struggles have vanished, the tears have just about dried up. I am gaining more confidence as I go along with life.

Oh, and I certainly do not use my inhalers anymore. All in all, I am so grateful that mental health is realized now, and it’s not just classed as “asthma.”

Getty Images photo via msc56

Originally published: April 2, 2018
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home