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When the Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness Makes You Fear Going to the Doctor

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I wasn’t blessed with the best genetics. On one side of my family, mental illness was passed down from one generation to the next. At the age of 20, after a suicide attempt, I was admitted to a psychiatric ward and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Two more hospital stays, a good therapist and the right cocktail of medication later, I found myself stable and enjoying my life.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

I was thriving in my career as an EMT and everything was going well when genetics caught up with me again. This time, it was a medical illness that plagued me. One night, after doing a long distance transport, my partner and I sat down to eat. As our meals came and we talked about the upcoming weekend, I felt my heart rate increase. It started as a small flutter in my chest, then grew faster and faster with every passing second. The room around me spun. My chest burned as if it was on fire.

Nauseous and shaking, I dropped my fork and stopped eating. All the noise in the diner became a muffled hum while my ears rang loud enough that I was sure I would go deaf. I felt like I was underwater drowning, only knowing I was alive because the only thing louder than the ringing in my ears was my heartbeat. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t call out to my partner for help. Then, when it all became too much to bear and the edges of my vision started to turn black — just when I thought I was going to pass out — I resurfaced. Slowly, everything went back to normal.

It had felt like over an hour had gone by, but when I checked my watch it had only been 30 seconds. I was torn between wanting my partner to check me out and wanting to keep this strange episode a secret. Due to my symptoms being so closely related to those of a panic attack, I decided to keep them quietly to myself.

Over the next several months, I experienced these attacks over and over again. Too afraid to go see my doctor and be passed off as just “another psych patient,” I ignored both my symptoms and my training as an EMT. I continuously told myself I was just having panic attacks and tried to power through them. Deep down I knew something was wrong, but fear of being ignored due to having a mental illness kept me from seeking help.

As hard as I tried to hide my ailment, I was eventually caught and forced to receive medical attention. I guess if there is any good place to pass out, it’s in an ambulance bay. As we were getting ready for the night, I started to feel an attack come on, but this attack felt different. It came on faster and was more intense. Instead of everything returning to normal as the edges of my vision turned black, the walls in the room closed in. My legs collapsed beneath me and I fell to the floor. I woke up to the faces of my three coworkers staring down at me. As I began to protest their help, I got hit with another attack. Once again, I lost consciousness.

When I awoke the second time, I was already in the back of an ambulance and on my way to the hospital. The EMS medical director happened to be working in the ER that night, and having a close relationship with him, I finally broke down and explained what had been going on. He listened intently to me and assured me I was not crazy. After running several tests, we finally had a medical diagnosis that explained everything.

Later that night, as I walked out of the ER with a referral to a specialist, I broke down crying. I had been so afraid that my symptoms had all been in my head, I completely ignored my physical health. The more I felt physically ill, the more my mental health suffered.

Those with mental health problems should never have to be afraid of seeking care for their physical being. We shouldn’t have to avoid the doctor because we are afraid of being told  our physical symptoms aren’t actually real. We deserve the same care, the same tests and the same dignity as everybody else in the world. We cannot let our physical health suffer because of fear. It’s time to speak up. It’s time to end the stigma.

Getty Images: stockfour

Originally published: October 8, 2019
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