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Processing My Anxiety as a Therapist With Chronic Illness

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If you’re struggling with self-judgment, check out The Mighty’s No Shame group. It’s a safe space to share how you’re feeling with other people who get it.

I live with multiple chronic health issues, including gastroparesis, gastroesophageal reflux disease, irritable bowel syndrome, small intestine bacterial overgrowth, colonic inertia, joint pain, etc.

I am also a therapist. And to my surprise, I have yet to meet anyone or read any article that speaks to my experience as a therapist with chronic health issues. And that has been isolating, lonely, anxiety-provoking and upsetting.

I go into work and often times have to rush to the bathroom, worrying I may not make it in time. I begin to feel nausea. The anxious thoughts run through my mind:

Will the nausea worsen?
Will I begin to feel abdominal pain?
Do I think I’ll be able to make it through my sessions today?
Should I call and cancel all my patients for fear that my nausea may become overwhelming moments before our session? I wouldn’t want them to come all the way here just for me to then have to cancel.

I see my first patient. I try to stay present, but it is difficult not to focus on my bodily discomfort.

Will I need to use the bathroom during our session?
What did they just say? I totally missed it because I’m in too much pain to focus.
I need to keep it together, I can’t go to the bathroom or end the session right now because they’re speaking about their trauma. Let me just push through.

I cancel my next patient.

I feel guilty, ashamed and incapable. In my first year of graduate school, I was told that even if I question how helpful I am being in a therapy session, I can count on the fact that I am consistent. I am the most consistent person in their life who is here, in this chair, ready to listen and hold space for them at the same exact time every week.

But I cannot be that person. I am not consistent. My disability prevents me from being consistent.

I then wonder if my patients resent me for having to cancel. I would resent me if I were in their shoes. I wonder if they will eventually seek therapy from another clinician because they can’t be bothered with my cancellations.

I wonder how my colleagues feel with my incessant worries and complaints. Should I just smile through the day and pretend I’m fine? I just don’t know.

I write this wondering which therapists will read this. I wonder if they will make assumptions. She’s too anxious. She needs to challenge those unhelpful thoughts. She needs to practice defusing from those thoughts. How can she be helpful if she can’t even remain present in the room with her patients?

When you have a chronic illness, anxiety is likely to arise. I will always have anxiety around my medical issues and that is OK. I luckily have the tools and the knowledge to cope with that anxiety and target it in the most helpful way. But that is not to say I won’t have moments of anxiety because I am human.

I do my best. I want to be in this field. I’ve had periods of doubt, questioning if I can do this. It’s a learning process. I’m learning to be forthcoming with my patients in the beginning of treatment about my health issues. I’m learning how to serve my clients with the best possible care while also recognizing that I need to provide that same care for myself.

Originally published: June 7, 2020
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