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When Doctors Dismissed My POTS as 'Anxiety'

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“It’s anxiety,” the doctor said as I lay on the bed, sticky pads and wires all over my chest. I had fainted and found myself in Accident and Emergency with a racing heart, pain, and serious brain fog.

This was far from the first time I had found myself in A&E and every time with the same symptoms, treated by different doctors, but the same outcome. They said my problem was anxiety. Mood disorders were nothing new to me, I already have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, but this “anxiety” was taking over my life.

I’ve never been a morning person. I have never been up with the sun but since I had anxiety, it turned into a nightmare. Every time I tried to get up, my heart thudded so loud in my chest I panicked until I felt like I’d been hit by a brick, drained and shaking, and had to lay back down in bed. I tried everything I could to slow it down, slow myself down but nothing worked. I just lay on the bed unable to move, scared and floppy until it passed. This happened so frequently I always set my alarm two hours earlier than needed to so I could recover from the inevitable anxiety attack.

“This is ridiculous,” I’d think to myself as I peeled myself from the bed. “I’m so anxious and so lazy, I need to stop.”

The next morning obstacle was breakfast. Or rather lack of. If I eat toast after I’ve woken up, I get very fast heart palpitations and feel drained, the same as I get when I wake up, and have to sit down. Very strange right? Must just be anxiety to start my day! I’ve told many doctors and they don’t know. Toast anxiety? Well, that’s the only answer I have.

The rest of the day would follow suit. The further into my day the better I would be although the occasional episode would creep back up. I would try to hide it, push through even though I felt so drained, because it’s “just anxiety” and I didn’t want anyone to know. I was tired all the time, frustrated, and worried.

This was until the last time I collapsed and ended up in hospital. As I lay on the bed, taking in the familiar scene, a doctor came in. “Madeline,” he said, “I do not think you have anxiety.”

I felt tears in my eyes and relief flood over me. I wasn’t “crazy.” Something was real. Finally, someone saw beyond my mental illness and it changed my life.

After a series of tests, I was diagnosed with POTS (postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome). POTS is a syndrome in which your heart rate increases abnormally when changing posture and moving. The syndrome can be very difficult to live with causing a huge array of symptoms — most of which I was wrestling with. POTS is often difficult to diagnose and often confused with anxiety and depression.

I am still coming to grips with the new diagnosis, but just having the knowledge there is a reason for my struggle has made me feel more positive. I have an answer. However, I am angry and sad that the real, scary physical symptoms I was experiencing were brushed off so easily under the guise of mental health.

The social stigma from mental illness is not only felt in the general public, but in my experience, has bled into physical healthcare. The question, “If I did not have bipolar disorder, would I have been taken more seriously?” is a difficult one and I might not want to know the answer. The only thing I can do is hope that medical attitudes change and physical illness is no longer overlooked due to the prejudice about mental illness.

Getty image by Punpak Khunatorn.

Originally published: February 3, 2022
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