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Twice the Stigma: How I'm Coping With the Stigma of My Mental and Chronic Illnesses

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I’m used to living with mental illness, as I first started experiencing depression at 12 years old. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to live with my multiple mental illnesses (anxiety disorders, borderline personality disorder, unspecified bipolar disorder, an eating disorder, and depression). I’ve battled my mind for years but was thankful to not be physically ill.

All that started to change at the end of 2019. I started experiencing migraines, and I fainted for the first time in December 2019. At first, doctors said I was chronically dehydrated. They told me that my mood stabilizer had an “unofficial” side effect of dehydration. So I started drinking water thinking it may solve all my problems and that it was nothing to worry about. Well, that didn’t last long. I started feeling dizzy more and more often, and my migraines became completely debilitating. I decided to go to the doctor to figure out why I was having migraines and got referred to a neurologist fairly quickly.

I live in a more rural area. There aren’t “world-renowned” doctors here. Let’s just say the pay is the view here. If you’re looking for a doctor, you take what you can get here. I consider myself lucky to have the neurologist I got, as he listens to me and is actually educated about my symptoms. He diagnosed me with postural orthostatic tachycardia disorder (POTS). This was both a blessing and a curse.

Why was it a curse, you may ask? My POTS became an excuse for doctors to write me off. I wound up in the emergency room for severe dizziness and intense stomach pain. I am a college student, so unfortunately, most of the time the ER wrote me off as a drug addict seeking pain meds (like they do to many college students). This time, they also just claimed I was having a “POTS flare.” I left in tears. I knew something else was going on with my body, yet no one listened to me.

I also entered the world of chronic illness — and all the challenges that often come with it. POTS causes tachycardia and often also causes hypotension upon standing. This can cause debilitating pre-syncope and syncope. Gastrointestinal distress and migraines commonly occur alongside POTS also, yet many see POTS as a “fake” disorder. I was experiencing people saying that they also “get head rushes when standing.” So I was dealing with the stigma and invalidation of physical illness along with the stigma of my mental illness.

Then my mental illnesses started impacting my physical health. My anxiety was increasingly getting worse and triggering physical symptoms. I now get migraines after crying, get dizzier when I’m anxious, and when I’m struggling with eating, it makes all of my symptoms worse. My anxiety was growing and growing in my college classes as I was constantly afraid of fainting and having 911 called.

I’ve been learning to cope with how my mental illnesses and my POTS interact and also figuring out how to live and go to college with them. I’m truly lucky that my doctor doesn’t write off my symptoms as anxiety (which I know can be rare for my fellow POTS warriors). One thing I did to help with my health was order a MED ID bracelet in case I do go unconscious in public or on campus when I’m alone. I’m also continuing talk therapy to help with my mental health. I’ve learned what I need in my “emergency kit” to help with my physical health when I’m out in public, and I’ve realized I’ve had to change what my “normal” looks like.

To those who feel like they are struggling with having both mental and physical health conditions, you are not alone. Treating your conditions together may help you. Understand how they affect each other. You are still worthy of living an incredible life.

Getty image by Luis Alvarez.

Originally published: February 15, 2022
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