While my concerns might seem silly, my anxiety and upset are serious and very real to me.
I have health anxiety, and though I probably see the doctor more than most on an average basis, I still get scared to call and book an appointment.
Not because I’m scared there won’t be any available appointments, or because they might tell me something bad during the appointment.
It’s that I’m prepared for the reaction I usually get: being presumed to be “crazy” and having my concerns ignored.
I developed health anxiety in 2016, a year after I underwent an emergency operation. Like many with health anxiety, it began with serious medical trauma.
It all started when I became very ill in January 2015.
I had been experiencing extreme weight loss, rectal bleeding, severe stomach cramps, and chronic constipation, but every time I went to the doctor, I was ignored.
I was told I had an eating disorder. That I had hemorrhoids. That the bleeding was probably just my period. It didn’t matter how many times I begged for help; my fears went ignored.
And then, suddenly, my condition worsened. I was in and out of consciousness and using the toilet more than 40 times a day. I had a fever and was tachycardic. I had the worst stomach pain imaginable.
Over the course of a week, I visited the ER three times and was sent home each time, being told it was just a “stomach bug.”
Eventually, I went to another doctor who finally listened to me. They told me it sounded like I had appendicitis and needed to get to the hospital immediately. And so I went.
I was admitted straight away and almost immediately underwent an operation to remove my appendix.
However, it turns out there was actually nothing wrong with my appendix. It had been taken out unnecessarily.
I remained in the hospital for another week, and I only became sicker and sicker. I could barely walk or keep my eyes open. And then I heard a popping noise come from my stomach.
I begged for help, but the nurses were adamant on upping my pain relief, even though I was on so much already. Luckily, my mother was there and urged a doctor to come down immediately.
The next thing I remember is having consent forms passed to me as I was taken down for another surgery. Four hours later, I awoke with a stoma bag.
The entirety of my large intestine had been removed. As it turns out, I had been experiencing untreated ulcerative colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease, for quite some time. It had caused my bowel to perforate.
I had the stoma bag for 10 months before having it reversed, but I’ve been left with mental scars ever since.
After being fobbed off and ignored so many times when I was suffering with something life threatening, I now have very little trust in doctors.
I’m always terrified I’m dealing with something that’s being ignored, that it will end up nearly killing me like the ulcerative colitis.
I’m so afraid of getting a misdiagnosis again that I feel the need to get every symptom checked out. Even if I feel like I’m being silly, I feel incapable of taking another chance.
My trauma from being neglected by medical professionals for so long, nearly dying as a result, means that I’m hypervigilant about my health and my safety.
My health anxiety is a manifestation of that trauma, always making the worst possible assumption. If I have a mouth ulcer, I immediately think it’s oral cancer. If I have a bad headache, I panic about meningitis. It’s not easy.
But rather than being compassionate, I experience doctors who rarely take me seriously.
While my concerns might seem silly, my anxiety and upset are serious and very real to me — so why aren’t they treating me with some respect? Why do they laugh it off as if I’m being stupid, when it was very real trauma caused by neglect from others in their own profession that brought me here?
I understand a doctor may get annoyed with a patient coming in and panicking that they have a deadly disease. But when they know your history, or know you have health anxiety, they should treat you with care and concern.
They should be taking that seriously, and offering empathy instead of shrugging us off and sending us home.
Health anxiety is a very real mental illness that falls underneath the umbrella of obsessive-compulsive disorder. But because we’re so used to calling people “hypochondriacs,” it’s still not an illness that’s taken seriously.
But it should be — especially by doctors.
Trust me, those of us with health anxiety don’t want to be in the doctor’s office frequently. But we feel like we have no other choice. We experience this as a life-or-death situation, and it’s traumatic for us each and every time.
Please understand our fears and show us respect. Help us with our anxiety, hear our concerns, and offer a listening ear.
Dismissing us won’t change our health anxiety. It just makes us even more scared to ask for help than we already are.
Hattie Gladwell is a mental health journalist, author, and advocate. She writes about mental illness in hopes of diminishing the stigma and to encourage others to speak out.