I had an appointment yesterday with a new doctor. No cause for alarm, just establishing a connection; we moved last spring and it was time to check that off the ever present to-do list. If you follow me on Twitter you may have seen my tweet seeking good vibes and comforting thoughts because the prospect of being in a doctor’s office invariably panics me. I survived, but not without having a meltdown. My husband took the day off work to go with me, and I’m so glad he did. His pep talk in the car on the way there was sweet reminding me that doctors work for us, and not to be overwhelmed by their perceived authority. My bestie texted “It’s going to be great. You’re in charge. It’s just a meet and greet. It’s like a date. If you don’t feel it, there won’t be a second one.” I know they are right, intellectually, but I still cried silently, shaking, waiting in the examination room, gathering myself when a young, kind-eyed nurse stopped in to get my blood pressure, height and weight. I usually suffer through that part and explain, humiliated, that my blood pressure is spiked due to anxiety. I look away as they adjust the scale. I will cry more later at my inability to face that number. But this time I was strong.
“I’m really anxious in medical environments and I’d rather not do the blood pressure and everything today.”
Silence. Then she smiled.
“That’s alright, we can do that on a visit when you feel more up to it. Thank you for sharing that it was a boundary for you today. I’ll leave a note here on your file for the doctor.”
Then she was gone. The doctor was lovely when he came in and he asked the usual family health history questions. We discussed mental health and medication, he referred me for a blood panel to look into my anaemia. He told me about a female colleague who does Pap smears and would be available to swap my IUD for a fresh new one this spring. He asked, very gently, about my intense “white coat anxiety”, referring to fear of doctors, etc. He asked the question in such a way that I wish I’d had a better, more articulate answer. He asked if I knew the source of the fear. I stumbled and lumped it in with my generalized anxiety, but it left me thinking.
Growing up, according to my parents, being sick was the second worst thing I could be. The worst, of course, was being chubby. As a fat kid, if I caught a cold, or worse, injured myself, it was always weaponized against me as a symptom of my weight.
“If you weren’t so overweight your immune system would be stronger.”
“If you weren’t so overweight you wouldn’t be so clumsy.”
Also, there was this strange, guilt laden rhetoric that being ill was your body manifesting psychic pain. If you got sick it was because you needed to be laid up in bed so you could think about what was bothering you so you could face your issues and “be honest with yourself” about what was wrong in your life. This is one of many ways I was systematically taught to fear and loathe my body. I was never denied medicine or health care but it was all so heavy with shame that anything to do with health, wellness, doctors, still triggers me now in my mid thirties. Going to the doctor means a lecture, guilt, shame, dishonesty, fear and fully manifested anxiety (for me that means tears, escalated heartbeat, faintness, panic, fight/flight response).
The more I thought about that root cause the more I realized that my anxiety with doctors may be linked to a more over arching issue with body autonomy and healing some of the feelings that I associate with that guilt and shame. Having my body heavily policed from 8-18 has really fucked me up on some deep levels.
I’m not sure what possessed me to be so assertive with the nurse yesterday but I’m glad I did. Medical environments are not a place I feel safe to be my usually assertive self and I always leave feeling disappointed in myself and totally stressed out. I was still in panic mode but a) saying something and b) having it be so cordially respected feels like a tiny step towards improving my ability to interact with medical pros and thereby, my own health and wellness. As for today, I feel like I’m getting a cold. I have decided, since it’s my body, I’m going to let it rest today. I’m going to drink some orange juice and bundle up on the couch. I’m going to rest, and allow my body to come back to 100%, without fear, without guilt, without shame.