A Doctor Told Me to Chill While I Was Having a Panic Attack

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Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash

I’ve always been afraid of doctors.

Seriously, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t dread going in to the clinic. I hated telling my parents I was sick because I worried that they would make me visit a doctor. When I was a kid and my clinic mailed my family notifications that I was due for my yearly checkup, I stole them from the mailbox and hid them so that my parents wouldn’t notice. Sometimes I was rude to the medical professionals that treated me or got defensive when they asked me questions. I hated the feeling that my privacy was being invaded. I hated when they touched me.

I am a sexual trauma survivor, and I feel like my fear of medical settings comes with the territory.

Still, I have worked to address these fears. I knew I could not live my whole life avoiding medical settings. So last spring, I forced myself to schedule a checkup.

I could feel my anxiety coming on the minute I stepped through the doors. And when the nurse called me in, I felt my heartbeat begin to quicken, a telltale sign that my panic attacks were about to begin. Stay calm, I told myself. This is temporary. You’re going to be okay.

The nurse sat me down in the room and took my temperature, asked me a few questions, then took my blood pressure. When she assessed the number, her happy expression changed.

She explained that my blood pressure was high. Too high. Like, almost-in-the-death zone high.

“We won’t worry yet,” she told me. “The doctor is just probably going to want to check in with you and take it again.”

I nodded quietly.

“All right. I’ll let them know about that. Also, the doctor is being accompanied by another doctor who is in training. Would you be OK if they were present during your visit?”

The idea of this freaked me out, but I was conflicted, because I felt guilty and selfish for wanting to say no when it was probably a well-intentioned person who was just there to learn. Nervously, I asked for their gender. I’m not sure why I thought it would help.

“I’m not actually sure, but most of the doctor’s training staff are usually women,” the nurse said. I thought about it for a second, then agreed. My doctor herself was a woman. I was most comfortable around women. I felt safer with them.

I waited in the room for about twenty minutes, worried that the doctor would never come. My heart was still beating fast. I was having a full-blown panic attack. I felt like I couldn’t see straight. My body was trembling and my brain was full. I just wanted to get everything over with.

Finally, there was a knock at the door. In stepped a man wearing a white coat and a stethoscope. I was confused. This was not my doctor.

He sat down and introduced himself. “I’m the doctor in training,” he said. “I’m actually moving from another department. I just finished school.”

I nodded politely, trying not to show my disappointment and fear. He seemed nice enough. I wanted to trust — I had never been able to trust. Not all doctors were bad, were they? Not all men doctors wanted to victimize me. Not everyone was hungry for authority and abusive of their power. It was going to be okay.

He rolled the blood pressure monitor over to me. “Let’s do this again,” he said.

But the reading, again, was exceedingly high.

I didn’t care. I was panicking. I was screaming on the inside. All I wanted was for someone to treat me gently and ask if I was okay, and to stop paying attention to my damn blood pressure. Hadn’t they ever considered that maybe this wasn’t a physical health concern? Did he understand what it was like to be traumatized?

“All right,” he said. “Let’s just wait a few minutes. We’ll have a little conversation and then we can take your blood pressure again before the doctor comes in.”

I nodded. Over the course of about five minutes, he asked me tons of different questions. I didn’t mind, but I was still anxious as hell. I was robotically responding but not even registering what he was saying. My mind was fuzzy.

Finally, he took my blood pressure again, and of course, it hadn’t changed.

I understood why they thought this was a health concern, I really did. But I wish that they had asked me about how I was feeling so they had something else to take into account. I wished I didn’t have to step up and talk about my trauma to someone who should have already known to be conscious of it, but for my own sanity, I spoke. “Actually, I think it’s just something that happens at doctor’s offices. I kind of have trouble being in clinics. I get really nervous — ”

“Oh, absolutely,” he interrupted me. Interrupted! In the middle of my explanation. “A lot of people get nervous at doctor’s offices. It’s understandable.”

But I’m not “a lot of people,” I wanted to shout. There is trauma in my past. And if you would just fucking listen to me, maybe you would be able to understand what’s going on with me right now.

“Well, I just have some situations that have made it difficult for me. I get lots of anxiety around doctors because of some things in my past, and — ”

“Yup. No worries. I totally get it.”

But he didn’t. He wouldn’t even listen.

I sat there in silence, wanting so badly to get up and march out.

“Well, your blood pressure is still pretty high. I’m going to try to see if we can get it down. I’d like to try to get it down before you leave the office,” he said, while I was thinking about how much I just wanted to bolt out of there. Really? They were going to wait until my blood pressure lowered before they could feel safe about letting me out of the clinic? We’d be there forever.

He continued talking.

“I think you’re probably just really nervous,” he said. “I think you just need to chill out a bit. I totally get that checkups can be nerve-wracking, but I’ll just give you some time to yourself. Just chill for a few minutes, and we’ll come back in a little while.”

Chill for a few minutes? A few minutes was not nearly enough to undo the years of trauma that had brought me to this point. A few minutes was not going to change the fact that my anxiety was climbing to a peak. And having time to “chill” would never work. His words were exceedingly invalidating. It’s never a good idea to tell someone to “chill” when they’re having a full-blown panic attack. If “chilling” were a legit coping mechanism, none of us would struggle with panic attacks anymore.

But he left me alone. Another twenty minutes ticked by while I sat in agony. I just wanted to leave. I wanted someone to ask if I was okay instead of telling me to calm down. I wanted someone to realize that I was completely rattled and that I needed support and understanding.

By the time my doctor finally did come in, I was still feeling pretty shitty, but she validated me. She told me gently that it was understandable why my blood pressure might be high. She was my doctor, the one who was trauma-informed, who was in communication with my therapist. She knew what to do.

But that didn’t change how I felt. It didn’t change that someone else had been there minutes before, interrupting me, cutting me off when I tried to speak my truth, pretending he knew all the answers when he really didn’t have a clue. Patronization never sat well with me. Neither did arrogance.

Sure, he was nice enough. Sure, he was personable and funny and at first glance, he didn’t seem like the type of person who would diminish anxiety or invalidate trauma or dismiss a survivor.

But many doctors wear a mask of care and understanding, and more often than not, I have found it to be a hopeless disguise. There is a power complex in doctor-patient relationships that I have struggled to address — and will always struggle to conquer. There is the idea that their expertise trumps a patient’s feelings or knowledge about their own body, their own needs. There is often a gap in understanding, a failure to recognize that patients are fighting invisible battles that they can’t possibly make sense of or change or take away.

I don’t want to feel this way anymore. I want to trust. I want someone to prove to me that they’re different. And even though it takes strength, I am going to keep fighting for that.

But it’s never easy.

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