Doctor Knows Best…But Not Necessarily

Memoir Mondays

What are you experiences with doctors?

When I was a kid, up to when I was a teenager, I had the same general practitioner as my mother. First it was a doctor who was well-meaning but occasionally a little scatterbrained (he once gave me an antibiotic that I’m allergic to and I reportedly got one hell of a rash), but I barely remember him because we switched doctors before I’d had too many reasons to visit one. The second guy was pretty great, to be honest. He was the type of doctor that figured a lot of things were best solved via exercise and proper eating, but he was also intelligent enough to understand that sometimes there actually is something wrong with you that requires drugs. I liked him a lot.

When I moved for my first post-university job, I didn’t have a doctor at first because they’re not easy to find in Nova Scotia (too few of them to be able to handle the aging population, never mind the rest of us poor schmucks). Luckily, the paper mill had a doctor who came right onto site once a week to allow us the chance to see someone if required. I spoke to him a few times throughout my time at the mill, although it was mostly just for simple stuff like a common cold or needing my birth control refilled.

However, eventually, I went to this particular doctor with a couple of complaints, and it mostly went downhill from there. I had a short list of things that had been bothering me, and without pretty much any preamble at all he concluded that I was depressed and handed me a prescription for antidepressants. I was a bit shocked, to be sure. First off, this guy is a general practitioner, not a psychiatrist, so the fact that he came to the conclusion of “depression” after a five minute discussion was more than a little surprisingly. Not to mention the fact that I was pretty certain myself that I was not depressed. I had bad days, sure, and there were the few things that I was complaining about, but “depressed” seemed like a major overreaction to me. I tried out the antidepressants anyway, because at the time I figured what could it hurt, but I didn’t find they had any kind of reaction what-so-ever, which helped cement my belief that I had never actually been depressed in the first place. Soon after I was planning on trying for a baby, so I just stopped taking the meds and didn’t think of them again.

After my daughter was born I had another frustrating run-in with that same doctor. At about four or five months old she had become constipated, which is always a big concern for new parents. After a few days had passed I brought her in to see the doctor and after confirming that she wasn’t apparently in any kind of pain or anything he told me to “just give her some prune juice”. A few days after that I brought her in again because she still hadn’t gone and he repeated the advice without barely even looking at her. The third time I brought her in it had been over a week since she’d gone and I was justifiably getting very concerned. He told me the same damn thing. I actually almost lost my mind and practically screamed, “She won’t swallow the goddamn prune juice, so what f*%ing good is it?!”

(P.S. She did eventually go on her own, in the middle of a Shoppers Drug Mart over half an hour drive from home, but that’s another story.)

Eventually I began traveling out West for work, and with that came a whole new team of medical staff because each oil sands site has it’s own med center in case of emergencies and the like. While at a job in Cold Lake I developed a bad cough and took myself up to the med center. The guy who saw me told me that I’d probably developed it as part of a cold, that it was viral, and that I’d just have to wait for it to go away on its own. This was a little frustrating since the major part of my job was talking on a radio to the rest of the crew, but I figured there was nothing for it. By a few days later I had all but lost my voice – I had to practically scream into the radio in order for anyone to make me out – and I began coughing so hard that I twice had to sprint to the bathroom because I was starting to gag and almost threw up all over the control panel. When I returned to the med center I saw a different doc, and this one was aghast at how horrible my throat looked. She told me it was basically raw, was definitely bacterial, and that there was no way it would have gotten better without a round of antibiotics. The first guy is lucky he’d gone on his days off because I was ready, willing, and able to murder him.

Around the same time as that fiasco, I’d begun to develop my stomach problems and anxiety. I’d always had minor stomach problems, but they’d begun to grow exponentially as a result of the anxiety, which was growing exponentially as a result of the travel situation for my job. Our camp was an hour (one way) away from the site, and the bus they provided us with was this crappy refurbished school bus…in other words, no toilet. I spent two hours a day on a bus, surrounded by about forty coworkers (ALL male), without access to a toilet. And it wasn’t as though we could just stop any time I needed to…about five minutes down the road from the site was a gas station, and from then on it was 50 minutes of wide open fields. There were barely even any trees on that drive, never mind somewhere with a restroom where I could get the bus driver to stop. So I started developing this major panic-attack reaction to the bus. Whenever I knew I was going to have to get on it, I’d wind up running to the bathroom three or four times, only to sit my ass on the bus and immediately feel like my innards were just going to come pouring out of me. I did this every day, twice a day. Sometimes, when we were sitting in the bus line waiting to leave at the end of the day, I’d actually have to get up, run off the bus, sprint to the nearest building, and then try to move as quickly as possible to make sure I got back before it was our bus’s turn to leave. Eventually my worst fears came true and I actually did have to ask the bus driver to stop in the middle of the road in the middle of the drive because there was simply no way I was going to make it back to the camp. I was extremely lucky that we just so happened to be right outside some of the only trees on the entire drive, so it wasn’t nearly as mortifying as it could have been, but believe me when I say it was still pretty mortifying.

After that incident I went to see my GP again – the same antidepressant-and-prune-juice guy and explained the situation and how my guts had been reacting as of late. The main thing he told me? “Well, you’ve clearly got IBS, and it’s just something you have to learn how to deal with. Don’t worry, I’m sure the bus driver will stop for you whenever you need to.”

Yeah…sure. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of that drive is wide open field without so much as a road sign to hide behind. Never mind the humiliation of a bus full of coworkers knowing exactly what’s going on. Never mind the fact that, a few months later, it would pitch black during those bus rides and we were driving through bear country. Yeah, never mind all of that.

I had a similarly tear-jerking situation when I went to see a gastroenterologist about these same stomach issues. After extensive testing he concluded that there was physically nothing at all wrong with me and that my problem was that I was panicking myself into stomach issues, and that I should just learn to calm the hell down. It’s really quite amazing that I managed to step out of that particular meeting without blood on my fists.

Since then I did manage to get some anxiety medication out of my GP, although in the end I found it did me more bad than good (ironically, it seemed to be negatively affecting my digestion), and I’ve had several smaller annoying run-ins with different doctors in the outpatients department at our local hospital. Long story short, one of them scolded me for not blowing my nose enough when I got a sinus infection (at the time my nose wasn’t stuffed, so what the hell was I supposed to be blowing?), and three separate doctors all tried to give me antibiotics that I’m allergic to, despite the respective triage nurses always being careful to write that info in the admissions forms. I’ve come to the conclusion that all the doctors at that particular hospital have gotten together and are actively plotting my death.

So, you see, over the years I haven’t had the greatest luck with doctors. I was very lucky during childbirth…although none of the regular doctors were available at the time I ended up getting one who really knew what she was talking about and was very skilled with the forceps, which prevented me ending up with a Cesarean section…but that was the exception to the rule of “try to screw over Tracey as much as possible and/or make her cry tears of pain and rage”.

So you might understand why I’m not particularly looking forward to the appointment I have with my GP later today. See, lately I seem to be like a strange science experiment, ridiculously prone to infections. Since August I’ve had eight of them; four different types, with two of them being recurring. Antibiotics help, of course, but they come with their own sets of problems and shouldn’t be overused due to the possibility of developing antibiotic resistance. So the short version is that I’ve got to figure out why I keep getting infections so that I can stop them instead of just constantly treating them. And that’s a conversation I have a bad feeling about, since antidepressant-and-prune-juice GP loves to jump to conclusions within the first two minutes of the appointment.

The funny (frustrating) thing is that the docs who first diagnosed the first infection I got back in August are really awesome ladies. They work at the med center at my current job on the oil sands, and they’re super smart and super good at what they do…but, unfortunately, the med center isn’t equipped to deal with everything. They have painkillers, stuff to wrap cuts, some equipment for monitoring purposes, and that’s about it. In a real emergency you have to hop in the ambulance and head off to town, which is not something you have the choice to do when it’s non-life-threatening. So, long story short, there’s nothing they can do for me there, other than suggest things that I should do when I get home. The question is, when I go in to my GP today and tell him I need these tests, is he going to go ahead with that or try to shove another totally random prescription at me? I guess we’ll just have to see, but I have to tell you, at this point my hopes aren’t all that high.

Finding the Answer to the Problem

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Before I start this story I want to mention that I’ve never sat down and spoken about this particular topic before; not with my husband or my parents, or anyone else close to me. People may have caught glimpses of the issue here and there, every now and then, but I’ve never taken the initiative to grab someone important to me and just talk about what I was feeling. Honestly, that’s just the kind of person I am. I like to keep my baggage to myself. But today, inpsired by a fellow blogger who recently had a very helpful doctor’s appointment, I’m going to tell you a little about what I dealt with internally for several years.

Some time before I was married, I found myself in my doctor’s office with a laundry list of complaints. I wasn’t sure if they were connected in any way, but I was hoping that there was some simple answer for why I was tired all the time (regardless of how much sleep I got), was often very lethargic, and had a lot of difficulty losing weight, amongst other annoyances. I’d done a bit of research and thought that perhaps I had a thyroid problem. Communicating this idea to my doctor was a bit tricky because he’s a difficult man to talk to sometimes; he tends to quickly make up his mind about what he thinks the problem is, and then he’s like a dog with a bone, refusing to let go even when new information is presented. For comparison, when my daughter was an infant and was constipated for over a week, I had three separate appointements with this doctor during which all he kept telling me was to give her fruit juice…despite the fact that I’d explained several times that she flat-out refused to swallow it.

So here I am, talking to my one-track-mind doctor, trying to convince him that I think I have a thyroid problem and that I’d like to be tested, and he comes out with this gem: “I think you’re depressed. I’m going to prescribe you an antidepressant.”

I was flabbergasted. I honestly couldn’t see how the complaints I had added up to a mental problem. I was certain that it had to be a physical issue – something that was off about my body, not my brain. “And besides,” I thought, “I’m not sad.” I knew that depression could come in many forms and that being depressed doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re sobbing all the time, but I genuinely didn’t feel like I was anything resembling depressed.

Somehow that day I managed to convince dog-with-a-bone to send me for the thyroid test before pushing pills on me, and I left that appointment satisfied that I was going to get some blood drawn, return to my doc, and get a prescription for thyroid meds that would make me feel loads better. But then my tests came back perfectly normal – on the low end of normal, perhaps, but still normal. I was honestly quite surprised, and the dog took his opportunity to start gnawing at that old bone again. I left the second appointment with a prescription for antidepressants and a gut feeling that they weren’t going to do a thing for me.

Now here’s the thing: I’m sure that there are lots of depressed people out there who truly don’t believe that they are depressed, or know that they are but don’t believe that medication will help, or are so concerned with all the stigmas that are associated with mental health problems that they refuse to admit that they might have one. But I wasn’t one of those people. I knew that depression wasn’t my problem. I couldn’t tell you how I knew, but I knew. And I was right. After over a year of taking the antidepressants as prescribed, I felt absolutely no different.

I officially stopped taking the pills after my wedding, when my husband and I decided that I was going to go off my birth control. I figured that since I was getting nothing out of them anyway, there was no point in risking that the medication might have an affect on a possible pregnancy. I stopped taking both the antidepressants and my birth control pills at the beginning of November 2009. In March of 2010 I took a positive pregnancy test, and in early December of 2010 I gave birth to my beautiful baby girl.

Fast forward to about two months after my daughter’s first birthday. Though I hadn’t thought about them in a while, I started to notice that some of my old symptoms were bothering me again, with an added joy: I started to have some pretty awful mood swings. I didn’t often express them out loud, but I would find myself getting extremely over-emotional about stupid, pointless things. If my husband left his clothes on the floor I would get enraged and want to put my fist through a wall. If I couldn’t get the baby to eat I would have to struggle to fight back the tears. At first I attributed it all to stress, since at this point my husband and I had both been unemployed for about five months and were just starting to seek employment out West. But the mood swings continued in full force even after I was back to work. I would be perfectly fine one moment, and then with the slightest provocation I would find my face growing hot and my throat choking up as I fought to keep myself from either bursting into tears or punching someone right in the nose. For the most part I managed to keep this inner turmoil stuffed firmly down in the bottom of my stomach, but every now and then I would say or do something that would have people looking at me like I’d suddenly lost my mind. It was all terribly frustrating and I wondered on several occasions if Iwas losing my mind. I almost went back to my doctor to ask for another antidepressant prescription. I was still confident that it wouldn’t help, but I hated feeling this way and couldn’t think of anything else to do.

It wasn’t until early 2013 that I started to realize some things. First, I’d had a truly excellent pregnancy. Though I would up with some pretty bad back pain in the last trimester, I’d been quite happy and issue-free throughout the pregnancy. Second, although I’d had to deal with the lack of sleep and mountain of emotions that come with having a young baby, the first year of my daughter’s life had ultimately been quite normal as well. My various complaints, along with the descent into Mood Swing Hell, had only cropped back up a little while after my daughter’s first birthday. So, I thought to myself, what was the common thread between the time before I’d gotten pregnant and the time after my daughter’s first birthday?

It didn’t take me very long to come up with the answer: my birth control pills. I’d gone off the pill in order to get pregnant, and had gotten pregnant only a few months later. After my daughter was born I’d opted for an IUD for birth control because I’d read that the hormones from the pill can leech into breastmilk. But then, when I officially decided that I was finished with breastmilk, I’d gone back to the pill because I’d had issues with the IUD – and that was right around the time of my daughter’s first birthday. My symptoms had disappeared a few months after I stopped taking my birth control pill, and had returned (with friends) a few months after I started taking them again.

Luckily, only a few weeks after my revelation, I had an appointment with my OB-GYN, who is a much easier doctor to communicate with. So, determined to prove to myself that I wasn’t simply insane, I took a deep breath and asked the doc, “Could my birth control pills be giving me mood swings?” You can’t imagine the relief I felt when she looked back at me and replied, “Oh, absolutely.”

I left that appointment with a prescription for a different brand of birth control pills – one that is known for being less likely to cause mood problems. And though the changeover to the new pill caused a couple of issues with my cycle for the first few months, I’ve felt a hundred times better ever since. My moods are back to normal (or as normal as the moods of the mother of a toddler can ever be), I’ve been sleeping better and subsequently feeling more awake and alert, and I’ve found that I’ve been gaining a rekindled interest in things that I had once been too lazy and lethargic to bother with for a long time. I’m still having a hard time losing weight, but there are a host of other reasons for that.

The reasons I’m choosing to share this story now are threefold:

One, as a reminder that it’s okay to complain if you aren’t feeling well. Even if you think that your complaints are trifling or that no one will take you seriously, you should still see someone if you think that there might be something wrong. Follow your gut.

Two, if you think that your doc isn’t taking you seriously, or that they are taking you in the wrong direction on something, insist on a second opinion. Find another practitioner or ask to see a specialist. Just don’t settle for the first opinion if it doesn’t feel right. Medical diagnostics is not an exact science; doctor’s make mistakes.

Third, sometimes it’s just nice to talk about these things – or in my case, write about these things. It can be embarassing, it can make you feel weak and pathetic, but it can also feel great. We all keep our crap buried down deep inside where it sits and festers, but if you’re brave enough to turn over that soil and plant some seeds, maybe – just maybe – something beautiful will grow.

“Trade”ing in Your Dreams

Week number 8 of The Artist’s Way is about “recovering a sense of strength”. This chapter addresses a number of topics, but what they all boil down to in the end is the concept of having inner strength and refusing to let outside forces dictate the course of your artistic career. In this vein the author talks about unsupportive family, teachers and mentors who only point out the weaknesses, never the strengths, and any number of inner turmoils (“I’m too old” or “I can’t afford this” or “I’m not good enough”) that beat artists down and keep them from reaching their true potential.

Since this topic just happened to come up at the same time, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share something I overheard while at the hardware store the other day. I was getting some paint mixed when a man came up and started chatting with the woman behind me. I wasn’t really paying attention at first because they were strangers to me, talking about their families and the like, but then my ears happened to prick up on the woman talking about what her kids wanted to take in college. I don’t recall what she said the girl was going to do, but she said that the boy wanted to be an author. She then went on to explain that, “I told him, that’s great, if you want to be an author, but you have to take a trade or something to fall back on.”

I found myself more than a little annoyed about this.

3uv0cSee, on the one hand, as a mother, I can see her point. The arts are such a cruel and difficult world to make a living in, and we hate to imagine our children failing, so we encourage them toward fields that we know they will at least be able to get some sort of job in.

On the other hand, people who haven’t tried to be an artist have no concept of just how much time and energy such a thing entails. Writing, in particular, takes vast amounts of time and energy just to get words to paper, and that doesn’t factor in the time it takes to learn how to write properly, take courses and read books on the craft, research information you might need for your story, research information on the different forms and methods of publishing, research people and services you’ll need along the way (critique groups, editors, agents, cover designers, etc), and all those extra little niggling things. See, people who don’t write imagine that it’s just as simple as that: you get an idea, you write it down, you hand it to a publisher, and it becomes a book. But nothing could be further from the truth. Art may be looked down upon by people studying hard to become doctors, lawyers, and scientists, but just because the subject matter and the path toward art are a little different doesn’t make them any less difficult and time consuming. People don’t just become artists in their spare time, because spare time is not nearly enough time.

To say that I wanted to turn around and give this woman a talking to would be putting it lightly, but I’m not that kind of person. All I could do was sit there and seethe quietly, thinking that this boy of hers will probably never become an author like he wants. What will likely happen is that he’ll take a trade and try to write in his spare time. He won’t bother with courses or craft books because he’ll be too busy in his trade courses, and doing labs and homework and exams. When he graduates from his trade he’ll go off and get a job in that field because he’s an adult now and he needs money to support himself and his adult life, and because of that job and all the other things going on in his life he’ll write less and less until he’s barely writing at all, if he even is still writing at all. He’ll never become an author because instead of using his time and energy to work on writing, he’ll use it all up on the “something to fall back on”.

I know this is what will probably happen, because it’s exactly what happened to me. All I can hope for is that this kid, like me, realizes a few years later that he needs to work twice as hard now to recover that lost dream of becoming an author, and that he does it because it’s truly what is in his heart.

I’m not saying that we should all accept point-blank whatever random career choice our kids pull out of the air…at 18 not many kids actually have any idea what they truly want to do with themselves. But it’s worth taking into consideration that your kid might actually know. This woman’s son may have been writing stories since the third grade. He may have dozens of mini-manuscripts under his belt. He may have even had something published in the newspaper or as part of some kind of contest. He may have real talent. And he may squander that talent on a trade because his mother doesn’t believe in him enough to give him the strength and encouragement to follow his heart.

What would you do in the son’s position? In the mother’s? Do you believe that all prospective artists should have a “back-up plan” or that they should focus their energy on their real goals? Have you found yourself in this position before (either the son’s or the mother’s)? Please share!