Ben is one of my closest friends and I am so excited to welcome him to the blog to discuss his mental health. Ben is a fantastic book blogger, writer and future translator. He was my buddy at Bookcon this past year and he has co-hosted several blogging series with me, including Shattering Stigmas! Keep up with Ben on his blog, Twitter and Instagram.
I don’t think enough people understand that when your mental health hits an all-time low, your physical health often suffers, and vice versa. Trying to figure out which started the other has become a chicken-or-egg situation for me. I often find myself retracing steps from the last 15 months or so, trying to figure out what led me to be in the physical and mental state I’m in today. But the truth is, I can’t point to any one thing, and I shouldn’t have to.
For a bit of background, I’ve dealt with Generalized Anxiety Disorder for literally as long as I can remember. However, I didn’t have a diagnosis until my sophomore year of college (two years ago), and even then, my therapist at the time gave it as a loose diagnosis. Her words were something like, “I think you probably have GAD, but I don’t want to hold you to that.”
She didn’t like giving me labels for my symptoms and even talked me out of saying I have ADHD because she thought it was anxiety getting in the way of my studies. She said I don’t have clinical depression because my constant worrying tires me out to the point that I only appeared to have symptoms of depression. In hindsight, that should have been a red flag, but I had never seen any other therapist, so I assumed she knew best. Sometimes I want to believe her hesitation to give me a GAD diagnosis was the higher forces trying to save me from a life of being disbelieved by doctors. But really, her diagnosing me with only GAD set me up to have every pain and problem get traced back to anxiety.
In 2019, the most important thing I have learned is that doctors like to blame everything on my anxiety. Also, I’ve learned from my peers that I’m a hypochondriac who doesn’t realize that there are people in this world who have it worse than me. Apparently, both details should make my pain easier to deal with.
If I try to pinpoint when my health started taking a turn for the worst, I can name a few different times in my life. I remember my first panic attacks in third grade. I started dealing with vertigo attacks and tinnitus in tenth grade. But everything else hit me like a train in my third year of college.
There’s a lot I don’t remember about the first semester of my third year in undergrad. I was still a sophomore because I hadn’t earned enough credits to qualify as a junior, and I was only taking 12 credits (the minimum to be considered a full-time student). That was a source of stress because I’d no idea how I was going to graduate on time, or at all, and go to grad school if I couldn’t handle more than four courses at a time. On top of that, my parents split just a couple of months before, and it was the first semester I decided to live on campus instead of commute. My life was a domino fall, but not a simple line of dominoes. It was one of those complex videos that you see on TikTok set to some chaotic sound as thousands of pieces tip over right after each other.
One thing I do remember from that time was that it was the first semester I started using the term “chronically ill” for myself. I hesitated to say it the first few times and almost choked on the sound coming out of me. I don’t think the people around me understood the confidence and sense of self it gave me to say it because I got a lot of comments from friends saying I talked about it too much. In a way, I don’t blame them. There was no way for them to understand what I was going through. I just wish I’d been better able to explain at the time it was like finding any other label. My frequent mentions of being chronically ill felt no different to me than my or their frequent use of “I’m so gay right now” or “I’m too ace for this.”
No one could understand that on top of my anxiety plateauing at a record high, the vertigo and tinnitus attacks were back. The chronic nausea was more violent than I’d ever experienced. I was so fatigued that taking the stairs was a chore. These weren’t types of pain people could see.
So I continued to go to class and sit in the back so no one would tell I was panicking. I downed Tums like candy hoping the chronic heartburn was the only cause of the nausea. I even took the stairs if I was walking with a friend and didn’t want to explain or if I was only going up one floor because it looks pathetic to get in the elevator on the first floor and press “2” when you don’t look like anything’s wrong with you. Because people can’t see the heart palpitations or stomach acid reaching your throat from a little bit of physical exertion.
By the end of the first semester, most of my friendships were strained, I barely talked with my family (until going home for winter break), and I took extensions (which I would never finish) on two of my four classes. It was getting too much to handle, and I spent that month off talking myself into going back to school. Because finishing my degree is the top priority! Because I need to be the first in my family to graduate! Because I need this education if I want to pursue the career I’ve been dreaming of for years!
Besides, it was all “just anxiety.” And me wanting to find a diagnosis is apparently proof that I’m simply an overly health-conscious worrier. At least, that’s the message I got from my primary care physician.
The first time I asked her if what I was experiencing might have been more than GAD, she upped my anti-anxiety meds. Later, she switched them because the “physical manifestations of anxiety” weren’t going away. I’ve now been off of anti-anxiety medications for a month, and not a single symptom has gotten worse.
The second time, I tried a bit harder. My grandmother drove me to that appointment, so I was venting about all the reasons I was going. By then, I was too numb to be concerned when she said, “That sounds like your grandfather and his MS.” I’ve always known Multiple Sclerosis runs on both sides of my family, so it was more of an “I might finally be onto something here,” running through my head.
But the doctor said because no new vision problems had recently appeared, it wasn’t MS. I tried to push, hoping that even if there was no way it was MS, maybe she’d suggest tests for something else, but she didn’t. I let it drop.
The worst was when I went to her in July because I hadn’t had a period in four months (since March.) Before that, it was December, and before that, it was September. I’d assumed it was all just stress, but it was getting longer between periods, and I’d been out of school, and therefore less stressed, for a couple months, so I knew it had to be something else.
The only question the PCP asked was if there was any way I was pregnant. There wasn’t. Then she started typing in the computer, apparently sending in a prescription for progesterone, a female hormone. When I told her I didn’t want to take that because I’m transgender (which was at least the third time I mentioned it to her) and she said that it was the only way to get my period back, I realized there was no winning in that doctor’s office. There was always going to be some kind of miscommunication or disagreement.
I brought up the possibility of PCOS, a hormone disorder that screws up people’s menstrual cycles and causes a ton of other problems. She said that’s probably what it was but didn’t think tests were necessary. I haven’t been back to that office, and I’m scared to switch to another doctor because the idea of going through the same thing several times to find someone who will take me seriously is exhausting.
So I suppose the message here is to take someone’s lack of physical or mental health seriously. Sometimes I, and others, don’t need to be comforted. I need answers or at least an effort to get answers. Sometimes I just need to vent and for people to act like they’re listening. But the number of times I’ve been invalidated by healthcare professionals and told by peers that I’m being overdramatic and these symptoms should not stop me from staying in a club or continuing school frustrates me to the point that I have no words. So please take a minute to check on your friends who are dealing with some nasty stuff. They need a reminder that they’re not a burden and reassurance that not everyone in the world will downplay their pain.