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While I’ve experienced stigma based on my bipolar on many occasions, none of them were as blatant and infuriating as when I had to go to the hospital last year. Last January I was having episodes of chest pain and shortness of breath. I’ve had occasional chest pains since I was six or seven years old but the pain only came when breathing too deeply; if I took really shallow breaths I would be fine, but when I tried to breathe even halfway as deeply as I could intense paralyzing pain would shoot throughout my chest and arms. These weird spells would pass after a few minutes and I never thought to get treatment for them. I also have exercise-induced asthma that can be triggered by cold weather, but I’ve never had chest pains that accompanied those asthma flare-ups.

The chest pains in January of 2010 were different than anything I’d felt before. My heart felt like it was beating in an odd rhythm, like that feeling you get in your middle when you miss a step while walking down a flight of stairs. The pace of my breathing was off. It would change from fast pants to deep inhalations and back again. The pain in my chest was only an ache, but on top of everything else that was going wonky in my body it convinced me to go to the hospital.

The ER staff treated my case as though they were bored of over-reactive patients with chest pains, but they did x-rays and drew blood and took my history. My doctor was thorough and listened to me, coming up with a few theories (he was saying that it was possible that the trip I returned from a week before this could have fucked up the part of my brain that regulates breathing and heartbeat from stress, altitude changes and lack of blood flow through my body from flying). He said that he would be back after my blood results came in.

Then came the nurse who asked me about current medications. As I hesitantly started listing “Buproprion, quetiapine, Adderall…” I saw the look on her face. Her whole demeanor changed. She left the room almost without another word and me, Koios and my family waited.

The doctor never came back but after an hour of us waiting for someone to tell us what was going on, a nurse finally told me to come to another room and told my parents and fiance to go wait in the waiting room. Luckily Koios told her that he was going where ever I went. He’s my backup in medical situations since I’m terrible at standing up to doctors and medical staff.

She led us to a tiny room with a couch and a doctor’s chair and told us to wait for the counselor. The door clicked shut and she locked us in the “waiting room”. I never been in a waiting room that had a goddamn security camera in it. Koios told me that it was the “crazy room” where they take the mental patients. Then the counselor came in and told me that my blood work was perfect and that I must have had an anxiety attack.

Koios and I were pissed at this point. I’ve had anxiety attacks and this wasn’t one and I told her so. Then she used her condescending “I’m your friend” voice and started asking if I was suicidal or if I thought that I was experiencing an acute illness often. She also asked Koios about his mental health, to which he stated “I have PTSD, but as you’re not being paid to analyze me, we should focus on my fiance who was obviously not having an anxiety attack back there”. I love him so much. I know it’s not productive to get hostile with medical people but we both knew that I was getting the shaft.

She made me sign something that said, in essence, that I would try calming techniques before I bothered them with health problems. I was so dishearted and pissed off that I signed it just to get out of there. I knew I hadn’t had an anxiety attack, that the chest pains and breathing troubles weren’t the result of my overactive imagination, that there was no reason to treat me like that. But something about medical settings takes the moxie out of me. I don’t want to fight them. I can’t muster the confidence to stand up for myself. I did email my Primary Care Physician and told him that I had gone to the ER and felt like they hadn’t taken my symptoms seriously, and that I was hoping to look into my odd episodes with him.

Two days after being written off and discharged by the emergency room I received an email from my regular doctor. He got the results of my blood work from the ER and was amazed at what he saw. My thyroid stimulating hormone levels were through the goddamn roof while the levels of actual chemicals my thyroid producing were on the very low end of normal. My fluttering heartbeat and odd breathing rhythms could have easily been a symptom of my thyroid abnormality.

Words can’t adequately describe the shift in attitude and demeanor that came over the nurses and other staff once my medication list was out in the open. One minute the doctor is talking about a possible EKG and CAT scan and the next me and my symptoms were ignored. My family and I were avoided like we were lepers. Then the rude probing into my mental health and the assumption that I was lying or hysterical, being locked in a room with thick carpet on the walls and watched through a security camera…

What if I was having a cardiac reactions to my Adderall? What if my birth control was creating blood clots that were sent to my heart and lungs? Why didn’t they use my medications as another possible cause for my symptoms rather than a sign that I was crazy and therefore not worthy of treatment? How could they ignore my extreme thyroid results?

That experience has made me determined not to go to the ER ever again. I’ll never see another emergency room unless they bring me in an unconscious in an ambulance. I know that this reaction isn’t mature and could endanger my life, but what’s the point of going to the ER if they’ll simply send me home when they learn about my prescriptions to drugs for treating mental illness? We’re all vulnerable when we’re sick or injured; why would those of us with a mental illness subject ourselves to the stigma and the indifference to our physical health?

I hope that I never have to go back there. I’ll try to make sure that I don’t end up in the emergency room so long as I’m not on death’s door.

-Ashes

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