“He looks just fine to me.”
He was referring to my son, who was sitting on the bed in the doctor’s office. From my view, I could see clenched fists. He was biting the inside of his cheek because chewing calms him. To the doctor, I wanted to say, “You know that anxiety doesn’t look like a fucking rash, right?? Because holy shit man, you have his file in front of you. There is a history of anxiety. You are supposed to be the doctor here.” I didn’t say it. I should have said it, but I didn’t.
Instead, I remarked,
“Well, yeah, panic attacks don’t last all day, generally speaking.”
He casually shrugged his shoulders as he continued to type words into my son’s file. I fought the urge to yank his fingers off the keyboard and say, “Pay attention here. Anxiety is not just a casual thing. Not for an adult. Especially not for a 7 year old boy. Stop acting like it’s nothing.” As a doctor, he should know all of these things. He’s the one with the fancy degree. There should have empathy, better bedside manner, anything other than what he was throwing down.
When he was finished with his notes, he began the long list of all the reasons he was refusing to give my son an anti-anxiety medication like Ativan. When he was finished, despite my sound arguments, he shrugged his damn shoulders again and responded,
“This is just over school, right? Just don’t make him go. There are only three days left. I’ll even write him a note so he doesn’t have to attend.”
I let out a sarcastic laugh, allowing it to fill the room for a second before I responded, “Today it’s about school. Tomorrow? It could be about the pencil crayons not sharpened properly. Or about the fact that we did snack before I looked through his backpack. No. It’s not only about school.”
“Well, he looks fine to me. I don’t see any need to prescribe anything like that to him. He can just not go to school and I bet the anxiety will go away.”
Cringing, I remembered the time I sat in the very spot my son was sitting, explaining through tears to a different doctor what my own anxiety looked like. The words didn’t come easily, because nothing comes easily when you deal with anxiety. I was told to go on vacation to get rid of my “problem”. Because apparently at Doctor School they don’t teach you that anxiety doesn’t fucking work like that. In fact, no actual mental health issue does.
I wondered what anxiety needed to look like for him to actually realize what we were dealing with. Obviously painting him a picture of what the panic attacks had looked like in the morning didn’t help. The letter of recommendation that my son’s Occupational Therapist had faxed over that afternoon, stating in her professional opinion and from working very closely with my son, that he needed something to get him through was not enough. Maybe he needed to have a gaping head wound? A broken bone of some sort? Or maybe I should have encouraged my son to completely lose his shit right there in the office. Maybe that would have solidified for him that he wasn’t and isn’t just fine.
Anxiety isn’t a stage performer, ready to come out on stage and show you the well-rehearsed lines it’s practiced over and over again, on cue. It’s not going to be listed in the playbill, in a cast of characters. It’s not going to show up when someone, be it a doctor, a family member, a teacher or a friend demand that they’ve never seen it or that they can’t see it. That’s not how anxiety works. It hides, it lurks, and even when it does come out, those who don’t believe it really exists, still don’t see it. Because seeing anxiety means that you have to first understand it. You have to understand that the symptoms are all familiar for those who suffer, but that it presents in so many different ways. Anxiety looks so different on everyone.
“Look, if you aren’t comfortable prescribing something for him, I’m okay with that. I would prefer to have the psychiatrist do it anyway, since that’s his field of expertise. Like I said, we were just looking to have something in our back pocket in case things go this way again. A month is a very long time. But, I understand why you don’t feel comfortable writing him a prescription. We’ll just let the expert do his job in January and send you the report.”
If he was going to refuse my son on the basis that he “looked” just fine, I was not above making sure he knew that I knew he wasn’t qualified to write the prescription even if it meant being slightly passive aggressive.
Before he walked out, as though I didn’t hear him the first, the second or third time he uttered it in our session,
“He’s just fine. He’ll go back to normal soon.”
No. He won’t. Because guess what? This is his fucking normal, Doctor.
I’d like to say that this is just a rare breed of health professional but it’s not. All too often people are told some version of the very inane statement my son was met with today. No one should have to reach out and ask for help, a step that is courageous and incredibly difficult, only to be told that they look fine. That they should just take a vacation. That they should just avoid life. No one should have to beg a medical professional to believe they have a mental health issue, be it anxiety or depression. If the people we need to help us the most, are the same ones who are indirectly telling us we’re not really worthy of any treatment, and should just fix it ourselves, why in the hell are we so damn surprised that mental health rates are on the rise? Why do we continued to be shocked when we hear of another person losing their life to a mental health issue? None of this should be remotely surprising.
You know what’s not fine? Being told it’s nothing. Being told you are just fine. It’s not acceptable to have a doctor refuse necessary treatment because he doesn’t “see” the issue.
You can’t fucking see mental illness.
Our children deserve proper access to mental health services, including medication when necessary. Adults deserve the same. We all deserve to be trusted, by our friends, our family, but most especially those we call our health professionals. We all deserve to be heard, to be validated and guided through the many tools that are necessary to keep mental illness at bay.
Everyone deserves better than being “just fine.”