Written by Kat Shore.
Messages sent between me and a friend on May 4th 2020:
Me: I had my second panic attack of lockdown last night.
Her: Do you know what the trigger was?
Me: Thinking too much about my breath.
Thinking too much about my breath. Why was I doing that you ask? Surprise, it was because for the last few weeks I had been constantly out of fucking breath.
The world has been minimising and dismissing women’s pain for centuries, and you don’t have to spend long looking to find evidence of massive discrepancies in the medical care of white men verses everybody else. Women wait longer to be administered treatment (Robertson, 2014), are less likely to be given pain relief (Chen, 2008), and our physical complaints are more likely to be dismissed as psychological (Hoffman, Tarzian, 2001). If you’re Black you’re at an even higher risk of having your pain dismissed, due to the despicable racist notion that Black people have higher pain thresholds than white people (Hoffman, Oliver, Trawalter 2016). If you’re queer or disabled you can expect further discrimination and dismissal (Vries, Kathard, MÜller, 2020) (Sharby, Martire, Iversen 2015). Given the incessant gaslighting by the medical profession, it’s not surprising so many of us have internalised the message that we aren’t sick enough to justify proper treatment.
May 6th 2020 message to a friend:
I’ve convinced myself I’m having an allergic reaction to hazelnuts. I don’t think my brain can cope with having nothing to do in lockdown.
May 11th 2020 message to my boss:
I’ve called the doctor and they said it doesn’t sound like Covid. I’ve been breathless and dizzy, but it must be in my head.
By this point I was spending all day every day lying in bed, listening to binaural beats while doing paint by numbers on my phone. Anything that required a greater level of exertion would leave me completely wiped out. By 7pm I’d be asleep. But it wasn’t Covid, so it must have been ‘in my head’.
I started taking citalopram for anxiety and contacted a therapist who specialised in EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing), a short-term treatment designed to relieve trauma responses. I had five sessions. The therapist was fantastic. We spoke about the time I’d been kicked in the neck in a swimming pool, and the day I’d spent vomiting blood after a tooth extraction gone wrong. Trauma was processed and psychological healing was had. The exhaustion and breathlessness remained.
But if it wasn’t panic disorder, and it wasn’t Covid19, then what the fuck was wrong with me? It seemed unlikely it was the hazelnuts. After unsuccessfully treating myself with omeprazole for the pseudo-dyspnoea I also didn’t have, I called the doctor to ask about esophagitis. It was a new, younger doctor I hadn’t met before, and he was very, very good. I was brought in for a blood test to check thyroid levels, celiac disease, anaemia, and diabetes. Apparently, a little blood can reveal a whole lot.
29th July 2020 message to my boss:
The panic was a symptom of the breathlessness, not the other way round. My body doesn’t absorb B12, I have anaemia!!!
It turned out I had zero B12 in my body and would need injections for life. The relief! I had answers. When I went for my first injection I asked the nurse if anyone ever felt better straight away. She said it was unlikely and she was right. It was 4 months of very gradual progress until I started feeling more like myself. Friends began telling me I no longer sounded like I was running up a hill every time we spoke on the phone. I was thrilled.
So, what can I tell you? First of all, please, please rule out anything physical before spending hundreds on therapy for the symptoms you think are in your head. I know you hate doctors, and I understand why, but if your doctor’s an arsehole you have every right to request a new one. Get a blood test for everything your symptoms might be suggestive of. The internet is great for researching what tests to ask for, but it’s also full of exploitative, narcissist ‘experts’ with zero credentials, so be discerning about where you gather your information.
If a blood test doesn’t get to the bottom of things, request further tests. Demand them if you have to. Find and quote official guidelines for assessing and treating people with your symptoms. The WHO and NICE guidelines are great places to start. Put everything in writing, it’s harder to ignore. If you’re not having your needs met, start asking about complaint procedures.
Lie in bed all day if you need to. You need time to heal, so ban the word ‘lazy’ from your vocabulary. You aren’t doing nothing, your body working extremely hard to make you better. Remember, you will not feel this way forever. As scared as you are that you will, with proper treatment you will start to feel more like yourself. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, seek mental health support alongside your physical treatment. Panic is horrible and can really exacerbate physical symptoms, so be gentle with yourself. As always, all the obvious boring things like therapy and meditation help, sorry.
If you’re reading this because you’re suffering and don’t know why, know that I’m holding you in mind and sending healing vibes your way. Please do still see a doctor though, vibes alone are next to useless. Now pick up the phone and honour all the not white men of the past by fighting for yourself and your future.
Chen, E, Shofer, FS, Dean, AJ, Hollander, JE, Baxt, WG, Robey, JL, Sease, KL, Mills, AM. (2008) Gender disparity in analgesic treatment of emergency department patients with acute abdominal pain. Philadelphia: Academic Emergency Medicine
de Vries, E, Kathard, H, Müller, A (2020)
Debate: Why should gender-affirming health care be included in health science curricula BMC Medical Education. BMC Medical Education Journal
Hoffman, DE, Tarzian, AJ. (2003) The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain. University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law
Hoffman, KM, Trawalter, S, Norman Oliver, M. (2016) Racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Robertson, J. (2014) Waiting Time at the Emergency Department from a Gender Equality Perspective. Gothenburg: Institute of Medicine at the Sahlgrenska Academy
Sharby, N, Martire, K, Iversen, MD. (2015) Decreasing Health Disparities for People with Disabilities through Improved Communication Strategies and Awareness. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public health
About The Author
Kat is a creative arts therapist, amateur drummer, and aspiring writer based in London. Her interests include mental health, culture, and social justice.
Follow Kat on IG: @katwrites22