Recently, a friend asked me to accompany her to an appointment with a new gastroenterologist. An internist diagnosed her with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) about a year ago, and since then she had been taking an over-the-counter medication that helped significantly. But her internist was concerned that she still needed the medication to feel okay. So, she recommended my friend speak to a specialist.
I asked her first to visit my former gastroenterologist, a woman I had seen for 15 years before she sent me to a sub-specialist. I trusted her completely, and I send everyone I know to her. But my friend wanted answers right away. My previous doctor generally has a three-month wait for new patients to get in to see her, so my friend decided to go with the doctor her internist recommended because she could get in within two weeks.
The doctor asked about my friend’s medical history and a lot of other questions. Of course, he also looked at her medications, which included some anti-anxiety meds. He immediately homed in on that.
“This could be IBS,” he said, “your body reacting to your anxiety. It could be anxiety,” he repeated.
I was confused. My friend had been experiencing horrible stomach discomfort for a year, was diagnosed with GERD, and had felt relief from the medication. How could that be an anxious stomach?
And then I got mad. Because I HATE, HATE, HATE when anyone — doctors or laypeople — assume that my Crohn’s disease is from anxiety or stress, which has happened multiple times. I can’t control this disease with my mind any more than my friend can control her disease with her mind.
I feel like labeling us as physically ill because of anxiety is insulting. Sure, many people have anxiety. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. But it is not always the cause of our medical problems. And when you assume it is, you’re saying that we are weak for not being able to control it. You’re saying we’re incapable of functioning because our brains won’t let us. You don’t focus on the real problem. It’s frustrating, completely unhelpful, and when a doctor does it, it’s dangerous.
In the end, the doctor did concede that maybe — just possibly — my friend should have an endoscopy so that he could make sure nothing else was wrong. And I strongly suggested she do it. She wants answers and to feel better, and I want her and all people with gastrointestinal disease to be treated with respect.
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