How to Stress Yourself into an Emergency Room

So, this one is gonna be shorter (maybe) and not very polished. Off the cuff, if you will. But bear with me, I’m writing most of this after spending over five hours in the ER. I really didn’t think I was going to be able to write at all this week. My mind has been totally consumed with dread, fear, and anxiety for so long now—there is no space for anything else. No, this week is only good for ranting and emotional breakdowns. So, I figured, I might as well write about that.

Apparently, I can go ahead and add physical breakdowns to that list.

I knew that this constant state of panic was affecting my body, I guess I didn’t realize just exactly how much until I wound up in the ER yesterday. This is not meant to be a shock piece, I’m alright I guess, they dismissed me. Nothing happened. I still can’t eat, am nauseated, and there is a balloon like pressure in my abdomen, but they couldn’t find anything to fix, so they let me go. My doctor still thinks it’s a hernia and has me scheduled to see a surgeon next week, so we will see. But for now, I’m sitting here feeling like an idiot. And I can’t help but wonder: did I just stress myself into a psychosomatic collapse?

Let’s go back a month.

I’m at the doctor. I tell her about this sensation in my abdomen that’s been causing me concern. Tell her about my anxiety, lack of appetite, and subsequent weight loss (10 pounds and I was already only at 115). She feels my abdomen and says she suspects I have a hernia. She tells me to keep an eye on it. I say “Ok, sounds good”, but what I’m really thinking is:

“Wow, way to go. Look what you did. You just panicked yourself into a hernia. That’s some pro level stressing right there. Nice job, idiot.”

(You see, I’m supposed to move back to California at the end of November. But, with a potential surgery looming over the horizon, I can’t help but think I’ve fucked that up for myself.)

I proceed to ignore my physical discomfort for a month while my mind is consumed by seemingly more pressing and existential worries: moving, finding a new job, pandemic, getting my life back together, the downfall of democracy. You know, standard 2020 shit.

Cut back to a few days ago when I begin to notice the pressure in my abdomen is not receding at all. It is persistent and I can’t eat without feeling sick. This just so happens to coincide with the election, but somehow that doesn’t register until post factum. I call my doctor to tell her what’s going on and ask what I should do. She tells me she sincerely thinks I should go to the nearest ER—which nearly sends me into a full-blown panic attack (this is underwhelmingly easy to do to me).

So, I went. I didn’t want to, but I did. Because at that point I was convinced I would probably die if I didn’t follow her advice.

I’m there for 5 and a half hours. That’s a long time to sort of sit there and hyper-analyze the situation. I wondered if I should be there, if I was sick enough, if I seemed sick enough, is everyone else in here sick enough? What about Covid? Am I going to need emergency surgery? Do you think these redneck trumpians will realize I’m not one of them and turn on me? Right here in the ER? ARE PENNSYLVANIA AND GEORGIA GOING TO FLIP OR WHAT??? WHEN WILL I KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT ANYTHING?

I decide that maintaining an outward appearance of calm is the best route. Maybe I can trick myself into believing it. But by the time I am finally called back into the triage room, I can barely articulate my symptoms. My sentences come out in fragmented, nonsensical blurts. I wonder what they think about this panicky person who can’t even explain how they feel or why they are in the ER in the first place. I start to feel imposter syndrome. That “I am not supposed to be here, I’m a fraud” feeling. Meanwhile my symptoms are still very much evident. But you try telling my brain that once it’s decided to deny me (itself??) any and all legitimacy.

The doctor was really hot, by the way, which made talking about myself and my symptoms that much more uncomfortable. I’ve been trying to be more honest with doctors for years, and this time I think the panic actually sort of aided in that goal.

I always think doctors are judging me. My lifestyle, my life choices. And they probably are at least a little bit. But they are also (and this is crucial) judging how best to treat you based on the information you give them. So, it really makes absolutely no sense to lie to doctors unless you are just downright self-destructive, or prideful, or ashamed, or some combination thereof. (Do I get some sort of sticker for being all three? And don’t you miss the days when you left the doctor with a sticker and a sense of accomplishment rather than confusion and shame?)

I’m always lying to doctors, downplaying my symptoms (or trying to make myself look better?). I especially lie when they ask about drug and alcohol use. This might have been partially instilled in me when, as a teenager, I feared they would call the cops or tell my parents or something, and I still haven’t totally let that go. But I also think it has some relation to shame and fear of being judged—which of course can always be traced back to judgement of the self. Seriously, if you are afraid that someone else is thinking badly of you, it’s probably because you have already judged certain qualities within yourself to be undesirable.

Well this time I told the truth. OK I got pretty close to telling the truth. I told him that I drink daily, but then when he asked how much, I panicked and said 1-2 glasses of wine. Which is untrue both in consistency of substance and amount. I did say yes when he asked about drugs, but then I said no when he asked if I smoked, when the answer to that is: sometimes. So, alright. More truth than usual. It felt like kind of a big moment.

Afterall, downplaying the truth to doctors is what got me into this mess in the first place. If I had just been more assertive and told my primary physician that I really wanted to follow up on these symptoms sooner rather than later, maybe I would have gotten it sorted already. Maybe my plans to finally move back to CA after a real shit show of a year would not be in danger of being postponed. Oh, and I would have one less thing to worry about right now. At the very least, I would have my physical health.

But I didn’t, so none of that is the case.

Instead, I am left with all the issues and no clear answers. I did learn one thing from this whole scenario though: my anxiety is so much worse than I have ever given it credit for.

When they sent me out for a CT scan, I began to shake uncontrollably. I’m not afraid of scans, or of medical machinery, or of needles. I think I’m just generally terrified of being alive. And everything that comes with it.

I’ve felt nauseated for I don’t even know how long. I haven’t been able to sleep much more than 4 or 5 hours a night. I know things are looking OK, states are swinging blue. But there is still no sense of certainty and I can’t help but compulsively check my phone every 5 seconds for updates I know will not appear. I eagerly seek the future, urging it ever on, and yet am consumed with dread at the very thought of it.

When I was a teenager, I read It’s Kind of a Funny Story. The main character has this terrible anxiety induced nausea, and he can’t eat anything as a result, or he pukes every time he tries. I used to wonder how something like stress could ever possibly lead to such severe physical symptoms. In retrospect, that line of thought seems cute, funny, unbelievably naïve. Well, past me, just you wait. One day your anxiety will finally mount to a crescendo and you will land yourself in the hospital.

I don’t know what the point of this post is, really. Just try and take care of yourselves folks. Don’t forget that—like democracy and senses of security—your mind and body are apparently fragile things. Pay attention to them, don’t ignore them when they scream at you to let you know it’s not all OK, practice preventative care, maintain maintenance so that you just might avoid breaking down in the first place, and of course if a problem does arise, be sure to treat the root cause and not merely the symptoms.

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