Throughout my teens, I was very determined. I was involved in my community and I made good grades in school.
I did a couple of college courses and flourished. But then I began to struggle.
I would get excruciating stomach pain, usually at night. I couldn’t figure out what it was or what was causing it.
In Canada, I went to a clinic, my doctor’s office, and then the ER.
The doctor at the clinic thought I had pulled a muscle.
My nurse practicioner, who worked for my doctor, couldn’t find anything wrong after a brief examination and said I was fine.
A staff member in the ER accused me of drug seeking.
After that, I decided it was something that I just had to deal with, that this was now a part of my life.
I was embarrassed. I felt like I had wasted medical professionals’ time. But I was still in pain.
I never knew when I would have the pain. Sometimes it would happen once every couple of months, sometimes several times a week.
After trying to diagnose myself on Google, I decided that I was probably just bloated. Or it was just in my head.
My grades slipped. It’s really difficult to focus when it feels like you’re being stabbed in your stomach and back. Or when you know that it will happen at any time. It usually came in the evenings and at night time, sometimes waking me up, so I began to get much less sleep.
I’m naturally a bit anxious, but my anxiety definitely got worse worrying about the pain. I also considered myself a bit of a hypochondriac, but I would just try to joke about my concerns with friends and family. Because my concerns weren’t validated, I felt like they weren’t valid.
I got through university and received decent grades. I completed a study abroad year in England and then I moved to England to work and be with my partner, John.
He was always supportive. I think he was more worried than he let on, but because I had experienced the pain for a long time and had (mostly) decided it wasn’t anything sinister, he let me handle it how I wanted to. I wasn’t always unwell and I had a lot of good moments.
I was reluctant to go to a doctor about it again. I didn’t want to be dismissed. I didn’t want to be an inconvenience.
Last August I began to feel really unwell. I tried to dismiss it and I was lucky that my boss let me work from home for a few days.
I made an appointment with my nurse practioner. I expected to be sent away.
After I told him that I regularly had pain in my stomach, he immediately started asking questions to try to figure out what it was. I was shocked. I honestly nearly cried in the office.
I finally felt like it wasn’t all in my head. Like, maybe, there was hope.
The next day I was back in his office. Still with the pain, but now also with jaundice. My eyes and skin were yellow; my pee was, frankly, a radioactive orange! (Sorry if it’s a bit TMI, but it’s an important symptom to be aware of!)
The day after that I was admitted into hospital. They weren’t really sure what it was, but they suspected gallstones.
How I understand gallstones is that you have your gallbladder and it holds bile in reserve for when you eat fatty foods, and then that gets released into your digestive system when you need it. When you have gallstones, your gallbladder doesn’t work as well, but when it gets the signal that it’s needed it tries really hard, but it struggles and that’s what causes the pain. You can get the pain when you eat (usually fatty foods, but it can be with more or less any food) and it can even be caused by stress! Talk about a catch-22!
I had an ultrasound and an MRI to properly diagnose the gallstones.
I intend to write another post about my experience in hospital, but I don’t want to detract from the fact that I had to deal with gallstones for 6-7 years because Canadian doctors didn’t believe me when I said that I was in pain. That it got so bad that a gallstone got stuck in by bile duct, causing jaundice and a liver infection. Gallbladders can rupture, which can cause a slew of serious issues, and I am so grateful that mine never did (and also that I didn’t know that they could do that until after my operation!).
I love Canada. I have a lot of respect for medical workers in Canada. I have a PSW qualification and a lot of my family work in the medical field, including my parents. I’ve had good experiences with Canadian doctors, even with some of the ones who dismissed my concerns. But I was unequivocally let down by the Canadian medical system.
Over the next three weeks, I spent two weeks in hospital. During that time I had surgery to remove my gallbladder and clear out the blockage in my bile duct. I was originally meant to be put on a waiting list and sent home, but my liver function was so bad (due to the jaundice) and I was so unwell that they removed it in an emergency surgery. It was gone, with five incisions in exchange. I don’t think I believed that that would resolve the pain. Not yet.
I had a good experience in hospital, or as good an experience as one can have in hospital. For the most part, I was believed when I raised concerns. I was treated with respect.
After a few days of slow recovery from the anaesthesia and having a drain bag attached to me with a tube coming out of my upper stomach, I began to feel better. As soon as the foot-and-a-half of tube was removed from my stomach, I felt exponentially better.
John took me home. We went to some shops first so that I could get out and about.
It took me a few weeks to recover, but I was back at work after two weeks.
Ten months later and I haven’t had that pain. Not once. It’s gone.
I still expect it sometimes. Physically, I have completely recovered and I feel so much better in myself.
Emotionally, I’m still healing. I’m working on it. On me. For such a long time I had trained myself to ignore my instincts. There were things that I put off because of the pain and not knowing the cause and when it would occur. Now I’m trying to learn to trust myself again, to work on things that I’ve always wanted to work on (like writing with more focus and blogging).
Luckily, I have a really good support system. I have John and his family, great friends, and my parents (even though they are still in Canada). I’m confident that I’ll get there.
The reason I’m sharing my experience is that I want people to take women’s pain seriously. To not treat modern-day women’s pain like 17th-century hysteria. And I want people to know that it really does happen. It’s not just happening to random people on the internet. It’s so prevalent that it is happening everywhere, and I’d be surprised if everyone didn’t know at least one woman who had had their medical concerns down-played.
I want doctors to believe it when someone comes to them and tells them they’re in pain. To try to figure out why it’s there and how it can be taken away.
I want people who are pain or are unwell and have had their concerns invalidated by medical professionals to know that I believe them. I want them to know that there are doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners who will believe them too. To not give up trying to find a solution. To have hope.
Over the last couple of years, I have seen a lot of stories of women being dismissed by doctors. I have seen accounts in the news and on social media, from strangers and people I know. My experience is not an isolated incident. I’m white, but this is especially an issue for people of colour, who have their concerns dismissed at depressingly high rates.
I’ve had other medical concerns validated since I’ve been in the UK. Some symptoms I had gone to Canadian doctors about and had been casually dismissed. Others, I hadn’t wanted to bother anyone with. The UK doctors found them by doing blood tests, by observing:
Vitamin D deficiency: I had gone to my Canadian doctor because I was tired all the time. She told me to drink more coffee, and patronized me saying that “everyone is tired sometimes.”
Sub-clinical hypothyroidism: I’m not sure if I had this when I was in Canada, but I do now. It is a mild form of hypothyroidism, a disorder where the thyroid gland doesn’t work very well. The thyroid gland plays a big part in regulating the body, and tiredness and sensitivity to cold are big red flags for it. My (UK) doctor has said that it is likely that mine will develop into full hypothyroidism at some point.
Joint hypermobility (double joints): I’ve always had joint pain, especially after exercise, but I’d never gone to a doctor about it. I was referred to get orthotics and the doctor who was fitting them for me asked me to do a couple of tests and diagnosed me then and there.
Temporomandibular disorder (TMD): I have jaw pain and get headaches regularly. My dentist noticed that I had it, just by looking at my tongue; my teeth have made indents in my tongue from clenching my jaw so much. No dentist or doctor had ever noticed before.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS): I suspected I had PCOS when I was a teenager and asked my doctor. She told me I just had “lazy ovaries.” When I was getting post-gallbladder removal blood work, I asked my nurse practitioner if I could have my free androgen index checked as well (which would indicate whether I had it or not). (It did.)
Outside of close friends and family, I haven’t really spoken about my experiences or my conditions. It’s private to me, it’s my own experience. I hope that by sharing publicly that I can add my voice to the vast number of women who have endured similar situations. To validate my own experiences and bolster theirs.
I am eternally grateful, and lucky, that the conditions I’ve had weren’t life-threatening. My gallbladder has been removed. My vitamin D deficiency is easily managed by taking supplements. I have blood tests to monitor my thyroid levels. Orthotics help with my joint hypermobility, and I know now to be kinder to myself. I’m learning how to treat my TMD. My PCOS diagnosis is still sinking in, if I’m honest, but I finally feel validated. It isn’t something that has a cure, but I feel like I can start taking control of my own life.
Believe women when they say something is wrong with their own bodies.
3 thoughts on “Not Quite a Hypochondriac”