Are you depressed? Do you have anxiety? Are you on SSRIs? Better be wary when you hit the ER for a physical problem; they might tell you it's all in your head. That's what happened to me. I recently went through five months of pain for no good reason. One simple, non-invasive test could've solved a serious medical issue, but I wasn't given that test in the ER.
Last February, out of freaking nowhere, I came down with the worst indigestion of my life. To be clear, I'm 37 years old, 5'5", 140 pounds, and generally in good health. I didn't change my lifestyle, eat a 40 ounce steak, or do anything unusual. But this indigestion-- it took over my life. Chest pains, pressure on my trachea, acid in my throat and belly, trouble breathing. Every moment was agony. Every time I went to sleep, I felt like I was going to die. I tried every over the counter remedy available, from Beano to Gas X to Pepto Bismol. Nothing helped. So I went to my general practitioner.
He said it was simple acid reflux and prescribed Nexium. I decided, while I was there, to ask for an antidepressant. February is my darkest month, and I decided that after all these years of battling depression, I would finally give Celexa a try. Normally, I go home and Google every medicine any doctor prescribes, but this time, I decided against it. I didn't want to look at a long list of side effects and toss the Rx in the trash as I had in the past. I wanted to feel better.
That night, I took two pills: Nexium and Celexa.
Shortly thereafter, I had a bad reaction while watching Spiderman 3. Oddly enough, it wasn't due to what a horrible movie Spiderman 3 is.
I thought it was a heart attack... until I Googled "Celexa and Nexium drug interaction" and saw a bright red stop sign to indicate a major problem. It was terrifying. I couldn't breathe, my heart was hammering, my ears were ringing, my body was alternating hot and cold, my fingertips and feet were numb, I was dizzy. I was home alone with the kids, and I was afraid I was going to pass out, so I called 9-1-1.
The 9-1-1 responders were amazing. They ran several tests, including an EKG, and concluded that there was nothing life-threatening going on, that it was most likely the drug interaction combined with a panic attack. They suggested I have someone drive me to the emergency room, as going in the ambulance with two kids would only make me freak out more. I spent that night in the ER, hooked up to an IV and having dozens of blood tests. I told the doctors and nurses every symptom, with heavy emphasis on the indigestion that had started it all and was ongoing. Reflux, they said. Simple as that. They discharged me and told me to follow up with my general practitioner the next day.
Know what my chart said, what they didn't have the guts to tell me to my face?
There was nothing wrong. I was just having a panic attack.
The general practitioner claimed that the Celexa and Nexium, as prescribed, constituted too small a dose to cause the reaction I'd had (even though it matched every symptom of the reaction as described online). He said to keep trying with the Nexium, which I refused to do. He offered me a different antidepressant, which I rejected. He said it was probably just anxiety and gave me anxiety meds. And I took them, because I was terrified of that same feeling, that panic that I was dying.
For the next four months, off and on, I'd get better... and then have the indigestion again. There seemed to be no trigger. After the Nexium incident, I was scared of reflux medicines. I stopped eating fat and fried foods and milk, basically just consumed toast and ginger ale. I couldn't wear my usual jeans because I was so bloated. Every time I thought about having a panic attack, every time I was in the car and my mouth went dry, every time I saw a movie and vertigo kicked in (I'm talking to you, Jupiter Ascending)... I felt my heart jack up, and I took an anxiety pill. For my stupid anxiety.
And then, in May, the indigestion hit a peak. I was talking to my kids, and suddenly, I was out of breath. I couldn't finish a sentence. I was wheezing. I took an anxiety pill, and it didn't help. I calmly got dressed and asked to go to the ER-- of a different, bigger hospital in a larger town forty miles away. The whole way there, I sipped my water and clutched the car door hard enough to make my knuckles white. I was scared. I couldn't breathe. It was like someone was sitting on my chest, slowly crushing me.
The first thing they asked me in the ER?
Do you still have your gallbladder?
Well, yeah. The last ER said it was fine. They ran blood tests.
But did they do an ultrasound?
Well, no. They said if my blood didn't show signs of infection, then my gallbladder wasn't the problem.
And the doctor made a very annoyed face and sent me right off to have an ultrasound, which revealed a big, fat GALLSTONE blocking the neck of my GALLSTONE-PACKED gallbladder.
"What are you doing tomorrow?" the doctor asked when I was wheeled back to my room.
"I'm going to Phoenix Comicon," I said.
"What are you doing the day you get back?"
And that's how we scheduled the surgery shown above... for the day after I got back from a con. They wanted that gallbladder OUT. And so did I.
My gallbladder was a shitshow. Totally useless. That whole time, it wasn't even functional. This huge, D20 stone was blocking the whole damn organ. Bile was backed up my esophagus. I couldn't digest fat. No wonder I was a mess for five months.
If they'd run an ultrasound IN FEBRUARY, I could've been spared so much pain and worry.
But instead, they told me I was crazy.
Not in so many words, of course. But they told me that all of this pain was in my head. That it was anxiety. That I should calm down. That I was doing it to myself.
They gave me... more pills.
They sent me to a general practitioner who told me it was reflux and who sent me to a gastroenterologist who also told me it was reflux. I went to a gynecologist to see if it was hormone related and was told it was... reflux. When I told these people, "I am having a serious problem and it's taking over my life," they brushed it away and said to try a new reflux medicine. More pills.
Now, I know that there are dozens of variables here. Maybe I didn't give the ER docs all the info they would've needed to check my gallbladder; I was freaking out at the time. Maybe they were too busy focusing on the drug interaction to pay attention to the original symptom that started the entire chain of events. Maybe things would've been different if I'd gone to a different hospital at a different time, talked to a different doctor. Maybe they heard I was a writer and decided I was being hyperbolic. Who knows?
What stands out to me is that I told them I was on Celexa, an antidepressant, and they seemed fine with skipping other tests and telling me it was all in my head. My concerns were brushed off. They missed what I was told, later, were glaringly obvious symptoms of a messed up gallbladder.
All that time, I thought I was doing it to myself. That it was all in my head. That if I could just calm down and chill out, I'd get better.
They gave me anxiety because they missed the problem.
Not only that, but they treated anxiety not as an actual illness with physical symptoms beyond my control, but as something that I was doing wrong, something that could be fixed through sheer force of will and a little meditation.
Every time I had a gallstone attack from February to May, I thought it was a panic attack. I took my Lorazepam and focused my breathing, as if it was something I could control. Which it wasn't. It never was.
Anxiety is not something you can control any more than a gallbladder is. Your brain is just as much of an organ as your gallbladder or kidney or heart. We all deserve answers and treatment, and if we have to get pushy, then so be it. Ask for more tests. Whip out your phone and Google your drug interactions. Demand that they deal with the problem instead of slapping a drug band-aid on you to get you out the door.
I'm now three weeks out of gallbladder surgery, and I feel great. I've lost 6 pounds. I can wear jeans again. I'm not having panic attacks. I'm learning how to eat without my stupid, blocked-up gallbladder donking up digestion. It's not a perfect solution, but it's so much better than what was happening before.
My message to you: Take care of yourself. Demand answers.
Don't let them tell you it's all in your head.