The Worst Summer of My Life, Chapter 10: Darkness & [Gas]light

Doctor #1 was a bit of a dud. But I still had an appointment on the books with Doctor #2, the one I had called first who required a longer wait. Hopefully the 2nd time would be the charm, because I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth for a 3rd doctor. And I was all out of lucky charms.

I had met with this doctor about my psoriasis a while back, shortly after we moved to Pennsylvania, and I had a positive impression of both her bedside manner and her holistic-leaning approach. But as with Doctor #1, I drove to my appointment with an uneasy mix of a little hope and a lot of apprehension. (Mixed with a thundercloud of depression that periodically spit out lightning bolts of anxiety.)

When I checked in for my appointment on that June afternoon, I mentioned in passing to the receptionist that I had seen this doctor once in the past, in 2014. But here’s what’s strange: She said there was no record of that appointment. None at all. Only a 2018 physical I had gotten with a different doctor from the same practice. Nothing before that. As if it had never happened.

So that was odd. But it must have been a glitch in their electronic system. I tried not to worry about it.

I was called in to meet with the doctor and, after getting weighed by the assistant, I was directed to the correct room. After waiting nervously for a minute, Doctor #2 walked through the door, looked at me, and said “It’s nice to meet you.” I was a little disappointed that she didn’t remember me, but I figured it must be hard to keep track of thousands of patients over the better part of a decade. And of course, masks make it hard to visually recognize people we don’t see regularly. So I told the doctor that I’d actually had an appointment with her 7 years ago.

I’ll never forget how she looked at me. Like I was a mental patient. (Which I suppose I was, technically.) Like I was the bug-eyed guy in the movie who was hallucinating and needed to be sedated.

She said with a warm but clinical condescension, “Noooo, we have never met before.” My hackles immediately went up, because my already-tenuous grip on my emotional reality was being called into question. I was unsure of many things at that moment in time, but I knew one thing for sure: I had absolutely met with this doctor in 2014. I would have gladly gambled my entire life savings on that ironclad premise. I still would, in fact.

I dug in my heels and told her as much (well, not the gambling bit – that would have been overkill) and that I’d had a great impression of her and had told my wife as much. The doctor again looked at me with a kind of patronizing pity, which to my bruised and vulnerable mind felt almost contemptuous in that moment. She even said something like, “You’re not thinking clearly.” I wish I could remember the exact words. But she truly believed, presumably based on the pre-appointment notes where I indicated I was dealing with anxiety and depression, that I was somehow fabricating the memory of this previous appointment. That I had perhaps even lost my grip on reality.

In desperation, I dug in my heels and said “You can call my wife if you want. She knows that I met with you because I told her about our appointment.” But it made no difference. The doctor hadn’t seen me in the computer system, because of whatever glitch had erased my 2014 visit from the record, and she assumed the computer must be correct.

There is nothing quite like the feeling of someone gaslighting you — either intentionally or, as in this case, unintentionally — at a moment in time when you’re already struggling to keep your head above water. To be told that I was fabricating an entire memory out of whole cloth, while already under intense mental duress, was deeply destabilizing.

So I’m 45 seconds into my appointment with Doctor #2, after being totally underwhelmed with Doctor #1, and already I’m defensive and panicking because this highly trained medical professional doesn’t trust my ability to ascertain (and/or retain memories of) basic reality.

I’m not sure there are many less constructive ways that a doctor’s visit can start. Maybe if you argue about politics right off the bat? I suppose that might be even less constructive.

But to this doctor’s credit, she did prove to be a more deliberate and thoughtful advocate than Doctor #1 was. She gave me time to explain the specifics of my anxiety-laced depression, and she assured me that she could tell I was indeed dealing with some intense anxiety. (Although the tension of how our appointment began was certainly exacerbating that.) I told her, as I had told the other doctor, that I was resistant to taking antidepressants. She explained that she tries to use those as a backup option, and I was grateful to hear her say that.

The other thing that rubbed me the wrong way from my visit with Doctor #2, besides the unfortunate gaslighting prelude, was that she cut me off at one point and said a little brusquely, “Can I talk now?” She also later pointed out that she had multiple patients waiting for her and that we were running long.

I understand that the logistics of doctor/patient scheduling are tricky. But I believe it’s imperative that a doctor not make a patient feel like he’s putting them out by explaining his mental turmoil in some detail. So that was another black mark against the impersonal side of American health care (and perhaps modern industrialized health care in general).

In the end, Doctor #2 prescribed me an anti-anxiety medication. She agreed with my theory that anxiety (and sleeplessness) might be helping to cause, or heighten, my depression. She assured me the medication was fairly mild, was non-habit-forming, and is even given to kids as young as 13 — like when they’re dealing with anxiety from their parents getting divorced. She also recommended that I get some over-the-counter melatonin to help me sleep at night.

She also recommended that I consider getting psychotherapy. I, being the frugal Wingert guy that I am, and also aware of skyrocketing health care costs in general, cringed at the thought of how much of a dent it might put in my wallet to go the mental-health-specialist route.

As with Doctor #1, I walked away from my appointment with Doctor #2 feeling both underwhelmed and overwhelmed. Although at least I now had two medication options.

Perhaps, I told myself, if I could beat back the anxiety and the insomnia, my depression would fade on its own.

Perhaps, despite feeling bulldozed by Doctor #1 and gaslit by Doctor #2, all I really needed was a mild anti-anxiety medication.

Perhaps that would get me over the hump and allow me to sleep again (and to breathe again).

A guy can hope, right?

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