health

'When I told my doctor what was wrong with me, he laughed in my face.'

Trigger warning – This post discusses eating disorders and self harm and may be distressing to some readers.

I sat in the doctor’s office, nervous but confident. I had an appointment with my regular doctor and unlike other visits I knew what the problem was and the immediate solution.

I have been struggling with an eating disorder for the past eight years. I began in the later years of high school, when comparing my body with my peers was at an all time high. This was around the time that Instagram came into power, meaning that I was more exposed to unrealistic body expectations than I had ever been in my entire life.

I already saw beautiful slim women in magazines, on the TV and at the cinema, but now I had incredibly toned social media influencers pushing “skinny” teas that were really just thinly disguised laxative drinks as I scrolled through my social media feed. What began as a small nagging voice in my head, telling me to skip a meal and buy some “skinny” tea soon turned into a full-fledged eating disorder.

Like most people with eating disorders, I was not only ashamed of the disorder but also the symptoms associated with my mental illness. So I never sought formal help for this insidious illness. I had received therapy for other mental illnesses and have always been quite open about my struggle with depression and anxiety. But the shame of my eating disorder always left me suffering in silence.

 

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That was until now. My eating disorder over the past eight years has had its highs and lows. But when I began to notice the severity of symptoms at the beginning of 2019 I knew it was time to take action. As someone who has spent the past six years of her life studying psychology and counselling, I noticed the red flags in my mental health and I knew what to do. I needed to get a mental health plan from my doctor. I felt confident and sure of myself when I booked the appointment.

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“Nikki?” my doctor said as he walked into the reception room and motioned for me to come into his office. I felt very at ease around my regular doctor. I had been going to him for the past four years; he knew most of my recent health history, he was always happy to see me and most importantly, he bulk bills.

I sat down in the patient chair and the doctor shut the door. My doctor sat down, asked me how my week had been and we exchanged pleasantries. No different to how every other appointment had started. The he asks me the all-important question. “So how can I help you?” he asked genuinely.

“I need a mental health plan” I replied, sure of myself.

“OK sounds good” he replied. This isn’t the first time I’ve asked him for a mental health plan so I felt comfortable asking him for another, years later.

“Can you tell me a bit more about why you need a mental health plan?” the doctor inquired.

I took a deep breath, I have only told a handful of people about my eating disorder, so the act of telling someone was always nerve-racking.

“Well, for the past eight years I’ve been struggling with an eating disorder, bulimia to be specific”.

Saying the words made me feel vulnerable but I knew it had to be done.

The doctor looked at me and laughed. He gestured to my body and said: “You? You don’t look like you have an eating disorder! You’re not too big but not too slim either.”

My heart sank and the blood ran from my face. I felt sick; the very person who was meant to have a professional understanding of mental health was openly laughing at my disclosure of having an eating disorder, simply because of the way I look.

Anne Tonner tells Mia Freedman about the moment she knew her daughter was very, very sick… Post continues after audio.

All the guilt that I had felt over the past eight year flooded over me. I knew I didn’t ‘look the part’ of someone with an eating disorder; I wasn’t severely underweight or overweight. But like any other mental illness, stereotypes of people who have mental illnesses are often inaccurate and downright offensive. Just like you don’t expect all people with depression to wear all-black clothing and listen to melancholy music; you shouldn’t expect all people with an eating disorder to look the same.

This comment from the doctor really affected me. I felt as though I had failed. How must the rest of my life look if I couldn’t even get my eating disorder right? This feeling of failure is a major contributor to my symptoms; if only I looked thinner then I might love myself, if only I looked thinner, then I would finally be doing my eating disorder ‘right’. It’s completely irrational but very powerful.

The worst part was I knew his response was grossly unprofessional and wrong. I’m a confident woman who is well educated in the subject of mental health, I told myself I should say something to him, yell at him, tell him how wrong is he! But I couldn’t. I couldn’t speak. All I wanted to do was cry.

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The next five minutes were like a blur to me. The self-assured woman who walked through the door was now deflated and meekly trying to answer the doctor’s questions. I answered his questions by weakly justifying myself, feeling more and more ashamed of myself.

I left the doctors office with a mental health plan in hand. I’d gotten what I came for, but I felt the lowest I had felt in a very long time. When I told my psychologist about this a week later, she was horrified.

 

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“What he said was wrong and for him to even comment on your weight was completely inappropriate,” she explained.

Finally I was getting the professional help I knew I deserved, but I couldn’t shake the feeling I didn’t deserve any help; I didn’t ‘look’ sick so why should I get any help?

By the end of my first session my psychologist told me that my symptoms and experiences were valid. She told me that I definitely needed specialised intervention therapy specifically for eating disorders. I should’ve been relieved, but I couldn’t get past my doctors initial reaction. And the more I think about it, the less shame I feel and the more angry I become.

I wish my eating disorder was as simple as how I looked. I wish that I was overreacting about my symptoms. But I’m not overreacting, I have lived with this illness for the past eight years and frankly it’s about time that people started to acknowledge the psychological nature of an eating disorder. It is classified as a mental illness for a reason, because it is a mental illness not a weight illness.

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General Practitioners are the ones writing those mental health plans for patients, so they should be properly trained in how to deal with patients who present them with mental illness symptoms.

 

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My psychologist told me that I could make a formal complaint about what my doctor said, or at the very least write him a letter explaining his how inappropriate his response was and how it made me feel. On the one hand I understand how that would be beneficial for his personal and professional development. On the other hand, I as the patient do not wish to spend my time educating General Practitioners on subjects they should already know about.

In this current climate, doctors should be doing everything they can to educate themselves on how to talk to a patient who is presenting with mental illness symptoms. No doctor should ever stereotype what someone with a mental illness should look like.

Above all, no one should ever have to justify their mental illness while their doctor laughs at them.

For more from Nikki Strong, you can follow her on Instagram.

For help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation‘s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or email [email protected]. You can also visit their website, here.  

If you’re suffering from depression or anxiety and need help, or just someone to chat to, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or BeyondBlue on 1300 22 4636. 

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