CW: suicide, suicide methods, sexual abuse, trauma, eating disorder, self harm methods, invalidating/judgemental doctors
I think that might be the longest content warning I have ever written!
I had a shitty experience with a nurse this week. They asked me about my weight when was in there for a completely unrelated reason. I explained to them that I used to have anorexia (during which I obsessively weighed myself 30+ times a day) and as a result I don’t want to be weighed. She kept pushing the matter and I ended up having to be quite assertive (read: rude) to make her back off.
I ranted about the experience on my Instagram stories. And you all said you would love a blog post about how medical professionals need to up their game when it comes their bedside manner. To prove a point, I’ve decided to share with you four of the most harmful things said to me by medical professionals.
“When did your period stop?”
This was said to me by a GP when I was 16/17 years old. I had gone in to ask for help for my eating disorder. I had had enough and I wanted to get better. Before she even gave me the chance to give the speech I had been rehearsing in the shower all week, she took one look at me and uttered this phrase. It was clear she thought I was anorexic and was checking the diagnosis by confirming that my period had stopped. Those were the first words that she spoke to me.
And even though her diagnosis was correct, it was one of the most invalidating moments of my life. It was supposed to be my big moment coming to terms with my illness and saying it out loud, announcing its impact on my life. She took that away from me. She judged me. And it hurt a great deal. It put me off doctors. I spent the next two years trying to brute force recovery, without any professional help, because of how that doctor talked to me. It took a long time for me to build up the courage to seek formal support again.
“Did something happen down here?”
This phrase was said to me whilst a doctor was….wait for it….inside of me. I was getting my first Pap test at about 18. As someone who was sexually abused it was causing me all kinds of problems. I was crying. I was squirming. I was hitting myself in the head trying to make the flashbacks go away. And the gynaecologist looked up from in-between my legs and said “Did something happen down here?” in what can only be described as the most condescending tone known to man.
I was shocked. I said “no” and got dressed as quickly as I could. She offered me a referral to counselling (as I mentioned above I had been put off seeing anyone)but the damage was done. I wish she had said to me “Is there a way I can make this easier for you?” Or used her expertise to give me tips to calm down. I wish if she felt the need to bring up her suspicions and counselling she had waited until I wasn’t spread-eagled on the table. I was completely re-traumatised by the experience and to this day getting my Pap test is unbearable. Not just because of the flashbacks of abuse but because of apprehensions caused by the memories of this doctor.
“You’ve got a family and partner who loves you, so maybe next time you should just talk before you act, yeah?”
This statement sounds kind of nice, doesn’t it? It sounds like someone offering me support; reassuring me that I am loved and encouraging me to reach out for support. But if only text could communicate tone and context. This was said to me while I lay in my hospital bed after attempting suicide. I was very sick. My body was doing all sorts of involuntary things and I was scared. I was fucking terrified. I was already dealing with the immense guilt of the harm I had done to my family and partner. And then this nurse rubbed it in my face.
The thing is, this was the nurse at my second hospital. She had no idea about the events leading up to the attempt. That day I had actually gone out for lunch with my mum. I went to the gym. I got dinner with my best friend. I was texting my partner in the lead up. I had reached out to those who loved me. It hadn’t helped. But she assumed otherwise. And with her assumption she attacked me for the hurt I had caused. She did this when I was at my most vulnerable. I just stared at her in disbelief. I will never forget this nurses name. Or her accusatory tone. Or the contempt in her eyes in that moment.
“Well if you’re gonna do it may as well have slit your wrists because this way you’ve just fucked your organs for life”
I’m sorry for actually making you read these disgusting words. These were said to me by a paramedic after a suicide attempt. She made me feel like a huge waste of time. She told me of all the cases they had just come from, making it clear that my problems weren’t real in her eyes. I just kept nodding as she spoke. I was in shock. And defenceless.
Can we for a moment reflect on how problematic it is to use powerful imagery like “slit your wrists” to a person who has just tried to take their life? Like I debated even putting it in this post. How can I have more forethought about the way I speak about suicide than a medical professional who would frequently attend these scenes? For me, the fact that she referenced methods like this was just as problematic as the way she judged me for my choices. So where does all this leave us?
Here’s some advice I have for medical professionals:
1. Mind your goddamn business. Stay in your lane. Just because you have a medical degree doesn’t make you an expert in life or my personal life choices and experience. I want your medical opinion not your personal opinion.
2. Ask questions. Don’t tell. Your job in essence is to investigate. And I know your told the simplest explanation is the best one. But people aren’t that simple. We are complex individuals and should be treated as such.
3.Watch your tone. In all the examples I gave above tone was everything. People may forget what you said but they will remember your tone and how it made them feel.
4. Comfort us. Being unwell, whether physically or mentally, can be very scary. Take the time to be a human and tell us it is going to be okay.
As you can see from my stories above and undoubtedly your own experiences, there is a distinct need for more soft skills training with medical professionals. It isn’t enough to just diagnose and give out pills. Patients/clients need to be viewed holistically within their context and treated as such.
I feel very fortunate to have found a team of medical professionals who I trust deeply and feel safe with. However, sadly I don’t believe this is the norm. This has been a long journey and I hope that you all can find doctors to make you feel the same way.