TW: Brief discussion of a graphic injury
Every time I sit down with a new medical professional, they will invariably ask how things are with me and I will struggle with a concise answer. Physically I am a picture of health. They take their vitals, and everything will look perfect. Mental health is another story altogether – one compounded by three important factors: social anxiety, medical phobia, and OCPD.
My OCPD tends to take things a little easier on me in this case, its primary concern being honesty and truthfulness. I’m not honest because I think there is some spiritual virtue in it; I’m honest because I believe dishonesty by its nature causes personal truth to diverge from reality and life will eventually require one to account for that. Honesty may require more courage in the moment, but it often requires less effort in the big picture and builds better relationships.
The rest of it takes a little more explanation.
First, I am terrified of medical settings because I am terrified of medical procedures. Imagine a cellophane field around your body – I hate the idea of anything perforating that. Needles, scalpels, drills, and the like need to stay away from my person. Any medical appointment might result in their arrival. Even checkups, where there is zero chance of a procedure, could result in the need to schedule an appointment where a chance exists.
Most of it boils down to an anticipatory anxiety about pain. The funny thing is that I have not had a painful experience with a medical professional, and I have experienced pain several times in my life. If I do not feel my life is at risk, I will do everything possible to endure the pain to avoid seeing a doctor.
One time, I was helping to disassemble a wooden play fort in my backyard. I pulled a beam loose with some effort, spinning, dropping the beam, and losing my balance in the process. I stepped down hard on the beam and felt a sharp pain but was able to work for a few more minutes. My foot felt cold and hot at the same time. I realised it was because I had come down on a nail that pierced my footwear and it had filled with blood.
Rather than go to a doctor, I limped around the yard trying to stay conscious (before I learned proper breathing exercises, extreme anxiety caused me to hyperventilate, and I was prone to fainting). I knew it was not a life-threatening injury, but I also knew that a tetanus booster would follow and possibly stitches. My fear went from bad to worse when my mother demanded I see a doctor who informed me that the puncture was not bad, but the nail may have broken my foot. Surgery I thought (though it ended up being a bad bruise).
Second, medical professionals are people and I have social anxiety. These situations amount to going to someone when I’m…deficient in some way and asking for their help. People will tell me, “It’s their job,” but anyone who worked retail or food service knows the difference between “customer service is my job” and “not this person again.” It’s not that I don’t trust medical professionals to do their job; it’s a fear that they’re doing it begrudgingly because I’m a pain for their day.
This is perhaps most evident with dental work. I have made mention in the past of having self-image issues, but I dance around the specifics because calling further attention to those specifics worries me. I’ll break that rule here and tell you that my teeth are a huge part of the problem. I hate them, and a significant portion of it was self-inflicted. I did not take proper care when I was young and only made it through by the grace of dental professionals (plus, my anxiety continues to drive clenching and grinding). My teeth are healthy, but after years of fillings and a pair of root canals.
I find the problem bad enough when interacting with any person in life. The dentist and their staff though? I am going to a place where they will pay specific attention to my teeth. People who are experts in teeth and look at them all day. Sure, I know they see worse teeth than mine, but they also see far, far better. My teeth might pass the test with the average person on the street, but they’ll see all the work.
Things got better over the years, but for a time it was common for me to go to a six-month cleaning and come out with a list of needed repairs. I might have seen the dentist six or eight times a year at one point. They always did their job, but I knew they had to feel like, “This kid again.”
Visits today, especially if to a new dentist, are a complex mix of, “Hi! I’m extremely anxious. Like, to the point that I’m worried it might interfere with the visit. I passed out one time. And that’s unfortunate because, well, I’m no Hollywood A-lister here. I’ve clearly had a lot of work and even if I take immaculate care of my teeth now, I will need more work in the future to maintain it. So, part of me doesn’t want to tell you any of this and just sit quietly, straining as you work on an area that is a little sensitive because I’m already complicating your day.”
An important factor here is that despite everything I just described, health matters and those professionals matter. For example, I may hate going to the dentist because of my anxiety, but I do not hate dentists or their staff. When I was a child I understood dental health as keeping your teeth clean. The truth is that so much of one’s overall health connects with that – cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive. Relying on professionals even for basic services provides such a boost to one’s health that I feel tremendous guilt over my anxiety (which is why I force myself to go even when the anxiety is doing everything in its power to stop me).