Find a person who lives with a chronic illness, and you’ve found a person who likely has a story about a doctor who has wronged her.
I was a third-year teacher and my already-chronic migraines had begun spiraling out of control. I sat in my new neurologist’s office, involved in the most ridiculous conversation I’ve ever had. He had just handed me several boxes of eletriptan samples (a common migraine abortive drug) even though I already had a prescription.
“Isn’t it bad to take more than nine triptans a month because it can cause rebound headaches?” I protested.
“Yes,” he agreed. But basically his rationale was, “It’s not the smartest thing to do. But you say you are getting bad headaches almost every day, and this will help. So take it.”
I remember sliding the stack of little blue boxes across his oak desk in defiance, “Well if you say it’s unsmart, I am not going to do it.”
He slid the little blue boxes back to me, holding his ground that this wasn’t the “smartest” thing to do, but that I should just do it anyways.
Several minutes into this absurd back-and-forth, small frustrated tears formed in my eyes. I expressed that I already felt so helpless due to my increasing pain, and that this was just making it all so much more confusing.
His response was to first recommend psychiatric help. I remember his cold, sharp words, “I can probably help you with the headaches, but I can’t help you with your emotions” (turns out, he couldn’t help me with either!). He also called in his secretary to “see if he was making sense” with his entirely contradictory advice. At this point — it was all a blur. The clearly uncomfortable blonde lady watched me sob as the neurologist repeated his ramblings. I had never been so humiliated.
While this was certainly the climax, this was not the only time I felt degraded by this guy. Don’t ask me why I continued to see him for months afterwards — I can barely devise a logical explanation beyond extreme desperation. I remember months later, he had told me that it seems like the migraines were getting better despite me telling him they were not getting better at all. His office notes even regurgitate this illogical sentiment! Was it because I hadn’t cried in his office again and seemed “sane” that he assumed I was all better? I suppose if I show emotion, I am just “crazy” and my pain shouldn’t be taken seriously. And if I don’t appear that I am hurting, then I’m probably not that sick to begin with, and once again, my pain shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Clearly, I have pent-up resentment, even though this all took place over a year ago. When I walk through the events in my mind, I feel such extreme anger. There is only one possible solution I can attempt in order to relieve such intensely ugly feelings, and it’s going to be really really hard: I have to forgive him. In my mind, I have already obsessively ran through all of the reasons I should hate him — and sure, many are totally justified. But it’s probably only fair that I give the other side a shot and run through some bigger reasons to forgive the doctors who hurt us.
1. All humans need and rely upon forgiveness.
I may not have made a 24-year-old woman cry in my office by condescending her, but I’ve done many other things that need forgiving. Often when I am in pain, I lash out at people who love me and are only trying to help. I retort their positivity with sarcasm and pick fights. Often I have to remind myself of my mantra: Being in pain does not give you the right to be a jerk. Then I have to apologize.
But my doctor never apologized, so he doesn’t deserve my forgiveness, you may be thinking.
Have you apologized to every single person you’ve ever done something wrong to? I do my best, but the other night, as I laid in bed, I realized something nasty I said about another girl back in middle school. And for whatever reason, it took 12 entire years for me to remember, realize just how ugly it was, and feel badly for it. Now I hope and assume that girl isn’t lying in bed also, and hating me for what I did. And what a beautiful assumption to be able to make — that there comes a point where you can let things go even if that person didn’t explicitly apologize. Time makes it easier to forgive, but if we could condense the process, I think we’d all be a lot less anxious and angry.
And another point — even when we do apologize, do we ever really deserve forgiveness? I know that sounds harsh, but think about it. I’m sure we can all think of more serious wrongs we’ve done to people we love. Hopefully some of those people have forgiven us — but do those people actually owe us that? When we knowingly do something selfish or unfair to another human, do we really ever deserve her forgiveness? Often times when I am forgiven, I am grateful, but still feel a little guilt. I feel like I still owe that person something, and that’s probably because I don’t totally deserve to be absolved — I still did that wrong thing and I can never take it back.
Maybe the best way to expel guilt for your wrongdoings is to forgive someone else’s wrongdoings. Maybe that’s how we settle these debts. The question isn’t: Does my doctor deserve my forgiveness? The question is: Will I forgive my doctor anyway?
2. Our medical system is broken, and that’s probably not the doctor’s fault.
As a former teacher, I am afraid of where our education system is headed. Kids often barely know how to read. Schools seem to never have enough staff or resources. And parents often bully teachers when their precious angel child is failing because she never does her homework. An individual teacher may be phenomenal, but he is working within a broken system and his power will always be limited. Teachers have to follow the rules of the district, even when they are illogical and counterproductive. Teachers can’t force parents to care about their child’s education. Teachers can do some good, but can’t fix everything for everyone.
I think I need to recognize the same thing is going on for doctors within our medical system. My neurologist did try many tests to identify the problem, but everything was normal. He had run through the gambit. And while assuming your patient must just be emotionally unstable when you can’t fix her pain is highly arrogant, he was probably just out of guesses.
When a doctor fails to find a root cause, they may unfortunately just throw a myriad of medications your way to suppress the symptoms. I constantly ask doctors things like, could it be Lyme? Could it be related to my celiac disease? Could it be the foods I am eating? What I receive in response is always the same: “Probably not. Let’s try this medication next.”
But here’s the thing: that is all the doctors know to do for me. They went to medical school and learned finite information about how the body works. If your doctor has already tested for all the diseases and everything looks normal, he simply does not know the root cause. Also, medical conditions are segregated based upon specialist practices — as frustrating as it is, a neurologist knows very little about celiac disease. And for whatever reason, no medical doctor has been able to help me with nutrition or elimination diets in the slightest — clearly that’s not in their tool bag either. At this point, all they know is that a person is still reporting great suffering and so maybe one of these medications (that they did learn about in medical school) will help them feel better.
I am sure if my neurologist had had a magic wand to heal all my health problems, he’d wave it in an instant (and not just to get rid of me). I obviously wouldn’t have hesitated waving my education wand if it would have helped my students. I think we need to remember that doctors genuinely do want you to feel better. They’re doing all they know to do within a broken system. Their intentions are likely pure even if their actions and words are sometimes misguided.
3. You deserve peace of mind and are capable of achieving this through forgiveness.
Forgiveness is often difficult when people really poke at our wounds. I think the reason my neurologist offended me so deeply is because I was concerned about my own pscyhological health. My headaches kept getting worse and worse, my OCD was having flare-ups as a result, and a little part of me was wondering: Maybe this is what going crazy feels like. My neurologist had confirmed this hypothesis and confused me even more, and that really hurt; he unknowingly preyed upon my deepest insecurities.
Just like applying hydrogen peroxide and a Band-aid to a bad cut, we need to tend to our psychological wounds, too. A good way of starting to do so is remembering you deserve peace. Think of the daily battles you face, living with chronic illness. Think of how brave you are, dealing with sickness, fatigue, and pain day-in and day-out. You are clearly tough as hell, which means forgiving your doctor is just another hurdle. It’s a challenge, no doubt, but letting go of that little black ball of hate can free your heart for more productive and positive experiences.
As many have already discussed, not allowing your chronic illness define you is key. Similarly, not allowing your emotions– especially hate, anger, and hurt — define you is as equally important. We may not be in control of our illnesses. We are certainly not in control of the doctors who sometimes do more harm than good. But we still have full control over our beliefs, attitudes, and actions — and I strive to exercise this control in a way I can feel proud of.
Editor’s note: June’s My Mighty Month challenge is practicing forgiveness. Click here to join the challenge.
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