Nov 11, 2010

The Shrink: To See or Not to See?

We all know that dysautonomia is a very real medical condition that causes debilitating physical symptoms. The numbers don't lie. A resting heart rate of over 120 beats per minute is rarely ever induced by anxiety, but rather a sign that something has most certainly gone awry in the body. Any reasonable doctor knows that.

It was beyond frustrating over three years ago when my old PCP, an airbrush-tanned and airheadish woman who didn't even attempt to listen to my heart with a stethoscope, wrote me a prescription for Zoloft, told me almost all young women my age suffer from severe stress and anxiety, and sent me on my way. It was even more frustrating when the Zoloft aggravated my cardiac symptoms and made sleep even more impossible to achieve for the week that I took it. After informing her that I would not be taking the Zoloft because I did not think I needed it, she finally humored me and listened to my heart with a stethoscope, and then sent me promptly to a cardiologist. At least she had sense enough to do that or I may have very well died under her care. Unfortunately, the aforementioned situation is all too familiar for POTS patients. We have all had to actively convince doctors that there is something real wrong with us. Thankfully I didn't have to wait too long to find a doctor who took my symptoms seriously. Nonetheless, before the official diagnosis, and even now, I still have selected family members telling me I need to get some "coping skills." Of course that angers me greatly on the inside considering I don't talk about my condition much at all with family because I don't want to be perceived as a complainer. So for the most part, I keep my struggles, thoughts and fears to myself and am guarded around certain relatives in particular. This blog has become my outlet for open sharing. And so has the online POTS community. I have met so many amazing and kind people afflicted with this strange and awful illness, and they have been my biggest and greatest support system. Pretty much the only way I know how to cope is to share with people who care.

On that note, I considered sharing my story with a total stranger (aka a shrink) for therapeutic purposes. As a communication major in college, one thing I learned about myself is that I scored quite high on the self-disclosiveness scale. I typically don't mind telling total strangers my life story. Getting sick at a young age has made me even more open in many ways. Being proper, guarded and reserved requires entirely too much effort on most days, so I am usually an open book. It's just easier that way. For some reason though, I still hesitated to visit a psychologist. Primarily because I didn't need another person just to listen to me ramble, quite frankly, I needed someone who would be willing to dispense advice and provide me with some tangible ways in which to cope with chronic illness.

I conducted some careful research and found a psychologist who I believe is my perfect match. She is not just an ordinary psychologist. She specializes in people dealing with chronic illness. Although she had never heard of POTS, she asked me all about it, had looked it up by our second appointment, and understood that it has many similar symptoms to those of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. She sees chronic fatigue and epilepsy patients most commonly. I was relieved to hear that she had seen patients with neurological conditions before. Her demeanor is very friendly and non-judgmental. She listens well. Her office is comfortable and inviting and she doesn't mind if I lay flat on the floor during our sessions if need be. Most importantly, she also recommends practical coping tactics. I will relay a recent difficult event or setback to her, and she will respond with ways in which I could choose to feel about it, or how to reframe certain negative situations into positives. For me, this is a helpful tactic, since POTS has seemingly put a damper on my once optimistic personality. She also reminds me about practicing "pacing" (basically her version of The Spoon Theory) and not feeling guilty about it. Pacing is something that I am hoping we will focus more on in future sessions. She seems to have some practical techniques when it comes to things like scheduling events or telling people "no" in tactful ways. These are the concepts I have needed to refine for a long time. I look forward to continuing my sessions and hope to gain the coping skills and life skills I need in order to live happily and productively with POTS.

So, my honest opinion is, anyone considering seeing a shrink should definitely do so. Worst case scenario, you have wasted an hour of time and will never return. Best case, you will find someone who understands your predicament and can provide objective and honest advice on how to cope with whatever life throws your way. If nothing else, the experience should provide you with some validation that you're not actually certifiably crazy. According to my psychologist, the emotions I'm experiencing are a normal and healthy response to dealing with chronic illness and she does not think I need psychiatric medication of any kind. It is refreshing and comforting to know that at least there's someone out there who recognizes that this condition is not all in our heads, as so many of us have been told repeatedly. Ignore the stereotypes associated with seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist. It does not imply insanity. All it means is that battling a chronic illness will even make the sanest individuals a little crazy. Sometimes we all need a little help in that department.

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