Don’t say this to me again, doctor!

I’ve been ill. Yes, it’s still the same illness I described two months ago. I hope  I’m getting better, though. This time. Over what is now over 3 months I have seen 5 doctors (in two countries) in over 10 consultations. But one of those conversations stuck in my mind. Two things were said and I should not have heard them.So, as I was still feeling unwell, about a month I decided (again) to see a doctor. As I was telling him (again!) about the whole story, he looked at me and said something like:

But, I promise you, you’re healthy.

I collapsed when I heard this. I am feeling really unwell and I have for weeks and he is telling me I am healthy. Like really!?!?! Feeling week and generally losing the will to live, I challenged it. Getting more and more irritated, I was telling the doctor that I was feeling ill. And then I heard:

Why are you looking for an illness in you?

This was unexpected, my jaw dropped. I started frantically looking for options. I could either go all-out against, challenge the doctor fully (with all the risks involved) or agree to (watchfully) wait. I decided to go for the latter.

There were three reasons for it. First, I was feeling too unwell, weak, depressed. I really didn’t have the strength, I also started considering the risks (see below). Second, I actually like and respect the doctor. I am fairly certain that on the whole he means well – I didn’t want an all-out war with him. Even though grudgingly (it was too ‘put my mind at rest), he also did give in a bit and decided to do some more tests. That said, as I was leaving the surgery, I was feeling much worse. I went for help, but not only did I not get it, but in the process I was pathologised into imagining things. I hated it. I should not have heard either of the things above.

So, above is my experience. Here is the linguist’s take. Let’s consider the first utterance:

I promise you, you’re healthy.

There are two aspects of this utterance. One is that it is a promise. After a tweet from David Oliver,  I dislike promises even more. You cannot promise me that I am healthy.  Putting it differently, you cannot speak to me with the certainty of the promise. It’s not within your gift.

But I also understand that this promise was supposed to reassure me. It’s precisely the certainty of the promise that was supposed to put ‘my mind at rest’. And yet there was nothing intoxicating about it, this was reassurance which was not reassuring, as Jonathon Tomlinson wrote. I felt so unwell that the difference between ‘You’re healthy.” and my feeling could not be bridged. And, secondly, I really don’t like promises.

Still, I could see the way the promise was well meaning. But was the second utterance?  The second utterance was… exactly, what was it? What do you mean when you say:

Why are you looking for an illness in you?

At the level of the obvious it is a question. Yet, it’s one of those questions that is not supposed to be answered. I was not supposed to say : “Oh, it’s because I really want to be ill.” or “Oh, I am so sorry, I have just realised I shouldn’t be doing it.”  But if not, what was it?

There is no easy answer to this – there is no evidence. But I can say how I interpreted it. And I read it as a warning and a two-pronged one.  On the one hand, the warning was about the interaction ‘here and now’, something like: “You’re out of line.”. I was to stop challenging, moaning, pestering. Basically, to shut up.  But, on the other hand, the warning was also something like: “You’re losing it.”.  I was to get a grip, stop the hysterics, the moaning. Was there an “Or else” in the warning? Perhaps not. But then I didn’t really need one, I saw the risks myself.

And so, in sum, by getting me to shut up and pathologising me, the warning was undermining me. I was no longer to be trusted, at least by the doctor.  Was this what the doctor meant? I don’t know. I hope he didn’t. Perhaps it was just a remark off the cuff, without thinking.

Is that it? No, I’m afraid not. These two little things have consequences. I am very disappointed how easy it is to pathologise me or to ask me to shut up, because I disagree. Will it have impact on our relationship? I don’t know, but I will certainly be more cautious. It seems my ‘narrative’ is welcome only to a point.

Moreover, as an academic I have for some time been writing about doctors’ power. Over the last 3 months I have had the opportunity to experience as I never have, really. At full strength. And here I am, a professor, middle aged, middle class and still I was just slapped back into my place. Yes, it’s more nuanced and complicated, yet, at the end of the day I was a patient whose ‘hysterics’ were punished. I could do very little about it. Yes, it was an interesting lesson, but it was also a painful one. Still, I think that it’s worth sharing it.


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