Patients are dismissed, women, in particular, are viewed as exaggerators, neurotic… sometimes waiting years for real answers
At age 24, I begin to gain weight.
So what? The thing is, I don’t understand why. I’m not doing anything different. Working out, eating the same, thyroid levels and meds were good. I ultimately gain over 70 pounds! I hate everyone. Especially doctors.
I start bringing my husband to appointments with me, desperate to “prove” I wasn’t lying when I gave my H&P to physicians, to have someone else there to back me up when I tell them my diet and exercise regimen in the face of the number the scale gives.
This goes on for almost FOUR years with no answers.
Only accusations rolled eyes, and “eat less, exercise more”.
By November 2002, I am barely eating any food and doing over an hour a day at the gym, tipping the scale at 204 pounds.
My husband weighs 157 pounds.
I am so ashamed. At 5 feet six inches tall, I look like a ball.
My husband says he doesn’t care, he really and honestly doesn’t seem to.
A headache comes at the beginning of December 2002.
It will not go away. A veteran of migraines since 1st grade, I ignore it for a couple of weeks.
A massage doesn’t help.
Chiropractor 3 times.
My chiro tells me to go to the doctor.
I tell my doctor about the headache, that it had been going on a month nonstop. I had sullenly accepted my weight at this point, and refuse to even look at the scale when I go to appointments.
He orders a CT since “this is different from all the previous headaches you have had”.
Christmas is right around the corner, and I am depressed because I am so fat and it’s the holidays.
Food is a forbidden topic around me when it used to bring joy, as I am a gourmet cook.
Almost cancel the CT, but my husband forces me to keep the appointment. Never been to the ER in my life at this point. I work in medicine and I think it’s a waste of money we can’t afford.
What the Hell is That?
I know the radiology tech in the CT clinic. He is a sweetheart.
I work in the other major doctor’s clinic in the city, and he comes in frequently to bring patients in for scans, as the hospital is practically next door to the clinic.
He sets me up in the machine, does a series of images without contrast, then shoots me up with contrast.
We laugh as he warns me about the side effects.
“Remember, you aren’t really peeing your pants,” he says, with a laugh.
I groan and roll my eyes. “I forgot about that and the contrast. It’s so weird!”
“This will be short,” he says, and enters the booth.
After a few minutes, he races back in and stands beside me.
“Heather, you have to go back to Dr. T’s office immediately, as soon as you get dressed,” he says urgently.
I am lying there and was wondering at that very moment how fat I looked on that table.
It’s so bizarre how much headspace your freaking weight takes up once it becomes a real issue in your life.
How much time you waste obsessing.
I snap back to reality.
“What?” I say. “Say again?”
He is nervous and shifting his weight foot to foot.
“I like you. We are friends… I can get in trouble.”
He looks over his shoulder as if someone is going to appear and drag him off.
“I can’t say anything to you. I like and respect you too much.”
He shakes his head. “Just… here, look. Get dressed and come over here and look.”
I sit up and say, “But I have four kids! I have four kids!” My voice cracks.
I mouth the words again, silently.
His eyes are huge and worried. “I know.”
He takes out my IV quickly in silence and returns to the control room, as I tremble on the table.
I get dressed in lightning speed and race into the control room with him. There on the screen is my brain in grayscale. A huge white blob is in the middle of my frontal lobes.
I point at it with a shaking finger.
“That isn’t supposed to be there, right?” I whisper.
“No.” He shakes his head. He looks at me. I feel faint.
“What is it?” I say fearfully. My voice is shaky.
He says, “I swear to you, I don’t know for sure. I would tell you, I promise to God, I would if I knew. It might be an aneurysm.” He looks thoughtfully at the screen.
I trust him. He is very smart, and he knows his stuff. He has worked here for over ten years, and he has seen it all.
I ask the dread question, “Is it brain cancer?”
He says, “I actually don’t think so, or if it is, it’s very new because I don’t see any infiltration.”
I believe him. I take a deep breath, and slowly let it out.
“Okay,” I say.
Dodging a Bullet
It is a meningioma, a benign tumor of the tissues covering my brain. They grow slowly and aren’t discovered until they start causing issues.
It is wedged between my frontal lobes like a diamond between two breasts.
Everyone apparently is amazed I haven’t had a seizure yet. My neurosurgeon speculates it began growing 4 — 5 years prior.
This factoid gives me a cold chill. An icy finger drags down my spine.
“Is this why I became a disgusting, fat pig?” I ask bluntly.
He stares at me, my characteristic directness taking him aback. I guess he isn’t used to it.
“I wouldn’t want to say,” is his careful answer.
Classic. God forbid you to admit this is why.
Then someone may have their ass in a sling for dismissing my very real anguish and grief over my situation all these years, huh, doc?
Bitter at Life
After my successful surgery, I am taking high doses of a powerful steroid to reduce brain swelling for six long months.
In addition, I am forbidden to do any strenuous exercise that could raise my intracranial pressure.
The combination of the two send my weight into previously unknown heights.
I am bitter and more angry over this injustice than I thought possible.
I am so grateful for my luck in that it wasn’t cancer and it was treatable, please understand. It’s just so complicated.
Additionally, I am bald with a “headband” scar across the top of my head.
My long, spiral curls, the only thing I felt I had left that was beautiful about me, were shaved completely off for the surgery.
My humiliation is complete at this point.
A fat, bald woman, with a Nightmare before Christmas stitch on her head, ear to ear.
People think I am choosing to have my hair like this.
No. I wish I could wear a sign that proclaims, “This isn’t me!”
I wear my chip on my shoulder like Mount Everest. I glower at everyone.
Fuck you is my face to the world.
I had resting fuck you face.
Only in private with my husband and kids do I let my guard down.
My kids are active in many activities, so I have to drag myself to cheer, soccer, concerts…
I am a nuclear warhead, glowing with my anger and outrage, this is my life.
Do NOT Cue Inspirational Music
I wish I could write a really inspiring, Rocky-esque ending.
I would be lying.
It was hard work.
It was sacrifice.
I came off my medicine. Nothing happened.
Great. I reassessed my options.
I contacted a friend of mine, a gym rat, and asked his advice. He put me in touch with a friend of his who was a personal trainer and did exercise programs via email. He “introduced” us and vouched for me.
After a few email exchanges, I ordered a 12-week program of nutritional and exercise training. I had never consulted an expert before. I was too ashamed to go in person. This worked out perfectly.
It was easier to type my statistics into an email than to face an actual trainer at the gym.
This guy even sent videos with his programs to show proper form.
The people he trained had at least basic gym knowledge.
This was pre-big social media. I think MySpace was just starting up. Forums and chats online only.
I was scared, nervous. What if this was my normal? Forever?
I received my first twelve-week program. I immediately emailed my trainer:
Do I have to eat this much food, really? This seems excessive to me.
The ratios looked good. Protein/fat/carbs. Carbs were the “good kind”. This guy at least knew his stuff. No fake sweeteners.
I added a few thoughts, confident in my assessment of the program.
5 years, millions of calories counted & words read & pounds weighed & weights lifted at the gym in my fruitless quest? I knew what I was talking about.
I had fallen into extremely disordered eating at this point, and I was sticking to it.
(I hesitate to call my behavior an actual eating disorder because I shy away from self-diagnosis of these kinds of things — judge it as you will. Extremely unhealthy eating and major issues for sure… there is no way I would have seen a professional- however, I had told every physician I saw in those 5 years my real eating patterns and no one said a word.).
A few minutes later, to my surprise, a reply:
Yes, based on the information you gave me, this is appropriate. I know you are afraid. How about this? Just give me 6 weeks? We should see a definite change by then. If we don’t, I will refund your money, and you can walk away. Deal? Please trust me. I won’t let you down.
Reading this, my eyes filled.
No one had said words like this to me throughout this whole thing. NO ONE.
“I know you are afraid”.
“Please trust me. I won’t let you down”.
I imagined a hand reaching to me, as though asking for me to shake it.
“Okay,” I whispered, to myself. I carefully typed my assent and hit send.
It. Was. Tough.
I force fed myself these little meals. I had been starving myself so long, it almost made me cry to do it.
I was shaking with anxiety, eating the first week.
However, I have always been a person of promises. I had given my trainer a promise.
It wasn’t as though I was sitting around doing nothing.
I had to go to the gym.
Another gigantic mountain to climb, because I was very obese, out of shape woman going into a gym full of extremely fit men to work out every day.
I found the best time to go was around 9:30 AM, which seemed to have the least traffic of extremely fit men, at least.
I set my jaw and did it four days a week. My programs were interesting and intense.
I was absorbed in my form, my reps, doing them properly and in the right cadence. I found I didn’t give a crap who was watching any more after a couple of workouts.
In truth, no one ever was. I just was so self-conscious and had convinced myself I lived in a spotlight of my own imagining.
Pretty conceited, truthfully.
On the other three days of the week, my trainer was on the cutting edge of fitness at that time. It was before this hit mainstream.
I was to do my own version of high-intensity interval training. (HIIT)
Sprints and walks for 30 minutes choreographed the way he said.
It sucked, but I did them — twice a week — and just went for distance walks once a week for an hour.
At the end of Week one, I approached the scale in the women’s locker room at the gym with tears.
I was supposed to do weekly weigh-ins for the first 12 weeks anyway.
My heart was going a mile a minute. I had not seen my weight go down in over 5 years.
I stepped on with my eyes screwed tight shut. I began the bargain.
Look, you could have gained with all that food. You do feel better. So don’t freak out. Look at how nice your legs are starting to just look and feel already.
I looked down and my weight had dropped 13 pounds in one week. I didn’t believe my eyes.
I got off and got back on and checked again.
I went out in the common and asked a woman at the sink to check her weight to see if it was broken. She smiled and went to investigate.
Laughing, she reported it was not!
I burst into tears. She became tearful herself when she realized how much it meant to me.
I was free. The monkey was off my back.
After 9 months of training, 3 separate 12-week programs, I hit my goal and have more or less stayed there.
Even with pregnancies — and I must say that the pregnancies have messed with me somewhat mentally.
However, I repeat to myself that I am in charge and I am not going to be left alone to deal with any issue by myself.
How many women?
How many physicians?
How many of us total, women AND men are left to deal with this kind of issue by ourselves?
Told it is all in our heads? Told we are “eating too much”? Told we are “not active enough”?
How many of us are gaslighted about our sudden weight gain when it really isn’t our damn faults?
The damage this ignorance and dismissive attitude did to my life…
I lost half of my twenties to this. I will never get those years back.
How many of us are given medications that cause weight gain and are told they do not?
I am here to say “I believe you.”
It happened to me.
I am so sorry if this has happened to you or is happening to you now.
I don’t have the answers, but you are not alone.
Medicine has changed to become industrialized and as long as we do not stand our ground and say, “No, this is not acceptable.” …it will continue to happen.
If I were the woman I am now, when this happened to me then, I would have stood my ground all those years ago.
I would have said, “No. This is not normal. I appreciate that you have patients that you believe that with- but this isn’t me and I am very concerned. Is there anything you can check that would shed light on this?”
Pushed, pushed, pushed, and then pushed.
Until I was heard.
Take my strength and use it if you need it.
Don’t accept less when you are the one paying for the service, paying the bills, paying for the consultation.
You wouldn’t accept any less from any other service industry.
Don’t accept less when it comes to your very life.