When physical disability and mental ill-health collide: ‘At least we know now you’re not making it up’

Guest post by Philippa Willitts

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PhilippaWillittsPeople often see that I walk with crutches and ask me how I became disabled. “I mean,” they laugh, “it’s not like you just woke up like this one morning!”

The weird thing, though, is that I did. I just didn’t know what it signified.

I woke up one morning and my left leg was tingling from my knee to my foot. I figured I’d slept strangely and just got on with my day but when, a week later, nothing had changed, I went to my GP.

He examined me and agreed that I had probably slept on a nerve and bruised it, so told me to come back two weeks later if I still had the problem. Two weeks later I was not only still tingling on that left leg and foot, it had started in my right leg and foot, too.

It was starting to affect the way I walked and was showing no signs of disappearing so my GP referred me to a neurologist. I saw her a few weeks later, by which time I was starting to experience pain as well, and a lot of the tingling was turning into total numbness.

Things started happening. The neurologist ordered a million tests to check whether I was diabetic (nope), or alcoholic (nope) or B12 deficient (nope). She spoke to pharmacists to see whether any of my existing medications could cause this. Every test was negative so she sent me to have nerve conduction tests, which I duly did. A few weeks later I got a letter saying that the nerve conduction tests showed that I had nerve damage in my legs but that it was an unusual presentation and they did not know why it was there.

Not quite sure what this meant, I went back to the GP, an old-school kind of chap close to retirement, to see if he could explain to me what they had found. He explained that now that we knew the nerves were damaged, the next stage would be to work out how and why they had been damaged, and that the neurologist would take the next steps.

On my way out of the room, he said, “Anyway, at least we know now you’re not making it up.”

I froze. I knew exactly what he was getting at. The long list of psychiatric drugs on my meds list and a long history of various manifestations of madness meant he had thought I had invented some weird symptoms. Why? Who knows? But he had believed that was the case until the needles stuck into my muscles proved otherwise.

I hadn’t known until that moment that he had thought I was lying.

It wasn’t the first time I had experienced this kind of attitude. Many years earlier, aged about 18, I went to a different GP about some awful headaches I was having. Annoyed, he said, “You take antidepressants, don’t you? It will be stress!”

He ushered me out of the room with no examination and no further questions. An instant exclusion. He could not take me seriously because I was struggling with my mood. Every physical symptom had to be based on that.

Then, a few years ago, I started vomiting every morning. As an emetophobe, this is pretty much my worst nightmare but, aside from a few blood tests, my doctors (different ones again) refused to do anything about it. Stress, they said. And maybe they were right, but it lasted a whole year. It certainly caused me stress. And I feel confident that if I did not have the history of mental ill-health that I do, it would have been investigated properly.

Not being believed and not being taken seriously are all-too-common experiences that those with a mental health history on their record face when experiencing physical health issues. The reality is that our life spans are shorter and we are more likely to have physical illnesses, in particular illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

The neurologist who took me seriously and ordered a gazillion tests apologised to me when I thanked her for not letting my mental health history overshadow these weird symptoms I was having. She apologised that I had ever been treated with scepticism and she apologised for her colleagues who had done that. She was shocked and she was disappointed that it had ever happened.

For me, it was – and is – normal. We must work towards a world where medical professionals take everyone seriously, taking mental health histories into account where they are relevant but not letting them get in the way of investigating physical illnesses as and when they occur.


Philippa Willitts is a freelance writer and proofreader who lives in the north of England. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram

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