Tears at the Doctor’s Office
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Profile photo of Anna Eidt

Picture this:

You are diligently preparing to meet your new headache specialist. You’ve heard they are the best in town, you’ve waited over a year for this appointment, and you are desperate to reduce the severity of your migraine attacks. 

Because you want to make an excellent first impression, you sit down to write out an overview of your recent medical history, current medications, and a list of questions. You make sure you have no other commitments the day of your appointment, and you even ask a friend to book time off work so you will have support for the journey in case you are unwell.

The big day comes. You get up early, eat a well-balanced, non-triggering breakfast, take your pills, breath deeply, and prepare to present yourself as the rational, honest, dutiful person that you are. You promise yourself that you will not cry this time.

Meeting a new doctor can be a stressful experience; especially for patients who have been previously dismissed, talked down to, or made to feel as if the pain is somehow their fault. Some of us have even been treated as “drug-seekers,” “difficult patients,” or simply told that there’s nothing else that can be done.

Unfortunately, these situations are all too common. Research has shown again1 and again2 that many doctors hold biases which lead them to undertreat and/or misdiagnose female patients with pain. To make matters worse, migraine comes with it’s own special subset of stereotypes. So-called “migraine personalities,” (which are brilliantly explored in Joanna Kempner’s new book3) often depict women with migraine as perpetuating, or even causing their own suffering, labeling any apparent psychological or emotional distress as the root cause of the pain.

Thankfully, things are changing. Many doctors, and particularly migraine specialists, understand that while stress and emotions have the potential to trigger or exacerbate pain, the root cause of migraine (although still poorly understood) has to do with brain chemistry and genetic factors. However, some docs are still living in the 60s, and many of us, in the year 2015, still feel pressure to present ourselves as anything but the emotional housewife with psychosomatic tendencies in order to receive adequate care.

Now picture this:

After much anticipation, the day of your appointment arrives. You navigate the trigger-ridden journey to the doctor’s office. You are feeling okay. You are prepared. While you are afraid of being disappointed yet again, you know trying a new doctor is the right thing. You are doing the right thing.

After an hour or two (or three) in the waiting room, your name is called. You meet your new doctor. She is kind and thorough. She asks questions about frequency, severity, and treatments, and you answer as articulately as you can. You’re doing great.

Then, the conversation relaxes. She asks what you do for a living. [Uh-oh. There’s that lump in your throat.] Well… I’m currently on sick leave. I used to teach music. [Uh oh. Uh oh.] I’d like to be able to teach music again.

[Cue the waterworks.]

For me, It turned out that no amount of preparation could deter the emotional explosion that came with divulging the most difficult aspects of my life. It’s no walk in the park to sit down with a total stranger and offer a comprehensive overview of your pain and how it affects you, all the while desperately hoping that they might have the power to help. No wonder I cried!

I am incredibly fortunate to have found a migraine specialist who listens, cares, and works hard to provide individualized care. Not only did she take my tears in stride, but also handed me a box of tissues while continuing to treat me like a totally normal person in need of compassionate medical treatment. This appointment, contrary to past experiences that were nothing short of traumatizing, has helped me to see that crying in the doctor’s office is nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about.

I am not hysterical; I am in pain.

For future appointments, I will make no promises about holding back the tears. In fact, I will bring my own tissues, and if I feel judged or dismissed in any way by my doctors, I pledge to – in the words of Teri Robert – “Fire their sorry butts!”4

view references
  1. Hoffmann, DE, Tarzian, AJ. The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain. SSRN Electronic Journal SSRN Journal. 2001.
  2. Relieving pain in America a blueprint for transforming prevention, care, education, and research. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press; 2011.
  3. Kempner, JL. Not tonight: migraine and the politics of gender and health. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press; 2014.
  4. Robert, T. Living well with migraine disease and headaches: what your doctor doesn't tell you-- that you need to know. New York: Collins; 2005:104.
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