Tears at the Doctor’s Office
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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.

Migraine sterotypes

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!

Finding a migraine specialist who understands

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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33 comments on “Tears at the Doctor’s Office

  1. redsox72 says:

    But I have to add that the NP at my PCP’s office is understanding. She sees me at 8 AM with sunglasses on because I had to fast for bloodwork that day and couldn’t have caffeine or food. She knows I’m not faking either. There is one NP at the practice who treats us all like drug seekers, so we avoid him. He’s young and thinks he can fix it all. Sorry pal, it’s not working.

  2. redsox72 says:

    I had one doctor who didn’t look at me sideways. He said he couldn’t prove it, but he thought I was having mini seizures. No, not the kind that forces you to be on meds and give up your drivers license But he was kind and he LISTENED! Then he moved across the country. I refuse to go to another specialist. Thank God I have a nursing background because my PCP trusts me to sift through the medical jargon and handle things appropriately. Tears at the specialist? You betcha. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. About 25 years ago I went to a PCP to see if he would fit my families needs. He wrote out the script for migraine meds and I read it. He then said I was drug seeking! Nope. I know how to read scripts and I always make sure that it’s written correctly. And I never returned to him again.

  3. emily says:

    i just found this website and it’s making me feel so much less alone. thank you thank you please keep posting such relatable things

  4. Been there way too many times, so now avoid going to doctors as often as possible. Triggers, crying, and allowing them to “see” the impact of what chronic stress, pain, or circumstances did not make me better. Instead made me know that going to doctors for anything has wasted money, time, and actually prolonged unwellness. until becoming a proactive patient in advocating for my personal health, well being was blocked. So I pray and “cry” and the healing process–process continues with or without entering a do tora office.

  5. “Doctors” not do tora stupid spell check on stupid smart phone

  6. Tracy Grant says:

    I love the way you think. 🙂 Fire their sorry butts! haha. I am thinking about going to another Dr. I really like my one, but he’s very drug orientated. Since my migraines are mainly hormonally induced, I have heard of another Dr that is a woman who is interested in women’s issues and hormones. Worth a crack. Never hurts to get a second opinion. And we shouldn’t be worried about offending our main doctors. We pay them! I am slowly learning to ditch the guilt. 🙂

  7. Sarah says:

    I have yet to cry at the doctor’s office. But I’ve been quick to learn that I’ve gotten really lucky with my doctors; not one of them has treated my migraine complaints as anything other than completely valid.

    My tears come most frequently when I’m on the phone with my mom…or near my sister…or my best guy friend. In fact, I cried yesterday (or was it the day before?) while discussing upcoming plans with my mom. Her health concerns are different than mine, but at least she understands that her bouncy, constantly on-the-go, oldest child can’t do that anymore. My sister grew up with my mom’s health being precarious at times, so my sister gets it as well. And my dad lives it daily. It’s the other family members who don’t get it and treat it (unintentionally, I’m sure) as if it isn’t a big deal…as if I shouldn’t be exhausted at the end of a normal day at work because I never have been before. My mom got to deal with the tears that she can’t fix as I let her know my worry and stress about the upcoming family trip out here and all that is potentially planned…and her answer was, “We’ll figure it out. You and I will leave whatever we are doing and go rest and leave the triggers behind if we have to. If they want to move on and ahead, then they can. We’ll meet back up later. It’s just the way it’s gotta be.”

    Anyway, the doctors, I’ve lucked out on. I met my PCP by accident…had gone into the clinic near me with a migraine…day 5 or 6 of it…and she not only listened to me, she walked me through all the different options available to me right then and trusted that I know my body better than she ever could. After a recent ER visit, she referred me to a neurologist that the nurse in her office had seen and liked. (We had opted to wait at the last appointment before the ER visit because she is newer to the area and although she knew of a migraine specialist…the drive was over an hour and a half away…and she wanted to see if she could find something closer and more convenient for me…which she did.) And he did the exact same thing as her. He listened…and then walked me through the options and what he wanted to start with at least…things that made logical sense to me and that he acknowledged may take some time to get to. And looking at all that right there…it’s enough to make me want to cry.

  8. MicheleKay says:

    Beautiful post. Thank you, Anna. I’m in tears right now. I relate.

  9. MicheleKay says:

    To clarify though, haven’t had bad experiences with doctors. I just relate to the other parts of the article. I also relate to several of the comments.

  10. Kiki says:

    I am excited about my upcoming December 7th appointment with a migraine specialist at a migraine clinic to which my current neurologist is referring me. I just was in the ER twice within 24 hours with the most horrible migraine and am sitting here now with the most horrible migraine hangover. This article hits home because I know I won’t be able to make it through that appointment without crying, my whole life and my family’s life is on hold while these migraines have control. I am counting the days to the appointment and am hoping this doctor can help me get these monsters under control and get my life back.

  11. Tracy Grant says:

    I know how you feel Kiki about your life being on hold. I have so many things I want to do, and I can’t and i am aware that my family have missed out on so many things because of migraine. I am learning to live in the day. I wake up and say ” ok – what can i do today?” I try not to plan too much in case I have to cancel stuff, but i am slowly learning that I cannot help the way i am, and people need to be more understanding of that. Including my family. I actually used to climb out of bed to take my teenagers places with a migraine. Now they bus. Look after yourself. Get what YOU need to cope with life. And on yr good days… live. Do something that makes you smile. A coffee with hubby out at a cafe, or sitting in the sun. I hope you get some help from the specialist for the pain side of things. 🙁

  12. mrst53 says:

    I have a great neuro doc, if anyone lives in Virginia, near the Shenandoah valley. He listens, you can e-mail him and he answers and he’s willing to try other things.

  13. JenWag says:

    When you wrote about doctors who are dismissive or talk down to you, I used to have that, but I decided to make changes. Now, my migraine specialist, my ENT and my Internist are all women. And the migraine spec. suffers from migraines. So I never feel that way any more. I highly recommend it.

  14. Anna Eidt author says:

    Glad you have found docs that work for you!

  15. Nancy Stein says:

    I cried when I read how YOU cried when talking about work. We would prefer to work; I love my job and all my friends are there! I’m still working, but with Chronic Migraine, Fibromyalgia and Hypothyroid I’m just not sure how much longer I’ll be able to do this…and the thought of leaving my job breaks my heart.

  16. Anna Eidt author says:

    Hi Nancy,

    Yes, I think many of us grieve our lost abilities and wish we could do more, but we must take care of ourselves and sometimes that means cutting back, or not working altogether. I hope you have lots of support moving forward.

  17. Maureen says:

    I have cried at the doctor’s office (It is a prodrome symptom and the lights at the office are a trigger.)and been hugged by my primary care physician. That is why I recommend her to my friends. And it is also why I wasn’t afraid to tell her when I preferred to stick with her for a while rather than go back to a neurologist who I felt had not helped. And later why I wasn’t afraid to tell her I was ready to see the headache specialists at Jefferson Hospital. The really great thing about her, though, was that her compassion toward me changed the opinion of another doctor in the office. He definitely had been treating me as a hypochondriac, melodramatic woman until he saw her treat me as a patient with valid concerns. It is worth it to find a doctor who listens and seems to care.

  18. Anna Eidt author says:

    YES! It is soooo worth it 🙂

  19. DD says:

    Here in the US you can always fire your doctor but people forget they can do that. I gave up on the private practice doctors and when into New York City to Columbia University Hospital (fortunately I live a short train ride away). It’s amazing the difference in the care the doctors at a teaching hospital give. At
    Columbia I was treated like a person
    from the front door. I can email the
    doctor and get a reply! It was the best
    decision. I’m not saying everyone has to go to New York City but there may be a good teaching hospital close to you that’s worth a try. The doctors there are some of the best in the world!

  20. dianamac says:

    How does one go about finding a headache specialist? I used to have a migraine every day for 2 years and my neurologist basically shrugged her shoulders and discharged me. My GP thinks I’m just exaggerating. I have about 12 migraines a month now. I went to a new neurologist and he just wanted to put me on Cymbalta and told me to exercise more. Then his office never followed up. I didn’t pursue things as I developed other health issues that were more immediate.

    So, I’d really like to find someone who specializes in migraines. I live in Ontario Canada. Any advice is welcome as I’m at a total loss!

  21. Anna Eidt author says:

    Hi there,

    Check out Women’s College Hospital Headache Clinic in Toronto if you can. They’re the best I know of in the area. http://www.womenscollegehospital.ca/programs-and-services/centre-for-headache

  22. barb says:

    I don’t know if the time/cost/trouble is worth it but I was a patient at U of M’s Headpain and Neurological Institute in Ann Arbor for years, and it was fabulous. I didn’t have insurance at the time and I would save my pennies to go there.

    The first visit they do fasting blood labs, give you a two hour lecture on headache/migraine, let you tour the place, and then you see your team that will always care for you (Dr., Nurses, Psych). On your first visit they do an EKG, order MRI’s to make sure no abnormal growths in the brain, have a session with a psychologist, and get an evaluation.

    I love my Dr. now but I’m entirely on the other end of the country otherwise I’d drive hours to get there. IIRC they said their average patient drives 250 miles to visit them!

  23. Stephanie says:

    Hey there! I live in Ontario too. I would suggest getting on the waitlist for the Women’s College. I can’t vouche personally, as I’ve been on the waitlist for a year and half (but I should get in by February), but everyone I’ve spoken to has had good things to say.
    If you’re desperate, and can’t wait that long (and don’t mind paying out of pocket), the DENT institute in Buffalo NY is really not bad to get to from Southern Ontario. I’ve driven there and back in one day from about an hour north of Toronto. Personally, I didn’t click with the doctor (he told me to learn what a migraine was and put me on feverfew without telling me people who are allergic to regweed shouldn’t take it) but it’s better than no doctor?

  24. Nonster says:

    Anna, thank you so much for courage to share with your new Doctor the emotional pain we all go through everyday. I have been crying since I read your article and it is a welcome release. I am SS Disability because of my migraines and having to give up my job at age 46 was a profound loss for me. Ten years later and I’m still crying about it. Thank you too for having the courage to share with us.

  25. Anna Eidt author says:

    Thank you for chiming in! So good to know we’re not alone in this…

  26. Christina says:

    Today is my first day here and this is the first thing I read. Thank you for writing that. It was like someone typed my thoughts and feelings. I think I’ve found a place I’ll be coming to often. For the first time in 8 years I don’t feel alone. The tears are flowing but I’m smiling and feeling an enormous amount of something that doesn’t seem to have a word right now but it’s very good.

  27. MicheleKay says:

    Me too Christina. This is my first article to respond to too. It really hits home for me especially today when I saw it and am really struggling. Peace.

  28. MicheleKay says:

    And to clarify, I haven’t had the bad doctors part of the article, but I relate to the other parts of it.

  29. ChronicM says:

    I am thankful for your post. When my 3rd neurologist finally made his way to my room for our 1st visit, and even though I had prepared just as you said, I was in so much pain I was certain to hyperventilate when he responded with, “you’re on disability for headaches?!?” Now he is a great doctor, it seems none of them understand. I left my 2nd meeting and my 2nd neurologist with a pigeon-toed swagger, a normality of stroke like episodes which I had earlier that morning, only to have her last words be “why are you walking like that?!?” Everyone is so eager to help and then they realize they cannot break my 7mo chronic & more times than not debilitating migraine streak – so I stand alone wondering if I do it to myself, feeling like I am fighting an epiphany when someone questions how I can be outdoors if I am in so much pain… It just is, I know when to hold ’em, when to walk away and when to run. I just wish I always know this is not my fault, I am not over embellishing anything and I will return to a socially acceptable way of living – I just do not know when and I just hope I can remember to be my own best friend and trust myself like you did. Good luck!

  30. Christina says:

    Hi ChronicM,
    I’m up but not because of pain this time; from reading here yesterday. I had a moment 3 years ago like Anna Eidt. The Internet has become a much more helpful place in the last few years. I was lucky to run across someone who sent me to another state and I went out of hope and options. Even though I still struggle daily, reading Anna’s post made me realize how lucky I am even though I still can’t give up looking for more to get my life back. Now, when I go to doctors, I not only have to defend myself, I have to fight the skepticism and accusations I confront when I tell a new doc why I’m seeing someone out of state. The assumption, of course, is I’m looking for meds. You will find a doctor who will validate what you’re going through and help you by, first, giving you a safe and understanding human being with whom you can totally be yourself, won’t ignore even one of your symptoms, will admit when he isn’t 100% sure of something but may call one day because he’s been mulling it over since seeing you. It’s a gift I hope and know you will find soon. He or she may not be able to find what cure is yours quickly but you’ll have someone who won’t give up. My thoughts have been with you since reading your post and I’m dreading going to one of my regular docs today who is a skeptic that I think is going to see me run away today. Thank you!

  31. Tammy Rome says:

    Beautifully written debut! So happy you found a caring doctor.

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