As luck would have it, the day before I was due to file this piece I ended up the emergency room with my ten-year-old daughter. She was burning up, had stomach pains. The fever clocked in at forty degrees. They took pieces of her away for testing. They stuck needles in her. I sat by her bed and we put our heads very close to the TV remote’s speaker and from time to time, people came to make sure she was okay. And she was. The tests confirmed it, reassured us.
Our local hospital is just minutes down the road. My children were born there. Another child was miscarried there, in the middle of the night in the short-stay ward. I find comfort in the hospital. It has participated in so many critical moments in my life, good and bad. I feel protected by it, by its strange octagonal wards and its trays of slop and its persistent, perpetual hum.
My GP is a kind, sensible man. Sitting in his waiting room is calming: here I am, on the first step of my recovery from the illness I’m sure I now have. Recently I visited him with a couple of random pains: a funny kind of pins and needles, a hot patch on my leg. He asked me if I’d experienced others. Had I had headaches? How was my sex drive? My eyesight?
‘Well,’ he said finally, ‘I think you might have Multiple Sclerosis.’ He smiled while he said it, like it was an inevitable and hilarious joke. He sent me away for some blood tests. ‘This one is abnormal,’ he said, on my return. ‘You’ll have to have an MRI.’
To say I am a claustrophobic person would be to commit atrocities in understatement. There was a period of my life when I didn’t go in a lift for six years. And an MRI takes place in a kind of piece of PVC piping just big enough for your shoulders to squeeze through, which would be bad enough except that they also strap down your head and put a needle in your arm. ‘Some people have an anaphylactic reaction to the contrast dye,’ they say, as they cruelly lever you into the machine. ‘If you feel like you can’t breathe, press the buzzer.’
I always feel like I can’t breathe, I want to tell them. How am I supposed to know the difference?
The first time I went to have my MRI, I didn’t even get changed. I stood in the little room in my jeans and put my head against the mirror and cried (in that respect, it was a lot like buying new bathers). The technician was very kind. ‘Lots of people can’t do it on their first try.’ And so, I was comforted. If it were urgent, if there were really something wrong with me, they would have insisted.
The second time I went to have my MRI, I took my therapist with me. That’s the kind of person I am, the kind who has a therapist who comes with her to things that her brain can’t process. I had the needle put in my hand. It was fine. I was fine. But the technician from the first time had become convinced of my ineptitude. Instead of encouragement, she dished me reason after reason why I wouldn’t be able to do it. ‘She’s wrong,’ my therapist said. ‘She’s a bully.’ But I was humiliated, and the dissonance I experienced was extreme: ‘Fuck her, I can do it!’ with major undertones of ‘I am terrified.’ I lay down on the machine. They hooked the IV line up to the dye that would certainly kill me. I got out of the machine.
‘Lots of people find it difficult,’ she said. ‘You should take a sedative next time.’
The third time I went to have my MRI, I was fully prepared. I had done hypnotherapy, meditation, and the other kind of therapy which is to carry a packet of valium in your handbag. ‘This time,’ the technician said, and pushed a needle into a vein that immediately collapsed. The bruising was instant, the blood abundant. She tried again, in my arm. Missed. Swore. She found a doctor who felt around for another, drew a line in texta where the needle should go and, I assume, crossed his fingers. Blood pooled on the floor. The hysterical technician started shouting: ‘She's going to faint! You're going to faint! Don’t try to sit up!’ She buzzed and flapped. I thought of my hypnotherapy, my meditation.
By the time they lay me down on the machine, I was a quivering wreck – but a determined one. They hooked up the dye line. They strapped down my head. And the technician chose that moment to lean in to me and say, ‘If you don’t do it this time, you can’t come back.’
I got out of the machine. I haven’t tried again.
Last week I went back to my endocrinologist, threw myself at his mercy. ‘I can’t do it,’ I said. ‘I can’t do the MRI.’ He stared at me. He wrote a referral for a CT scan and more blood tests.
‘You don’t need to,’ he said. ‘One in thirty people I refer for an MRI won’t even go into the building.’
They don’t tell you this. You have to ask.
The ability to pick and choose medical testing is reserved for people who are mostly able and mostly middle-class. It cost me $400 to spend eight minutes in the specialist’s office. It cost another $450 to not have an MRI. This kind of testing is a privilege awarded to those who don’t need it. It’s a clarification of the things that aren’t wrong, a way of finding out how well you are, not how sick. For me, medical testing has been for reassurance, not diagnosis. Ruling things out, not in.
I’ve been to the hospital three times in the past two months. You may be noticing a theme developing. The trouble with anxiety is that it manifests as symptoms of death. I’ve never once had a panic attack and thought, ‘Gosh, I really feel like I might be dancing.’ Anxiety symptoms are shortness of breath, dizziness, body weakness, chest pain. Anxiety is shortness of breath, that sensation that you can’t quite get the oxygen in all the way. Anxiety is dizziness, an inability to hold firmly to the world as it spins. Anxiety is chest pain, constriction from your ribs into your throat. Each episode of panic is a tiny, gruesome insight into your inevitable doom.
Not to labour the point. Anxiety feels like dying.
I wake up some mornings and the pain is unbearable: a crunching in my ribs, my larynx closed in. I deliberate. I ask Twitter: how do you know when it’s ‘just chest pain’ and not ‘a heart attack’? The ads say to get it checked out. The ads say come in. The ads say you can never be too careful.
The expressions on the triage nurses say otherwise.
Three times in the past two months I have gone in to my local emergency department and I have sat on a vinyl chair and I have said, ‘My chest hurts.’ And for a couple of minutes, a nurse has treated me as an actual risk. Where is the pain? How long has it been there? Do you have any medical conditions?
I’ve said it with apology: ‘I do have anxiety.’
I’ve been sent to the back of the queue. And rightly, because they are symptoms brought on by stress and anxiety. The doctors have very kindly ordered blood tests and chest x-rays, sought answers to allay my fears. I’ve sat behind a curtain on a portable bed and listened to the sounds of other people’s emergencies: the voice over the intercom call for every single doctor to attend a Code Blue on the ward for someone’s ending. And I’ve been comforted by knowing that I’m not a Code Blue, that I haven’t crashed, that the machine says I’m still breathing. On those days the emergencies have moved around me and I have not been one of them.
I’ve sat in that temporary, moveable room, an entire room in an emergency department filled with people who might actually be dying, and thought, ‘Maybe this is the time.’ Knowing, with almost absolute certainty, that it was not.
Twelve years ago my then-fiancé drove me to the very same emergency department. We were twenty, and we had a five-day-old baby, and while breastfeeding her that morning I had gone blind. ‘She can’t see,’ he said. ‘You need to do something.’ And our baby cried in his arms. There were no beds. I had anxiety. A red circle on the page around ‘ANXIETY DISORDER’.
For eleven hours, I sat in the corridor and ran my finger around the wrinkled palm of my tiny daughter. A calm had come over me. My very real symptom – my undeniable, inescapable blindness – was the very first experience I’d had of a physiological output caused by something instead of nothing. And after they had shuffled all the Level-5 patients into the wards, they came back to me, in my cocoon of darkness, and they put me in an ambulance. They said words like ‘stroke’ and ‘tumour’ and the sirens screamed down St Kilda Road and in the car trailing behind us, my newborn cried.
I had an MRI, then. I got in the machine and listened to it pound like saucepans against my brain. I waited in the emergency room in a bed behind a curtain and I knew, I knew, that someone would be along to tell me I was dying. But they didn’t. They discharged me with a migraine. I was well, and the tests proved it.
The relief of a clear result lasts a few days. At first, I am invincible; I have nothing to fear. Then, they have missed something; they have done the wrong test. After that, I am sick again; I’ve become sick since the last test was done. I need a new test, a better test, a more comprehensive test. I need someone to remind me that they haven’t found anything wrong with me yet.
Last week, when my daughter was released from hospital and we packed up our things, I talked to the nurse. ‘You were right to bring her in,’ she said. ‘I hope you’re reassured.’ And I am. For now.