History Part 3 – Why Am I Sick?

We’re now in the early 1990’s. So, now I had medical insurance and could start down the path of a diagnosis and cure, or so I thought.

First stop, my first primary care physician. He was a younger doctor at the time, listed as an internal medicine specialist. I’d been having these digestive problems for about 5 years now – not getting better or worse – not sure of triggers. I explained my symptoms to the doctor. He noted my anxiety over a lack of conclusive diagnosis, treatment or lessening of symptoms. His first recommendation was to put me in therapy. I don’t mean physical therapy; I mean mental therapy. His deduction was that my digestive issues were either “in my head” or caused by anxiety (in retrospect, the illness was causing the anxiety).

So, I began seeing a therapist. That lasted for a couple of months, at which point it was abundantly clear that the therapist was doing nothing for my stomach and was genuinely reaching to try and treat something. I simply stopped going. It was a complete waste of time and money.

I went back to my primary doctor and told him how therapy went. His solution – he sent me to a psychiatrist. Okay, I went along with that and had a pleasant hour-long session with a psychiatrist. At the end of the hour the psychiatrist told me, “It would be unethical for me to treat you. Go back to your doctor and tell him you have a functional digestive disorder.” Back to the primary doctor I went. Finally, he agreed to refer me to a gastroenterologist. (This was back in the days when insurance required a referral from your primary to do virtually anything.)

My first consultation with a gastroenterologist was, not surprisingly, inconclusive. Based on symptoms, he felt it was not an ulcer, nor did I have evidence of a lower bowel disease. His generic pronouncement was “gastritis” and he offered to follow up with endoscopy. I declined the endoscopy because no one could tell me what good it would do beyond confirming the lack of ulcer which I had no symptoms of anyway.

A few years went by, my symptoms and illness not changing much. Insurance loosened up so I could see specialists without a referral. I went to a different gastroenterologist. His questions were along these lines – “Are you vomiting? No. Are you passing blood in stool? No. Are you losing weight uncontrollably? No. Okay, then there’s nothing seriously wrong with you. Why are you here?” He at least ran an upper GI series on me, which revealed an inflamed duodenum. His diagnosis, you guessed it, “gastritis” of unknown origin. His advice, “if you find a food that upsets your stomach, don’t eat it.” Ooookay. Big help there.

At this point, I’m almost ten years into the illness. Symptoms are stable and consistent, but still flare up several times per week and disable me for hours at a time.

Western medicine had disappointed me. Let’s try Eastern. I found a good acupuncturist and went for a number of sessions. It was a really fascinating experience and talking to the doctor was pleasant and enlightening. However, after months of treatments, there was still no fundamental change in my digestive woes, so I stopped seeing the acupuncturist. Apparently, moving my Qi around and unblocking channels didn’t do the trick.

Since I was basically getting by with whatever I had and not dying from some horrible illness, my anxiety eased up and I essentially just learned to live with my weird problem. My friends and coworkers knew about it and we just had to work around my flare ups. Whenever I switched to a new primary doctor and explained my medical history and symptoms, I got strange, puzzled looks. They could see from my files that several gastroenterologists had examined me and concluded I had nothing serious. I’m not quite sure what they thought of me.

This essentially brings us up to about 2003, at which point I’d been sick for 16 years. Stop and think what 16 years of bad nausea every few days would feel like. Not so good, huh?

It was then, through mostly random chance, and a little careful selection, that I found a new primary care doctor who had clue what was wrong with me. That will be the story for my next blog post.