I have adolescent patients who feel ashamed when they tell me they are depressed or anxious. I gently ask, “Would you feel ashamed if you had asthma and needed to start an inhaler medicine?” No, they say. OK, I say, then let’s start talking about your mental health and what we can do to help you feel better.
I’ve been a practicing Pediatrician for 15 years now. I like to pride myself on trying to make a positive difference in my patients’ lives, no matter how small. I like to help them see how important they are, not because of what they do or how they perform, but because of who they are as a person.
I try to teach my patients that the mind is not separate from the body. I have explained countless times how fear, anxiety, and shame can present as tummy aches, headaches, or eating difficulties. Our mental health is just a piece of our whole-body health, but it is no less important than our respiratory health or our heart health.
The truth is that I fully understand where their shame comes from. Our society still looks at mental illness as a weakness and therefore something to be ashamed of. I, too, struggled with this shame for many years.
You see, I am a doctor with a mental illness.
My eating disorder started in college as I struggled to numb the feelings that engulfed me after I was raped. Restricting my food intake gave me a feeling of being in control when life was feeling entirely out of control. I was on scholarship, playing Division I college basketball, living the dream that I had worked so hard to attain. How could I possibly be depressed? I should be happy, shouldn’t I? I told myself that I just needed to work harder, and so I did.
Fast forward five years to my first year of Medical School. I worked so hard to get here. How can I feel so incredibly sad and alone when I’m living my dream of becoming a doctor? I shouldn’t be depressed, I told myself. And yet, I was. I didn’t know how to ask for help, or even that it was “OK” to ask for help. I told myself that I just needed to work harder. And then, the wheels fell off.
I was a first year Pediatric Resident feeling lost and overwhelmed with the process of learning how to care for sick children. I was officially a “doctor”, and yet I felt I didn’t have near enough knowledge or experience to justify this title in front of my name. The ever-changing responsibilities of being a Resident felt frightening to say the least. My weight dropped dangerously low, and my depression was no longer something I could hide. I was advised to take a leave of absence from training and it was suggested that I enter a treatment clinic for eating disorders.
Treatment? Doctors shouldn’t need treatment, I told myself. Doctors are supposed to treat others, not need treatment themselves! I was the ultimate failure in my own mind. Little did I know how that “failure” would start to transform my life in amazing ways.
Fast forward 15 years. Those years included multiple relapses, hospitalizations and tears. Those years also include countless joys, thrills, relationships, and the beginnings of living a peaceful life. Being in recovery has allowed me to truly be ALIVE:
- To allow myself to feel all of my feelings without the need to judge them
- To accept my whole self, with all my strengths and weaknesses
- To love myself
- To allow others to choose to love me
- To trust myself and to trust that I have always been enough
Life has become amazing as I strive to live it in the present, not beating myself up for the past, or worrying endlessly about the future. On a daily basis, I try to behave in a way that demonstrates this peace and acceptance for my patients. I want them to know that they can have peace too, no matter the challenges placed in front of them.
Mental illness is just that, an illness. It is not who you are! And yes, doctors can have mental illnesses, too.
Dr. Linda Steiner shares:
I am a pediatrician who lives in Bend, Oregon with my husband and dog Boomer. I write about mental health because it is what allows us to feel whole and connected. And we are all connected.