Many of you have seen my content diving into the mind-body connection. I am an advocate for the importance of mental health. I am a holistic healthcare provider who has dedicated her career to helping people manage pain using a mind-body approach. I spend a lot of time sharing through story-telling, the experiences of my patients and people I meet who have helped to shape my work. But today, in recognition of World Mental Health Day, I am telling you my story.
It was the summer after third year of university and I was juggling my familiar routine. On the surface, things were normal. I was living at home with my loving family, working my summer job running a window cleaning business, and taking a research course for my program. I was traveling back and forth on weekends to spend time with my boyfriend; I was practicing yoga five days a week. I was doing what I had been doing for the past year, filling every ounce of spare time with activity, filling every void with distraction.
It started as a urinary tract infection, something many women have experienced at one point or another over the course of their lives. My family doctor was away from his practice that summer, so I landed in a walk in clinic. A four-hour wait, a five-minute consultation and a course of antibiotics later, I was back at home. I had been ordered a seven-day prescription and read aloud the cautions of not completing the course of treatment. I was studying Biomedical Science, preparing for my MCAT to apply to medical school at the time, and was fully aware of the concept of antibiotic resistance. Within days of completing the prescription, I felt the familiar symptoms resurface and returned to the walk in clinic; a four-hour wait, a five-minute consultation, a course of antibiotics, and a hint of concern this time on my end for the proximity of these events. In the days that followed and by my third visit to the clinic, I was reciting to the receptionist my diagnosis and prescription needs, which still warranted a four-hour wait but this time I had questions for the doctor.
I was about to begin my third consecutive trial of antibiotics and by this time by body was feeling the effects of both my illness and my treatment. My healthy gut flora was diminished and my digestive system was now taking a toll. Upon expressing my concern for the repeating infections and seeking a possible explanation, I was given a well-rehearsed speech on hygiene habits and probable lack of cleanliness on my part. It appeared that this was not the first time this doctor had provided the advice to use proper hygiene following sexual activity and it was not the first time I had heard it. I felt ashamed and embarrassed, and as I stood waiting to pick up my medication racking my brain for changes to my cleanliness that could be making me ill, I couldn’t help but to feel that something was being missed.
Rounding off my third instalment of prescription antibiotics, I endured a humiliating yet pivotal moment in my career. I was working outside a customer’s home when I felt the pang of urgency come on. I knew the homeowners would be arriving momentarily and had convinced myself that I could hold it until then. The car pulled into the driveway, the key turned in the door, and moments before I could make it to the washroom, my bladder had overcome my mental work and I stood in the hallway wrapping my jacket around my waist, explaining that we would need to return the next day to complete the job. Declaring to my two male employees on the drive back to our city that work was cancelled for the day because I had wet myself was the precise moment when I knew my doctors had failed me.
The previous summer, I had volunteered one day a week at a naturopathic clinic in town and I called to make an appointment with the doctor I worked for. I suspected the interaction would be comparable to the ones I had previously, but hoped there would be less blame placed on my personal habits and an alternative to the antibiotics that did not appear to be retaining their effectiveness. What unfolded in that hour-long appointment forever changed the way I view healthcare. My doctor began by asking the complaint-driven questions I was primed for relating to urgency, burning, and blood in the urine – but then the questions became broader. What did a current day in my life look like? Had I endured any stressful events over the past year? How were things going in my relationship? I wondered why any of this mattered until I began to speak and then it was as if floodgates that had been holding back months and years of emotional trauma burst open and once the water began to flow, there was no stopping it.
I wept as I discussed events in recent months where I had suddenly and distressingly lost my connection to my childhood friends and been displaced from my living situation. I revealed the immense pressure I felt in owning and managing a business while taking on distance education, and trying to prepare my applications for medical school. I opened a door that had long been closed and discussed sexual abuse that I had faced as a child and the lasting consequences it appeared to have on my relationships. I wept and I spoke until the river inside of me was empty, and I looked up to see my doctor offering me the one thing that every other doctor had been missing; Compassion. She validated my experiences, and withdrew the previously applied blame. Her treatment was based off of her full and complete understanding of my picture of health and not limited to my seemingly susceptible bladder. She did prescribe me with a remedy for the UTIs, but more vitally, she created the space and asked the right questions. I felt as though a weight had been lifted. I was referred to a counselor, and prescribed supplements to counteract some of the hormonal changes that were being brought on by stress. As I walked out of the clinic, I felt like I already knew that would be the last UTI I would have that summer.
If you had asked me to explain this phenomenon to you a year prior, I would have claimed placebo effect. Let me first start by saying that I am an ally to medicine; I have always supported science and antibiotics as a proven and viable treatment for bacterial causes of illness. The value of modern medicine is immeasurable and its utility in treating disease must not be overlooked. But sometimes we simply need to use a wider lens, and to do so effectively we need more than five minutes and we need to provide a safe space and take a thorough history. Immunology has taught us that we can be exposed to a variety of pathogens and not necessarily fall ill. Why do we see young children and people of old age frequently getting sick? These sub-groups are particularly susceptible because their immune systems are compromised; exposure to the same virus or bacteria in a healthy adult that would easily be warded off, renders a baby or a geriatric ill. Psychology has taught us that being under a state of chronic stress compromises the immune system in much the same way. Our mental and emotional health thus cannot be separated from our physical health and needs to be addressed with the same degree of sincerity as the objective signs and symptoms of a physical complaint.
As a chiropractor and a yoga teacher, I honour the connection between the mind and body. I set aside what may seem like a long initial appointment; I do this to ensure I am providing the space and asking the right questions to best serve my patients. I offer them compassion first. I validate their experiences, expressing that pain is a variable entity that becomes even more complex with time. I capture their entire narrative so I can make appropriate referrals if I feel they would be best suited to be treated by another healthcare practitioner. The treatment I offer is ongoing, ever-changing, and unique to the person who stands in front of me, and their story that has brought them here. Every time I place my hands on a patient, I recognize the privilege I have been gifted with and the trust being instilled in me. I do not take my title for granted; I hold myself to the highest standard of care. I am granted the opportunity each day to offer patients the same benevolence that a doctor once offered me, and that makes every kind of day fulfilling.
**I wrote this article for a collaboration with Dr. Veronica Anderson, and it was published on LinkedIn last year. You can view the original piece here.**