"The doctor’s appointment that rescued my mental health"

Jennifer Savin
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

From Cosmopolitan

To celebrate the NHS' 72nd anniversary on 5 July, Cosmopolitan writers are sharing what the NHS has meant to them.

“You’re a pretty, young girl with your whole life ahead of you. What are you crying for?” Dr Rose* said bluntly. My grey-haired family GP, who had seen me through chicken pox and sprained ankles, surveyed me from behind his half-moon glasses. Suddenly the back of my neck grew hot. I looked down at my hands resting in my lap, the nail beds picked apart, trying desperately to not cry again.

At the age of eighteen – just two years after taking an overdose of painkillers – my mental health had once again slid back into the “dark place”. I couldn’t pinpoint why it happened, but my mood swings felt far more intense than the average teenager's. My brain would regularly fixate on conversations I’d had during the day, ruminating on them at night-time to the point where it stopped me sleeping.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned

I’d feel so anxious about a casual comment I’d made in my English class earlier that day, that it was all I thought about for hours and hours afterwards. I was convinced that I always said the wrong thing and felt worthless. One minute I loved my boyfriend intensely, the next I saw no future for us and felt as though I’d been coloured in with a grey felt tip.

Now, after carrying the emotional turmoil around for months, I'd poured it all out to my doctor – and was completely crushed by his response. I left empty-handed, too embarrassed to push for a therapy referral or to ask if there was any medication which might help me. Dr Rose could see my medical file, he knew my history (and my parents, meaning it had been especially daunting to come and see him), but instead he glossed over all that and sent me on my way.

Luckily, in time I found better support through my university’s doctor and developed coping mechanisms in CBT (and came off the combined pill, which helped somewhat), but Dr Rose’s belittling of my mental health problems left a deep scar.

For years, my brain continued not to cooperate with me – hopping from all-consuming health anxiety to full-on, can’t-leave-my-bed depression – and every time I went to see a GP (never Dr Rose though) it was an experience I dreaded. Many were helpful, referring me on to other services or prescribing pills, but the appointments often felt rushed and clinical. Until, when I was in my mid-twenties and everything turned dark again - crying myself to sleep at night without being able to explain why - my boyfriend told me I had to seek help.

At first, I put up a fight, saying that I always left the doctor's surgery feeling like an inconvenience and an embarrassing time-waster. An attention-seeker who just needed to ‘get over it’. Feeling the way Dr Rose had made me, when I sat in front of him all those years ago. But my partner wouldn’t take no for an answer. Our relationship was at rock bottom, it took every ounce of effort in my body to get through the day at work. There was no doubt that I needed different pills, talking therapy, something.

Together, we registered at a new surgery and I tentatively made an appointment. When the day rolled around, my mouth was typically dry, and my mind clouded. I deliberately tried to make us late, but my boyfriend ordered us an Uber and on the journey we made notes on my phone of all the symptoms I’d been experiencing and for how long. I needed to be prepared for when that crucial moment came, and whoever it was I’d been booked in to see (since living in London I’ve never seen the same doctor twice) would ask, “What brings you here today?”

Photo credit: Elan Irving - Getty Images

When I walked into Dr Nicolette’s* room, phone gripped tightly, she immediately gave me the warmest of smiles. She looked tired, her dark hair scraped back into a ponytail, but welcoming. I sat down, wary. Then came the moment: she asked what I’d come to see her for. But for once, I didn’t hear the panic sirens fire in my head – instead it was as though we were old friends, simply having a catch up over coffee, and one of us happened to be going through a rough time.

She made it feel as though she genuinely wanted to know what I’d been experiencing, and even though there’s such huge pressure on the NHS that appointment times are short, she didn’t rush me. Dr Nicolette nodded and empathised as everything came tumbling out. She murmured sympathetically, tilted her head to one side in concern and said, “It sounds really difficult, you did the right thing coming in today.”

She wrote me out a prescription, then on some paper jotted down how I could self-refer for therapy (like a couple of her colleagues had done for me in the past), but it didn't feel so impersonal. It was as though she’d shone a spotlight on me and totally understood everything I was saying. I wasn’t an inconvenience; I couldn’t help how I felt or snap my fingers and ‘get over it’. It didn’t matter how old I was or what I looked like.

When I stood up to leave her office, I swallowed the seeming house brick that had formed in my throat and thanked Dr Nicolette for taking me seriously. “It really means a lot,” I managed to get out. She smiled in return and gave a sincere, “You’re welcome.” I walked out of the surgery feeling hopeful.

I dutifully took my medicine and attended therapy, then overhauled my diet and non-existent exercise routine. I started to treat myself more gently, in the same way Dr Nicolette had. Touch wood, but since that appointment two years ago, even when life has felt difficult (and it really has, what with experiencing my first big bereavement), my mental health has never slipped back into the same darkness as it used to. I have tools in my arsenal now, to stop it from happening before it’s too late – but should that change, I’ll no longer feel afraid of going to the GP. That's all thanks to Dr Nicolette.

*Names have been changed

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