Dear Doctor, Pain is Not a Competition

When I was at university the medical intervention I received for my mental health was limited and sporadic. The doctor at the student health clinic was understanding and did what he could with his limited resources but I was only one of thousands of students and he had to meet the health needs of everyone. As a result, during my three years at university I was prescribed four different types of antidepressants but received only 8 hours of counselling which was all student health was able to offer me.

My tutor was worried that my mental health was in such a bad place I wouldn’t be able to complete my degree and so she referred me to a psychiatrist, hoping that he would be able to arrange some more in-depth psychotherapy for me, or at least an extended course of counselling .

This is my letter to him.

Dear Doctor

After three years of antidepressants and intermittent counselling I saw our meeting as a possible chance to finally begin my journey of healing. I knew that such a journey would be long and difficult but I hoped that you might be able to help me make the first step in the right direction and discover the tools that I would need along the way.

The appointment began in the same way as every appointment with every healthcare professional I’d had before (or since) with you asking me to start at the beginning, to tell you about the events I thought might have triggered my depression. So I told you about the day I got my A level results; the day when my dreams of being a doctor died and I had no idea what to do next or how to carry on with my life.

This may sound rather dramatic but those results were everything to me and without them I was no longer sure who I was. The failure to achieve the grades that I needed was more than just disappointment; everything I had done for the last two years had been in preparation for this moment and now it all seemed to have been for nothing. In the morning I knew I was going to be a doctor and by the afternoon I was no one, just a sad little nobody surrounded by people celebrating the beginning of the next chapter in their lives while I tried to find my way out of the darkness that seemed to have taken over my mind.

I have always been honest about my mental health and the possible triggers for it, learning almost immediately that I couldn’t expect anyone to help me if I didn’t tell them the whole truth. Speaking so candidly is difficult; each time I have to explain my history to someone new it rips open wounds that sometimes have barely had a chance to heal and I have to relive the darkest and most difficult times of my life. It is painful, exhausting and stirs up a whole host of negative emotions that sometimes takes me days to recover from.

But I carry on, each and every time, leaving nothing out, no matter how much pain it brings with it and how much shame I feel about the person I have become because I still carry the faintest hope that one day I might heal.

Hope that you nearly destroyed.

I told you about the worst thing that had ever happened to me and do you remember what you said?

You said it didn’t sound that bad.

Clearly not a life changing event.

Definitely not something to still be upset about.

I stopped mid-sentence when you said that, unable to believe that someone in a position of trust could possibly have said something so cruel. I felt dizzy and sick, trying to grasp the meaning of what you had just said as my mind reeled at the implication of your words. I had told about the most painful experience of my life and you utterly dismissed what I was trying to tell you as unimportant; so unworthy of your time that I didn’t even need to finish my sentence.

You took that pain and threw it back at me because it didn’t meet your criteria of what a ‘life event’ was.

I don’t remember anything else from that appointment other than your recommendation to my tutor that I wasn’t in need of any further therapy and should stop dwelling on the past.

Six years later and I am still unwell.

Eleven years of illness for which I am only now getting the help that I need.

Since our one (and only) meeting I have qualified as a nurse, married, become a mother and found out a little bit about who I am, not who I think I’m supposed to be.

I have battled with an unexpected pregnancy, severe antenatal depression, suicidal thoughts and self harm.

I have made peace with my failure, set myself on a different career path and discovered my true vocation as a nurse.

I have come so far.

Yet I can still see you dismissing my words with a contemptuous glance and a flick of your hand.

Still hear the impatience and irritation in your voice.

I may not have fitted into a neat little box with a definitive label that clearly described the reason for my depression and would somehow make it worthy of treatment in your eyes. I was not divorced or bereaved or bankrupt, I hadn’t been made redundant or homeless or diagnosed with a life-changing physical illness but I was still suffering. Yet you dismissed my reasons in less than a minute and made me feel as though my pain was nothing.

No, worse than nothing.

You made me feel as though it was shameful, as though I had somehow fabricated an illness from pain that I had no right to feel.

You had no right to make me feel that way.

But you did it anyway.

With a few dismissive words you almost had me convinced that this illness that had taken control of my mind and my body was something that I had created through self pity and weakness. As though I could have somehow avoided it if I’d just tried harder or been better, thoughts that still whisper to me now and that I’ve lived with for so long I now believe inherently.

Looking back now, older and wiser as I am, I realise that you should have known better than to treat me as you did but the younger version of me left that appointment convinced that I was a truly despicable person.

How dare I claim to be suffering and then waste time and resources that I clearly didn’t need when so many other people had lived through far worse things than me?

But pain is not a competition, with winners who crowned for suffering the most and runners up who are politely applauded for participating but who ultimately receive nothing. There is no set statute of laws and values that dictate how much pain someone is entitled to, no grading scale that allows someone else to decree which person’s pain is more worthy. Indeed there are some people who develop depression with no discernible trigger at all but who suffer just as much as someone who has an definite cause for their illness, which apparently their pain and grief acceptable to others who refuse to understand.

Over the years I have learned to let your words go but sometimes I wonder whether you have damaged other people in the way that you did me. Whether they have also learned to let go or whether after meeting with you they stopped seeking help because you made them feel as though the reasons behind their pain were unworthy too.

Yours Sincerely


2 thoughts on “Dear Doctor, Pain is Not a Competition

  1. Leigh Kendall says:

    I’m so sorry lovely. Pain is subjective, not a competition. Sadly I have personal experience if similar attitudes. It makes me so cross – for you and for everyone else affected. It’s not acceptable xx


  2. Dawn says:

    I can so relate to your story…iv been battling with depression and anxiety for 10years, and like you in the early stages I went to my doctor…for help support and advise..only to be told to move on with my life and get over it. I left feeling numb sole destroyed and worse than before.
    I since saw another doctor who referred me a physiotherapist and after my first consultation was told that I needed 5years of therapy to deal with my past!!
    These doctors cause more harm than good…they are general practisioners and not experts in any particular field…so please if you are suffering in such a way…and don’t receive the help…please please go elsewhere..x


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