I survived both the mean orthopedic surgeon and the gruff orthopedic surgeon who put his full weight down my spine, making sure that I wasn’t allergic to the rods which fused my twelve vertebrae. It then took a month to lie on my back without excruciating pain. I survived the absent-minded X-ray technician at Berkeley who exposed my breasts and ovaries to too much radiation, the old wizened orthopedic surgeon who believed I wasn’t making shit up but subjected me to a ten-day spinal tap headache. I survived the physiatrist whose treatment set me back at least a year, the hematologist, the ophthalmologist, and the older orthopedist who said I couldn’t have fibromyalgia because it “only happens to middle aged women.” I survived all the invasive tests and I survived the stunt double nurse from Misery. I survived the nasty neurologist who escorted my parents and me out of his office after we asked about possible pinched nerves and pernicious anemia.
But I had yet to meet the man who gave me Iatrogenic PTSD.
“You’re not Humpty Dumpty. You’re still standing and in one piece.”
I looked at the young, short, George Stephanopoulos-look-alike from my horizontal vantage point. I was lying my newly 20-year-old body completely straight on the crisp white paper laid out for me, feeling like a rotten nubile skeleton, ready to be wrapped up and served to the Macabre.
Actually, I’m not still standing, I wanted to say to him. I couldn’t even stand for ten minutes at a time. After envying the purple gossamer in Alanis Morissette’s hair on a late-night talk show, Artemis helped me put some ethereal rock and roll in my hair. Purple was my favorite color, so we peroxided strips of my dark hair before putting in the Manic Panic “Amethyst Ashes.” Since I could not sit during the process, due to my strained back below my spinal fusion, I stood and then strained my standing muscles, which I didn’t even know was possible. The purple transmogrified quickly and I was left with hideous orange stripes on my head. Tigers would have run far away from me, thinking I was a cheap pitiful knockoff, at best.
But I didn’t say anything; Dr. Typhon did not like women to speak. I had already learned that most doctors did not believe or respect women, especially young women.
My illness put my life in limbo. I was 19 and would always remain 19 years old in certain ways. I hurt my back on January 13th and dropped out of University of California at Berkeley at the end of February. It was now late November.
Ten minutes earlier, I finally got my “official diagnosis” of fibromyalgia. I already knew I had it, though, when my great-aunt had sent me an article titled “When Muscles Don’t Heal.” Now my great-aunt’s guess was confirmed. Dr. Typhon told me that with his help as a “coach,” my illness would become manageable and I would live a normal life.
“You’ll be back at Berkeley in a year,” he told me.
“Really?” I nearly shrieked in disbelief. Hope swirled into my eyes as I met the doctor’s gaze, mouth agape.
What most doctors don’t know is that at a patient’s most vulnerable state, the doctor has the power of a shaman. Even if a physician cannot diagnose a patient, the respect and attitude they show towards the patient can completely alter their physical and emotional health.
“How far are you able to walk?” he asked me.
“Well, before the setback in May, I was walking one and a half miles—”
“We’re not going to talk about the past. We’re only looking forward and talking about what you can do right now.”
I was a bit startled by his brusqueness. I took a breath. “I can walk one block.”
“Okay,” he said but did not write anything down.
I told him I used to swim, too. But he would not listen to my past history of how easily I would get injured and strain my muscles. I thought it was important for him to understand the uniqueness of my muscles and nerve pain, for not all patients are the same. I wanted to explain to him I felt like rabid rats were chewing the nerves from the fingers to my neck to ravage my eyeballs.
The day I was diagnosed was my 20th birthday. After we drove home from the appointment, I modeled for the camera, holding a single red rose from the bouquet my father bought me, posing and pointing my toes in the living room, kitchen, and bedroom. I posed happily with folded arms in front of my unmade bed and my teddy bear of 20 years. In the background were two posters of Guns N’ Roses in their hairspray and heroin years. A Kandinsky poster I purchased from the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art while my mom and I were visiting NYU was mounted beside a picture of Jane’s Addiction I cut out from Rolling Stone magazine.
After the first appointment, I felt so content the rest of the day, belting out songs from the 1982 Annie soundtrack. The song “Maybe” put me in touch with my cautious yet dreamy optimism that everything would be okay and I would get to live a normal life. When I experienced the crescendos of my mystery pain, I would become obsessed with the song “Sandy.” Its melody and emotive nature comforted me, as I was beyond frightened at what my body was doing to me. I had random numbness in my face, headaches almost every day, sharp demonic stabs in my back, and nerve pain in my arms that prevented me from holding books. I had tingling, vacillating to dull pain in my eyeballs when I bent my neck to read or write. I was small and shrinking quickly. My weight plummeted from 120 pounds to 99 pounds in 5 months.
I reverted to being childlike when I got home from Berkeley, no longer a woman with the confidence and independence I had so recently gained as a college student. A scared child with Mommy and Daddy trying to save me from the monstrous pain that stole away my ability to even microwave my own food or walk across the bedroom to get socks from the drawer or change the dial on my radio. I wasn’t able to do much but talk at this time. Sometimes in bed, my entire body hurt so much that I felt like I was a live flayed eel being prepared for sushi. My pain was slicing away milestones I was meant to reach as an adult.
“How are you doing?”
I was sitting on the examination table with crossed legs that were too small for the velvet leggings that covered them. “My arms have been hurting more.”
“I cannot hold books. Writing hurts. It’s the nerve pain.” I pointed to the direction the nerve pain would go, starting in my fingers, going up to my shoulders.
“Reading and writing have always been her two favorite things to do,” my mom chimed in with grief. She was sitting in a chair to my left. She was always there to support me at every appointment. I wasn’t able to drive anymore, so she had to drive me, too.
“And we’ve tried putting weights on the books to hold them open while I’m sitting and also put pages on music stands but –
“Well, you’re never going to get anywhere with that kind of negative attitude,” Typhon snapped.
My heart started pounding.
“You need to focus on what you can do.”
“Okay,” I said softly. “Well, um, let’s see…” My mind went blank trying to think of the awesome things about chronic pain. “I’ve been doing isometric neck exercises and the heat in the Jacuzzi keeps me from getting a headache every day.”
“Good, but your get-up-and-go spirit is lacking. You need to know that you can go back to UC Berkeley. When I mentioned that at your last appointment, you were shocked at the very thought of it. I mean, you got into Berkeley! That took a lot of fire in your soul to get in. You’d be failing yourself to quit.”
I nodded, crestfallen, looking away.
“You can do it. I am your coach. You have to work with me. If you believe you can, it will happen.”
What was this, The Secret? Also, he told me at the first appointment that fibromyalgia wasn’t psychological; this was a physical ailment, but now he was telling me there was a huge mental component. He then told me fibromyalgia was linked to low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. He prescribed me Prozac to help with the reuptake inhibitors. I had told my few remaining friends at Berkeley about the Prozac and they were relieved, in a way. They dismissed my condition as “hysteria,” for they could not fathom their own young muscles violently malfunctioning.
Why is he making this about mental health and motivation? I’d been there, tried that, a dozen times over. But I still took everything he said to heart because he was the “expert” on fibromyalgia. He was the one my parents and I were looking to guide us, with desperation and ache in our hearts.
I went home to cry. It was my fault I wasn’t getting better. But I was trying to do the best I could. I was more motivated than I’d ever been. If Typhon thinks I can get better and go back to school, it must be true.
“How was your Christmas?” he asked us. “Probably not great,” he added.
“It was okay,” I responded. I hated when health professionals asked me how my Christmas was or if I was excited about Christmas. I was Jewish and had never celebrated it. I learned that it was futile in this town to tell them I was Jewish because they would either ask a bunch of questions or tell me they never met a Jew before. I wasn’t there for their education; I was just trying to get my teeth cleaned or get the medicine I needed. We always lived in the boondocks. I was finally living in a town that had more Jews but still only made up .05% of the population.
“I need to talk to your parents,” Dr. Typhon said.
My heart started pounding. What is going on?
“I need to talk to them alone. Please wait in the lobby.”
I was 20 years old, a full-grown adult. This was unethical. I should’ve refused to let him do that and should have told him that anything he needed to tell them, he could say to me. Nonetheless, I complied because his voice was urgent and authoritative. I was also physically unable to sit in a chair in the lobby. Did he forget about my sitting difficulties? Or did he not believe I had them? The mat we brought to my appointments was left tucked into the corner of the office. He opened the door to rush me out. I realized he had no idea of the scale of my pain and was quick to dismiss any of my unconventional special needs.
I walked back to the lobby to splay my limbs out on the thin carpet of the faculty office with the rest of the patients staring at me. After my spine felt like it was getting bruised and my hipbones felt aflame every time I shifted to either side, I stood up and returned to find my parents and Dr. Typhon. I wanted to say I was too uncomfortable waiting out there without my mat.
I knocked on the door and then opened it. “Am I interrupting?” I tried to be polite.
“No, actually, your timing is impeccable. We just finished up,” Dr. Typhon said.
His compliment distracted me from my grievance. I sat back up at the table and lay on my side, grateful for the padding to relieve the bone pain.
“As I was telling your parents, you need to make an appointment with a psychiatrist within 72 hours. You are severely, clinically depressed.”
I log-rolled back into a sitting position on the table. Severely depressed? I was a bit confused. “Actually, I am already seeing a psychologist. His name is Dr. Piepgrass. I have been seeing him for, like, eight months.” I was very open and honest with my psychologist. I cried often — I made him cry. Not on purpose, of course. It was a bit bizarre to watch a middle-aged man cry in front of me. At this point in my life, neither parent had openly expressed their emotions to my face like he did.
He said, “No, you need a real physician. An M.D. Dr. Mielke is a colleague of mine. He comes highly recommended. Dr. Mielke will treat your depression and your symptoms will be much improved.”
Wow, I am so depressed that I didn’t even know I was depressed! I just believed him. He held the answers to fibromyalgia as if he were a wizard, even if he was a bit disrespectful in his demeanor.
Later, I called up Artemis to give her the update.
She seemed surprised. “You seem happy you’re ‘very very’ depressed.”
“Well, yes. It means if I tackle this depression I didn’t know I had, I will finally start my journey back to health.”
“Okay,” she said in a neutral tone. “Crossing my fingers for you.”
Continue to “The Brunet Part II”
About the Author
Tamara Hattis is a writer and collage artist in Redlands, California. Her art and poetry have previously been published in The Sand Canyon Review, Ghost Town Literary Magazine, The Deaf Poets Society, Incandescent Mind (Sadie Girl Press), Cholla Needles Magazine, and Wordgathering. She published her first full-length poetry collection/memoir in 2019 titled Colors of My Pain, which documents her adult life with chronic pain. Her work is also featured on her website Tamilani.com and she can be followed on her Instagram page @tamarahattis.
Tamara Hattis’s art, “Barbie Bubble,” is published in this issue of Wordgathering.