Awkward conversations with doctors about the side effects of side effects

by Liora Halevi

Photo for article on conversations with doctors about side effects. Sepia close up photo of a woman's face. She is placing her finger over her mouth indicating 'be quiet'
Caption:

Shhh! Please listen to me, doctor!

Credit:

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

Conversations with doctors about side effects of medications shouldn’t be difficult or awkward but they often are. Before I found the magic dosage I’m on right now, I was a lab rat for several years. I went through six different antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, each with their own side effects, plus medications to treat the side effects, etc. It was a nightmare (also one of the side effects!)

When I was twenty-two, I gained a lot of weight from Cymbalta – pretty much overnight. I remember waking up in my college dorm room to find that none of my underwear fit. A month later, I was in the locker room at the gym and found my towel wouldn’t wrap all the way around my body. I had to buy new jeans twice in the span of three months because the old ones (and then the new ones) didn’t fit. After being skinny my whole life, I was not prepared for these tiny inconveniences. I knew I would struggle with how my body looked, and self-esteem, and I was ready for that. I practiced looking in the mirror and loving myself and accepting myself. But the side effects of being fat come from all directions.

Conversations with doctors about side effects: the one with the endocrinologist

For one, doctors. I had this conversation with an endocrinologist:

DOC: Are you a virgin?

ME: No.

DOC: OK, that means we can do an ultrasound.

ME: How is that related to sexual activity?

DOC: The probe is pretty big, it wouldn’t get past most women’s hymens.

ME: (To myself) So just because I have had sex means it’s okay to stick something huge up my vagina? Like, how about just asking?

ME: OK, let’s say I do these tests. Do I have to live with this? Is there a treatment?

DOC: Weight loss.

ME:DOC:

ME: Seriously?

DOC: Yes.

ME: I’m sorry, it’s just that doesn’t sound like a treatment for a hormonal imbalance.

DOC: In lots of women we see that it helps.

ME: Well, of course, exercise and eating healthy helps…

DOC: Well, yes, that is how you lose weight.

ME: But I haven’t always been this weight. I was skinny until a year ago when I started those new meds. And I’ve had this hormone problem my whole life.

DOC: well, even if you lost 15 pounds, you would still be overweight.

ME: …

DOC: …

ME: What about the fact that the symptoms only started coming back when I began to lose weight?

DOC: I don’t have enough information, just do the tests.

All I wanted was for him to explain to me how he thought weight loss would help. You know, to use logic. But he didn’t seem to think logic was a language I spoke.

Conversations with doctors about side effects: the one with the psychiatrist

So I went to see a new psychiatrist and told her about the weight gain. She was adamant that weight gain of any kind was, at the end of the day, “calories in-calories out.” When I voiced the opinion that it might be from my medication, she said, “Hmm, it’s possible, but that’s probably not it. Could you be pregnant?”

Me: *laughs* “I don’t think so. I’m on birth control. AND I use condoms.”

Psych: “Are you sure?”

Me: Yes. I’ve just had my period.

Psych: Was it a very light period?

Me: What? I don’t think so. Plus I haven’t had sex in like…if I’m pregnant, it’s the baby Jesus.

Psych: Take a pregnancy test.

So I took a pregnancy test, and here’s a shock – it came back negative. Also, as soon as I stopped taking Cymbalta, I lost weight. Without starving myself or increasing exercise.


Read more: “Maybe you should lose weight?” How doctors gaslight women like me


Now, on the topic of protected sex. I never thought I would date someone who didn’t love my body. But I became emotionally involved with him before I knew how he felt. One night, lying in bed next to me, he told me, “I struggle with the way your body is. I know it’s wrong, but I do. It’s just the way I was raised that being fat is bad, and unhealthy, and that’s what I feel when I look at you.”

What!

Don’t get me wrong – I knew I was unhealthy. I was taking way too many medications for a 23-year-old and could barely get out of bed most days. But this whispered confession from someone I loved hit me like a curveball.

Oh, and my favorite awkward feedback of all time was when I confided in someone close to me that I was having suicidal thoughts (this was also, at times, a side effect of one of the medications I was taking.) He said, “Don’t tell people you want to kill yourself.” Oh, okay, I’ll just keep it to myself, then…


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Article by Liora Halevi

Liora Sophie is an Israeli writer with a B.Sc. in mathematics and education.

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