What I learnt from watching ‘Brain on Fire’

I’ve been doing a lot of lying down browsing Netflix recently so have been watching some random documentaries and films. One of the ones I watched was a film called ‘Brain on Fire’.It’s about a woman who starts to experience neurological symptoms like seizures, absences, psychosis, mood swings and eventually stroke like symptoms. But no one can work out what’s wrong with her and they go down the ‘it’s psychological’ route and try to get her committed to a psych ward. Her parents keep fighting for her and found one doctor who believed her and eventually she gets diagnosed with a rare autoimmune brain disorder. It’s treatable. It’s also based on a true story. The reason I found this interesting was because before I got diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency, I had many doctors tell me that they thought my problems were psychological and refused to treat me- I got made out to be a drug seeker for steroids at one point. Like her, I felt like I was dying and no one was listening. And, in the same way, the only reason I got diagnosed was because one respiratory doctor said ‘I believe you’ and spent 2 weeks running every test possible until a completely random one showed I had adrenal insufficiency, which wasn’t even his field of practice. But before that, I was treated like I was mad. People ‘humoured’ me when I went to a&e for a while, but the more I showed up (every week at one point) and the fact that one doctor wrote about my ‘clear psychological issues’ on my file meant that people became more and more rude and point blank refused to treat me. But even if I was experiencing psychological symptoms, there’s no need to treat me like that, clearly I still needed help which I wasn’t getting. Although, chronic illness humour, it did turn out that the problem was ‘all in my head’ since my pituitary gland is pretty defunct and it’s located in my brain… 😉 It’s still difficult for me to look back and say ‘I was treated badly’, even though I now know I *was* treated badly. It’s left a lot of (now, ironically, psychological) damage about seeking help in healthcare because I really was dying and no one would listen. I’ve always tried to see it from other people’s perspective and think maybe it’s because I didn’t look sick enough, or maybe I didn’t use the right words to describe it, or maybe someone was having a bad day and missed something, or they lacked experience or I said something wrong which threw them… But there’s empathy for other humans and human error and then there’s taking responsibility for something that wasn’t my fault. Watching Brain on Fire meant that I could see some of my experiences portrayed from an outside perspective. And, actually, there were many opportunities for people, whether it be colleagues, friends, family or doctors, to see that clearly she wasn’t right. Yeah, some of her behaviour might have been weird or ‘lazy’, but instead of showing some empathy and sitting down and saying ‘this isn’t you, what’s going on here’, she was told she was being selfish, that she needed to try harder, she was shouted at to see if she would ‘snap out of it’, people were impatient and she was ultimately worn down to a point where even the inherent natural instinct to fight to survive got turned off. But the scary thing is, that her and my experiences aren’t all that uncommon. When doctors can’t find answers, they turn to psychological problems. Lots of people with adrenal insufficiency are committed to psychiatric units first and then are only diagnosed when they’re in a coma. Part of it is that doctors don’t like things they can’t solve, and mental health has a nice broad spectrum, but part of it is that some are too arrogant to admit that they don’t know everything. I find this really baffling in this day and age since more and more people are surviving things they didn’t before which means there are going to be new and rare diseases being diagnosed which we didn’t have before. Therefore, just because it doesn’t fit into one doctor’s experience of illness, doesn’t mean the problem isn’t a physical problem rather than a psychological problem. So what I learnt from watching this film is that I’m not responsible for the way my doctors treated me. Even if I had said something wrong or acted weirdly, they were my doctors and I was the patient- they had a duty of care to me regardless of the root cause and they really let me down. Seeing someone else experience it first hand in visual form (rather than just reading similar experiences) gave me the chance to fully acknowledge that.

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