A Day in the Life: Exposure Therapy

TW: Medical imagery

(Exposure therapy is a way of taking apart a large fear into little steps to be worked on individually. After working for years on my fear of doctors and hospitals resulting from my medical crisis seven years ago, this is what a doctor’s visit looked like for me this week.)

It doesn’t even start with walking in the door.

The anxiety comes a few days before, or maybe even when I make the appointment. It’s not all doctors, just the ones related to my incident seven years ago, but even that is enough to scare me.

I know how to pack my bag: insurance card and ID in my wallet, phone at full battery with all of my games updated, and a small stuffed animal in my purse, just in case. I know to leave early, because if I get there late, I’ll get lost and feel flustered. I need to give myself the best chance.

No one can see anything wrong as I walk in, check my phone for the tenth time to remind myself what floor to go to, and make my way in. I know everything they need at check-in, and I breeze through until it’s time for me to go in the back.

It’s hard for me to walk past the rooms, so clinical and cold, but I make it into the exam room, following the nurse closely. I plop into a chair - thankfully, this doctor doesn’t make me sit on the paper on the table - and I don’t notice my legs are bouncing until the nurse asks me to stop, because it may affect the blood pressure results.

Blood pressure is good, but not quite as good as Mom’s - I can never beat her. I thank God that they didn’t pinch a vein this time and make me lose feeling in my arm, which I haven’t figured out how to breathe through yet. Stepping on the scale is hard for entirely different reasons. I don’t look at the number when it beeps; I stare ahead at the wall and get down fast.

I answer the nurse’s questions easily. All of this is scripted, I know my medications and I also know what to do when something in the corner starts to beep unexpectedly. My hand slinks into my purse and finds the small stuffed umbreon - a pokemon - that my friend helped me sew before I moved. It’s made out of socks, and the texture is rough from my inexperienced stitches. Less conspicuous than a phone game, although Pokemon Go is on the screen of my phone too. Never any harm in overpreparing.

The doctor comes in soon. I like this doctor; if I don’t, I’m even more tense. The more she asks me, the more the need to tell my story builds up. I’ll end up writing out something later, surely, but for now I just report my concerns honestly.

I still look calm and composed as I go to the blood lab. That’s the scariest place, the one I had to prepare for the most. I watched medical shows, listened to recordings of beeping machines and hospital sounds, but I’m still flustered enough when I go in that I don’t notice I’m supposed to be sitting in a chair in a waiting area.

I sink into the chair, tap on a few pokemon, and wait. People go back one by one, and then it’s my turn. My routine for this, the scariest part, is down pat: phone in my lap, with a brand-new picture of my dog courtesy of Mom. She’s sent me one where he’s got two Frisbees at the same time, which is impressive. I can’t help but notice the cold square of antiseptic on my skin and the way the nurse wipes it away, then gets closer with the needle.

Mom always tells me to breathe, but I usually forget. I concentrate really hard this time, and look over to where there are only two tubes waiting. It’ll be fast, at least. It doesn’t even hurt all that much. My breath comes faster, not anywhere close to a panic attack, but noticeable. I stick my hand in my purse again for the stuffed umbreon when she goes to pull the needle out, which usually hurts me the most.

I keep bleeding. The nurse tries to get it to stop, but when she turns away for a moment, I watch as it continues to flow, a little dot turning to a big bead that starts to flow down. I alert her to this, and hold the bandage on tight as she applies it. I’ve got one of the fingers of her glove in my grasp too, accidentally.

I notice my breath is quickening as I look at the blood and force my head away, looking down at the picture of my dog, noting how his paws are splayed on the floor and that one of his Frisbees is upside down.

The nurse worries. Someone apparently fainted in here a few minutes ago, and she wants to make sure I won’t be next. I’m still shaky and I’m still rolling the stuffed umbreon’s ear in my left hand. But I’m fine. I can feel my hand, it was only two tubes, and the thick white bandage she puts on finally covers the blood.

I’m a little shaky when she says I can get up, but I’m not going to faint. Never have, even when I hadn’t worked on my fears and I used to scream every time. I came close to fainting once, but even then, I kept my techniques in my head to keep myself from falling prey to panic.

I feel like I can breathe again when I get outdoors. It’s finally done.

(Although this routine trip to the doctor’s office probably doesn’t sound easy, it’s so much easier than when I first started exposure therapy. By learning the different elements of the doctor’s visit and preparing myself for each one, I can control my anxiety to the point that only small physical cues will let people know that I’m not feeling my best. I went from debilitating anxiety and being unable to do a visit like this by myself to having a normal visit where I can get my medications refilled and blood drawn without panic, and quickly moved on to the rest of my day. Exposure therapy is great for my fears and phobias, and since the progress is so visible, I find it a great way to celebrate my accomplishments while looking forward to even more to come!)

Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.