“Oh, that’s just normal”.
It’s a phrase you’ll hear a lot, as a disabled person, and even more when you’re expressing concerns about a new symptom.
“My joints hurt all the time”
“I faint every time I stand up”
“I’m exhausted all the time”
“I can never get to sleep on time”
“I feel really sick when I eat”
And the doctor will reply “Oh, sweetie, that’s just normal, everyone gets that!”
It always takes me aback, because it’s such a blatant lie. A few months ago I was explaining to Dr Rh that, despite maintaining the best sleep hygiene that I could (Turning off all my screens an hour before bed, no caffeine more than two hours after waking up in the morning, blackout curtains on my window at night) I was still sleeping about five hours a night, even with diphenhyramine, and those five hours were usually during the day because I couldn’t force myself to sleep at “normal” hours. In tears, I begged him to give me some sort of sleeping pills, or to send me to a sleep specialist, since I wasn’t able to maintain a normal social life, never mind get to appointments or even think about getting a job. And he gave me a big, benevolent smile and said;
“Oh, sweetheart, I’m just the same.”
I blinked slowly.
This senior doctor, who ran a practice with at least 30 employees, who arrived at work at 9am every morning and left at 6pm every night without any notable absences, was trying to convince me that he also couldn’t be woken up by normal alarm clocks, had to sleep in the afternoon a few days a week, regularly hallucinated due to sleep deprivation, slept separately from his partner because he kept such inconsistent hours and didn’t want to risk violently attacking them during a night terror, and was unable to maintain any kind of social or professional life due to the crippling fatigue.
I was, understandably, not convinced. The message I took away was that he didn’t believe that someone could be ill and experiencing something outside of his personal experience, and that he thought that if he just told me to go away, I’d go away and stop having the problem.
And this is an extremely common experience – I’ve got friends who’ve eventually turned out to have severe sleep apnoea who’ve been told “Oh, everyone feels like that”. Friends with a laundry list of allergies or intolerances who’ve been told “Oh, everyone gets that”. Friends with crippling arthritis, and indeed with EDS, who’ve been told “Oh, no, everyone is in pain all the time.” Friends with CFS/ME who’ve been told that literally everyone is exhausted after reading a single page of text.
It’s such an easy lie to puncture. If everyone was, for example, unable to be woken by alarm clocks, there’d be no expectation for people to take an 8-4 job. Everyone would be on flexible hours, because everyone would know that waking up early two days in a row would lead to sleep deprivation and decreased productivity. If everyone really always felt sick after meals, it would be socially normal to eat nothing but small snacks and soups instead of full dinners. If everyone was genuinley in pain all the time, offices would have better break rooms, so that employees could lie down in the middle of the day, and everyone would take that opportunity, because sitting upright all morning would have been agony for everyone.
Conversely – If the person questioning their doctor really is just overly anxious about a normal phenomenon, anxious enough to go through the repeated humiliations of being patronised by their doctor, battling for an appointment, physically traipsing back and forth to the surgery, then maybe the doctor should think about offering some kind of counselling or mental health treatment, or at least just some kind of reassurance that there were ways of managing the condition, since everyone else is (evidently) coping with it so well.
It’s a pointless bit of verbal filler that does nothing but put up a barrier between the patient and the doctor, and make the patient ever less willing to trust that the doctor is competent at all- If they don’t understand that people come to them with medical problems, and that sometimes people take a long time to work out how to best describe their problem (or even that they can talk to a doctor about it) then they probably shouldn’t be working in medicine.