“Gaslighting” is a term that I think few of us have been able to avoid in the last couple of years. It is popping up on news channels, social media outlets, and mental health awareness information all over the world. The definition on Google is simple, “manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.” But how many of us know about medical gaslighting?
Let me paint you a picture: you are a woman walking into a doctor’s office because you have been feeling unwell for some time and know that there is something deeper going on medically. You sit and have the doctor listen to your symptoms which could be anything but especially concerning emotions, weight gain, or pain. The doctor tells you it’s nothing to be concerned about and when you try to push and say that it’s not normal for you to feel this way, they dismiss your feelings yet again. Maybe in this case this is the first doctor you are seeing for this problem; maybe it’s your twelfth. But you still feel as though you are screaming at them while they are wearing noise-canceling headphones.
This is something that most women experience in their life. Don’t believe me? Take it from someone who has had it happen to her for over 6 years now. I have chronic migraines, which means that I have a headache every single day from start to finish. I have gone to see specialist after specialist, even traveling across the country to try and get a cure or explanation. Most of these doctors have told me that my symptoms are because of my “womanly hormones,” birth control, I was “being too sensitive,” and so on. At one point one doctor even told me that it was because I was overweight and that if I just lost weight all my problems would go away. That particular doctor told me this at the age of seventeen after I told him repeatedly that I had rapidly gained weight without any change in my pretty healthy lifestyle, and couldn’t shed any pounds despite diet and exercise. His response was a bit of a laugh and throwing at me some pills, that had a side effect of weight loss but no other relation to my symptoms. This included mental lagging which meant that my already struggling grades in school due to my health became worse because I was unable to form sentences due to forgetting words or would forget information for testing even if I had studied for hours and hours.
Here I am six years later writing an article about medical gaslighting after seeing the term pop up across multiple news outlets in the last few months. These stories told of women that had cancer go undiagnosed because their doctors were unwilling to listen to them or run further testing. This new term of “medical gaslighting” and reading these articles made me feel validated and like I had allies. Writing that down feels a bit sad thinking about it. Why is it that for me to feel like I’m not crazy or don’t need to question what I am feeling, do I have to know that others are going through the same thing? And that those people had to go through cancer, strokes, or chronic illness for me to know I’m not alone?
To answer some of the questions that you may have about medical gaslighting and why it is especially a problem for women I would point you to a book that I discovered because of an article that I read on the topic. This book titled, The Invisible Kingdom by author Meghan O’Rourke was very much eye-opening to me. Though I will warn you, reading the chapter titled “The Woman Problem” will leave most people baffled and ready to smash the patriarchy. Even knowing that “Until recently, most medical research was performed almost exclusively on cisgender men and male animals” according to O’ Rourke. Her book also cites women’s health research associate director, Dr. Janine Austin Clayton, who states, “we literally know less about every aspect of female biology compared to male biology.” This alone begins to frustrate me, but as I continued reading I learned that in emergency rooms women are 13-25 percent less likely to receive opioid painkillers as well as having to wait fifteen minutes longer to be seen than men in those emergency facilities. I’ll also point out that O’Rourke says, “When a female patient complains of pain or discomfort, her testimony is viewed as a gendered expression of a subjective emotional issue rather than a reflection of a “hard” objective physiological reality.”
This is hard to read for me as a woman, knowing that because of my gender a doctor is already not going to take me seriously is like walking into battle already defeated. But I actually have it better than some, because for women of color the statistics are even worse, so though I am screwed for having ovaries I still have a certain privilege for being a white person with ovaries that I must recognize.
Even still, as someone that does have a serious medical condition that has gone undiagnosed because of doctors who would not listen to me, I know how frustrating it can be. I know the mental toll that it takes on a person to have the medical field, an institution that we are told from a young age will protect us and heal us, tell me that what I’m feeling is in my head and not real. For most people that experience gaslighting, I think we all know what it’s like to question whether we are right in what we feel or we really are crazy.
I’ve gone through months of doubt because of what doctors say, or insurance companies denying coverage of procedures because I’m “too young and too healthy” to have the condition I do. Making me jump through more hoops to prove myself to them. I’ve had powerful moments of telling my primary care doctor that I’m not asking him to run a test anymore, I’m telling him that he is putting in the order for blood work whether he wants to or not because he invalidated me so long that it put my health at risk. I’m willing to talk about my struggles with others so that no one, especially no other young woman has to go through what I have in order to be heard. At the same time that I am writing this article, this week alone I have had two doctors shut me down and tell me that what I am experiencing is not happening according to their tests.
So I can’t finish this article with a happy ending, I’m on the other side and taking you with me, point of view. I can tell you what I do know though to try and help anyone reading this in the future if they experience medical gaslighting. Although my message is directed at women, I also hope that men learn something to help themselves too. My tip is to stay convicted; know that you and your health are worth fighting for answers, and if a doctor truly will not listen when you push back, get a new doctor. Period. The fact is that there will be someone out there that will believe you. Wasting your time, energy, and emotional investment on a doctor that is unwilling to assist you is not worth it. I hope that this advice is something that helps someone get the answers and treatment they deserve and feel validated, as I did, if only to avoid being on the bad side of the statistics in the future.