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Medical Gaslighting

It's not all in your head.

The other day, I came across a really powerful article written by a husband about his wife’s emergency visit to the hospital in which her needs were minimized by the staff. It brought back some bad memories. I was inspired to share the article with women on the various Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder Facebook groups. After all, we are not only women, we are women with PMDD… "a merely hysterical and imagined illness meant to justify our bad moods and suicidal tendencies.”

Okay, maybe that’s only how a few doctors still view PMDD, but even one is frankly too many. The truth is, women, no matter their medical issues, are historically and categorically downplayed or ignored by the medical profession. Statistics even prove that woman who show up in ER’s for a heart attack are not given the same treatment as men doing the same. WTF?

I refer to the biased, dismissing attitude toward women’s complaints as “medical gaslighting”. Are you familiar with gaslighting? It’s a term coined from a play later made into a fabulous black and white movie starring Ingrid Bergman. Google defines it as “a form of mental abuse in which information is twisted or spun, selectively omitted to favor the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity.” I would hasten to add “body” to the list, as we are often taught by our doctors that we overreacting to pain or simply making things up. Unfortunately, the medical profession, and usually, the male medical profession, have a penchant for gaslighting their patients, whether or not they mean to.

This can be intentional, perhaps stress-induced, but often simply ignorance. Whatever the reason, it can cause women to doubt their own wisdom and the intuitive messages they receive from their own bodies. One example of this is with side-effects. It is fairly standard to tell a woman to give something time to work, to allow her body to adjust to a medication. In the meantime, her body is out and out rejecting the introduction of chemicals, pleading with her to find another path. Yes, eventually, things may calm down, but at what price? We are adaptive creatures. That doesn’t mean that what we adapt to is good for us.

Since PMDD is often treated from the angle of a mental disorder, antidepressants are quite commonly prescribed. The pill is also quite commonly prescribed. Yet as often as these might bring benefit, these ‘fixes’ can also do more harm than good. But if we complain, we’re just being difficult or non-compliant.

When I shared the above-mentioned article about the wife who went to ER on the PMDD forums, I asked if any women out there had their own stories to share. They didn’t have to be PMDD-related, just illustrative of the sexism and/or medical gaslighting. I recount them here. Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the women who responded.

Julie’s Story

A few months ago while under a lot of stress, my body decided to manifest an incredible intense muscle spasm in my scapula resulting in an excruciatingly painful pinched nerve. After trying massage and stretching, I decided to go to a clinic to get some muscle relaxants and pain relievers because I was unable to sit at my desk and work.

I eventually then saw a general practitioner to follow up, plus a chiropractor. The medication did not seem to help at all. Percocet, Vicodin, Flexeril–nothing seemed to have any impact on me. I didn’t even feel drowsy. My pain continued to worsen and eventually one night around I was in so much pain my boyfriend made the executive decision to take me to the ER.

The experience began very positively, and we spent no time in the waiting room. This, however, is when things got weird. After a brief and pleasant conversation with triage, I was not given a room but instead was seated on a bed in the middle of a hallway. The ER was silent and seemingly empty. Not a busy night at all. After almost 40 minutes of no one speaking to me, a very timid resident brought me a lukewarm damn washcloth, claiming they were out of heating pads. People would occasionally stop by and ask why I didn’t have a heating pad. I would explain, and they’d say they would get me one. I never received one.

When the doctor finally came to talk to us almost 2 hours later, he was patronizing in a way that I’m sure he believed translated as kindness. When he actually spoke to me like a child with a boo-boo. Otherwise, he exclusively spoke to my boyfriend. It was as if my boyfriend was my father and I was a toddler that was overreacting about a papercut. I told them about the drugs I was prescribed and explain that they weren’t doing anything to help. He exchanged a look with his resident that I read as, “She’s obviously crazy, let’s humor her.”

Let me just add here that my boyfriend was just as aware of their treatment of me as I was, and while he’s too mild-mannered to make a scene, he was furious. Let me just add here that my boyfriend was just as aware of their treatment of me as I was, and while he’s too mild-mannered to make a scene, he was furious. They X-rayed me and said they found nothing (because you can’t X-ray pinched nerves), and chastised me for seeing a chiropractor. Despite the fact that I saw the chiropractor AFTER my pain started, he was adamant that this was the reason for my pain and that I had caused it myself. They prescribed me absolutely no medication and gave me no recommendations for making the pain stop.

It was clear they thought I was overreacting to a sore muscle and didn’t want to waste their time on me. After 4 hours in the ER, I was told nothing was wrong with me and that they had no idea how to help me. After we left my boyfriend was in total shock about how they had no interest in actually listening to me. When I rated my pain as an 8, they tried to convince me it was lower. When I told them drugs weren’t helping, they assumed my symptoms were psychosomatic and kept checking me for “neurological symptoms.” It was fucking ridiculous. After we left my boyfriend was in total shock about how they had no interest in actually listening to me. When I rated my pain as an 8, they tried to convince me it was lower. When I told them drugs weren’t helping, they assumed my symptoms were psychosomatic and kept checking me for “neurological symptoms.” It was fucking ridiculous.

Against the doctor's orders, I went back to the chiropractor three times that week. This was eventually what fixed my back. Against the doctor's orders, I went back to the chiropractor three times that week. This was eventually what fixed my back. I’m very fortunate that I was not experiencing anything life threatening, because I highly doubt they would have taken that seriously either. I’m very fortunate that I was not experiencing anything life threatening, because I highly doubt they would have taken that seriously either.

Connie’s Story

Oh my god, I’m a puddle of tears [after reading the article]. I suffered from a ruptured ovarian cyst that made my ears ring and gave me tunnel vision. The pain was so bad, it’s the closest I’ve ever come to blacking out from pain. The humiliation and condescension by the male doctors at the emergency room were even more painful than the ruptured cyst! I remember being treated like an imbecile. Sort of like, well, you’ve got a uterus, what do you expect? And they were not gentle! I felt violated. And I was sent home and told to just follow up with my GYN. The lack of compassion was underwhelming.

Melanie’s Story

Sounds about right. I’m in Australia but got turned away from hospital three times with appendicitis. Third time I was finally admitted but didn’t get an ultrasound for 48 hours. As soon as they did the scan I was rushed to theater (operating room) thankfully right before my appendix burst.

My Story

I have a story of my own. In my 30’s, I started having unbelievable cramps from hell. I would double over in pain, unable to move, rocking myself on the toilet, one hand reaching under a running cold-water tap just to keep myself from passing out. Sweat would pour off my burning body only to be replaced by icy chills. And then…poof! I’d be fine. Exhausted, but fine.

This went on for a year or two, gradually getting worse with time. My ex took me to the hospital at one point where the ER ignored me for a good hour or two while I writhed on their floor screaming. They didn’t even offer me a pain pill. The worst of the pain had passed when they finally called me in. X-rays and sonograms revealed nothing. So they gave me an enema. Hey, when all else fails!

It wasn’t until several months later, with continuing pain, that I went to see a Tibetan monk for healing. It went something like this: I was called into a small office that had been set up for three or four maroon and saffron robed monks. They were sitting in chairs and motioned for me to sit as well. I don’t remember saying anything. One of them looked at me and then began a series of chants. Before I left, he gave me some tiny little pellets to put in my drinking water…he said they were very precious. I did as I was told. The next day (or was it the day after?) when I went to the toilet, something dropped right out of me. It was a uterine polyp. Plop! Right into the toilet. Needless to say, my OBGYN was rather astonished when I showed up bearing this thing.

After that, I never, ever had cramps like that again. Ever! I wish I could say that the dismissal of symptoms and complete lack of respect by so-called medical professional sworn to “do no harm” was a rare exception; I dare say it is all too common. Do doctors and nurses really think they can just “jedi mind trick” us into not feeling what we’re feeling?

Historically, women have always been pegged “hysterical” and “mental” by men and the predominantly patriarchal medical profession. It is archaic and so deeply ingrained in the collective that even women in the profession sometimes behave from this viewpoint, mechanically following authority like sheep and playing into the rudeness and disrespect toward their patients.

That isn’t to say there aren’t caring and compassionate providers out there. They do exist, of course. And it is up to us to know the difference and speak up for ourselves. Those of us with PMDD already suffer from an invisible condition that can only be diagnosed with the help of symptom tracking and knowledgeable doctors making it more likely we’ll be misdiagnosed and more difficult for us to self-advocate without being pegged as difficult or “mental”. There’s so much misinformation on PMDD out there on the web even now and few people even know what it is. I’ve even referred to it as a mental disorder myself in the past because that’s how it is classed.

But I’m not going to do that anymore. I simply don’t buy that it is, and I think it is disempowering, even dangerous, to do so. I know this is a hot topic. I know there are a lot of women out there ecstatic that PMDD has any classification at all! While I understand the sentiment, I can’t help but wonder if these are the same types of women who settle for less than they really deserve time and time again. Sorry, but I don’t want to be one of those women.

But this message isn’t just about PMDD. After reading up on medical gaslighting, of women yes, women veterans with PTSD, women with all kinds of conditions, women with histories that are later used against them, this is for all of us. This is even a message for the men who may need to hear it:

Stand up. Find your voice. And don’t let anyone profile your symptoms, invalidate your concerns, or brush off your issues. YOU are the best advocate for your body, and YOUR BODY is the highest authority on itself.

For more reading on the fascinating world of medical gaslighting, patient profiling, and medical mistreatment:

Cheeky Minx
Cheeky Minx

Cheekyminx writes intimately about PMDD (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder) and hosts the Facebook page PMDD Life Support, a place where women with PMDD can find information and inspiration to cope. Your contributions are appreciated!

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