Medical Gaslighting: A Side Effect of Being a Woman

In her book, Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez exposes the data bias in a world “designed for men”. One of the book’s most important chapters addresses the biases against women in the medical world, specifically through medical gaslighting. Medical gaslighting is a set of behaviours displayed by doctors and other medical professionals, that make the patient question whether they are actually experiencing their symptoms. For example, blaming your physical symptoms on mental illness, or making you feel like you’re catastrophising or being dramatic. Essentially, medical gaslighting is when a doctor dismisses your symptoms and worries as unimportant, exaggerated, and/or not serious enough to require further investigation.

Chapter ten of Invisible Women, The Drugs Don’t Work, opens with an anecdote about a sixteen-year-old woman who had been experiencing painful, bloody bowel movements for two years, until it got so bad that she decided it was time to see a doctor. She was rushed to the emergency room, where a doctor asked her if she could be pregnant – no, she said. She hadn’t had sex; besides, the pain was in her bowel.

“The next thing I knew, a large, cold metal speculum was crammed in my vagina. It hurt so badly I sat up and screamed and the nurse had to push me back down and hold me there while the doctor confirmed that I indeed, was not pregnant.”

The young woman was then discharged with “nothing but an overpriced aspirin and the advice to rest for a day”. Over the next decade she sought help, and eventually she was diagnosed irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis. For years, she had been repeatedly told that all of this was in her head, and it wasn’t until she was twenty-six that she finally had a colonoscopy that diagnosed her condition (Invisible Women, p 195-6).

This infuriating account reminded me of two similar incidents that happened to me in the last few years.

It’s Just Anxiety, Dear

Some four or five years ago, I was on a commuting on a train when I started having very odd symptoms. Every minute, I would have an episode of what I can only describe as all of my senses short-circuiting which lasted for about twenty seconds and came back every few minutes. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t hear, I was confused every time it happened. To begin with, I thought maybe it was vertigo or a migraine aura, but my vision wasn’t the only sense affected and my head was not hurting. I started to feel quite worried, so I asked the people on the train to call an ambulance for me.

At the hospital, I remember having blood tests and an ECG (a test to see how the heart is doing). No brain scan though. After many hours of waiting, I was seen by a doctor who concluded that it was all… anxiety. (Yes, female doctors can gaslight too). She talked to me condescendingly, and even gave me a patronising hug and pep talk about looking after my mental health. After the hospital visit, my symptoms lasted a whole week.

I went to my local GP to get a different opinion, who ran a few more tests and it turned out that my problem has been physical after all. He suspected I had a few simultaneous infections going on in my body. He prescribed me antibiotics and eventually I started feeling better. To this day, I’m still not sure if the diagnosis was right. I never even had a brain scan, and with symptoms like that and a concussion in my medical history, was I wrong to expect them to take me more seriously? Why didn’t they?

To refer back to Invisible Women, it’s possible that the way women are socialised to “downplay their own status” and behave in a friendly and approachable way, may prevent from effective diagnosis. However, a lot of the time even when a woman says exactly what’s going on and how much it affects her quality of life or safety, she is still dismissed. Invisible Women tells another story of a woman, Kathy, who was told by four medical professionals that her problems were all in her head, which later turned out to be a potentially life-threatening case of uterine fibroids which required surgery. Another woman, Rachel, was also told her pain was imaginary. She was consistently told that there was nothing wrong with her, until finally, years later she was diagnosed with endometriosis (p 223-4). Endometriosis is an incurable condition where tissue similar to the lining of the uterus is found on other organs. It can cause extreme pain (to the point of fainting and not being able to walk), and it takes an average of eight years to diagnose. Sadly, it is a condition I am too familiar with.

This Will Only Hurt a Lot – Endometriosis, PCOS, and Intrauterine Systems (IUS)

Four years ago I wanted to get an IUS (also known as the hormonal coil). I still do. I wanted something I could just forget about, something that wouldn’t make my periods worse, and something that didn’t involve a lot of hormones because I’m prone to blood clotting (due to a genetic disorder, a story for another time). An IUS seemed to fit my needs, so about four years ago I tried to have it inserted for the first time. A year later, I tried to have it done again. Then a couple of years later I tried it again. And again, and probably one more time. In total, it must have taken five or six tries before I just gave up because of the insane pain that nobody warned me about.

Every time, the doctor (or another medical professional) who was going to insert the coil told me that most women experience “some discomfort” on insertion.

Some discomfort? I have never experienced a worse pain in my life – I felt like my insides were being ripped apart. I nearly passed out each time I tried to get it done, but every time I would reach a point where I thought “this is not worth the pain”. Some discomfort my arse.

No one told me that it could be excruciating for some women, and when I asked to be sedated to have it done, it was refused because that’s “not how we do this procedure in the UK”.

Similarly, when I was diagnosed abroad with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), the doctors in the UK were refusing to officially diagnose me because I wasn’t overweight (which is a typical symptom of PCOS but all women with the syndrome are overweight). But did they offer to scan my ovaries and check? Of course not. They refused that too. What was I supposed to do? Have cancer so they take me seriously?

Apparently so.

It took an actual cancer scare to finally get me referred to a gynaecologist. A blood test for ovarian cancer markers came back with a concerning result, so I was rushed to the hospital (by rushed I mean it took two weeks to get seen by a doctor), I had scans done and was diagnosed with PCOS and endometriosis. Thankfully, no cancer. It turns out endometriosis can also cause a spike in the ovarian cancer marker test.

The oncologist I saw there told me to ask my GP for a referral to Dr Gynaecologist to discuss my treatment options for PCOS . Even then, my GP told me that he didn’t think there was much to be gained from the referral since having a coil put in could resolve my symptoms.

Why don’t I just shut up and do what he (not a specialist) says, since he knows better than a gynaecologist (a specialist).

Why Does Medical Gaslighting Happen?

Why do women have to be in a potentially life-threatening situation to be taken seriously? To have further tests done? To be believed?

I thought, maybe medical gaslighting is happening because the NHS is under so much pressure, and they can’t afford better care. Although it could be a contributing factor, women are being dismissed and disbelieved by doctors around the whole world. This is not a UK-specific issue. It goes deeper than that.

“The result of this deeply male-dominated culture is that the male experience, the male perspective, has come to be seen as universal, while the female experience–that of half the global population, after all–is seen as, well, niche.” Because of this male-centric world we live in, research into the female body and illness is put to the side. There is an infuriating lack of funding for medical research relating to women’s conditions, decided by panels of men, which leads to a massive data gap that explains why a lot of conditions that affect women (or those that affect men too but show differently in women) are misunderstood and misdiagnosed. This, along with the tendency to see women as hysterical (which is still pervasive in medicine), leads to women being dismissed by medical professionals, and to their suffering being reduced to a figment of their imagination.

Personally, I have decided to stop feeling bad for talking to doctors when I’m feeling unwell. I am not imagining things. I am going to challenge a dismissive GP whenever I encounter one, and I encourage others to do the same. Only by challenging medical gaslighting and raising awareness about this issue, will we move closer towards fairer and safer treatment of women.

Do you have a story about being dismissed or gaslighted by a medical professional? Tell us in the comments below, or DM us on Instagram and we will publish your stories on our social media to spread awareness!

Disclaimer: All of the above can be relevant to any gender, I simply focused on women because they tend to be dismissed more than men by medical professionals.

This article ended up being half a personal account, and half a letter of praise to Invisible Women. Please read it. You won’t regret it.

Books To Get Lost In This Autumn

Summer is officially coming to an end, making way for the cosiest reading season of the year – Autumn. Grab a blanket, put the kettle on, and get comfortable with one of the following recent and upcoming releases!

How To Break Up With Fast Fashion by Lauren Bravo

Fast fashion has been getting a lot of attention in the last few years, which highlighted the plethora of issues around it. More and more people are becoming conscious of their shopping habits, and wishing that conscious consumerism was more accessible to them. How To Break Up With Fast Fashion is a neat introduction to changing your fashion shopping habits, and an excellent first step in becoming a conscious consumer. In her guide, Bravo demonstrates how we can move towards ethical and sustainable shopping habits, and how we can remain fashionable without contributing to one of the most unethical industries in the world.

Rewilding by Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe

Written by ecologists Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe, Rewilding is a book about the progressive conservation technique that seeks to “restore lost interactions between animals, plants and natural disturbance that are the essence of thriving ecosystems“. Rewilding seeks to not only restore, but protect core areas of wilderness and let nature take care of itself leading to more biodiverse ecosystems. This book is one of the first popular attempts at explaining and arguing for the practice of rewilding. An accessible introduction for all.

A Field Guide To Climate Anxiety

When you consider the the climate crisis and the general state of the world, it’s difficult to stay calm and optimistic. Using a decade of experience in environmental studies, Sarah Jaquette Ray brings together a manual for navigating the bleak, stressful circumstances we live in. This climate “toolkit” is especially handy for the younger generations, who will have to live with the world to come. “Combining insights from psychology, sociology, social movements, mindfulness, and the environmental humanities, Ray explains why and how we need to let go of eco-guilt, resist burnout, and cultivate resilience while advocating for climate justice.”

The New Wilderness by Diane Cook

From the winner of the Guardian First Book Award, and shortlisted for The Booker Prize comes The New Wilderness – a novel about one mother’s efforts to save her daughter from a world ravaged by climate change. In a dystopian future, Bea’s daughter struggles with the effects of climate change on her young body. Bea knows that staying put in their polluted metropolis means certain death, the alternative will lead them into uncharted territory of a dangerous, untamed wilderness. This passionate novel reads like a cautionary tale of what the future generations might come to struggle with.

Review: Plunder of the Commons – A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth by Guy Standing

The Plunder of the Commons is the latest in series of works by Guy Standing, touching on the abuses suffered by working people in the globalised economy and the importance of establishing a Universal Basic Income. It is also the conclusion of several years’ worth of lectures and articles that Standing has presented on the topic of The Charter of the Forest, Magna Carta’s socially aware sibling.

The presence of the Charter is felt most in the early chapters where we are treated to an examination of its historical context and revolutionary character for the common folk against the interests of the crown and the aristocracy. Once the Charter’s breadth and significance have been established, the book departs on a whistle stop tour of its gradual and not-so-gradual erosion by moneyed interests at the expense of the common people, culminating in the 1971 abolition and replacement of the (by now deeply dilute) Charter with the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Act.

While the history of the Charter of the Forest is fascinating and certainly worthy of its own book, its examination is not where the meat of Standing’s work lies. Instead the Charter acts as framing device for Standing’s own ‘Commons Charter’, a collection of 44 articles aimed at curbing the worst excesses of Neo-liberalism, producing a fairer distribution of national wealth, and saving what remains of the common good from the maws of austerity and complacency. True to the Runnymede spirit of his inspiration, Standing has structured the book as a series of grievances and suggestions for redress akin to a medieval petition. It is in these grievances, this catalogue of abuses, degradations, and exploitations suffered by the commons both physical and intellectual, that the heart of The Plunder of the Commons is found.

Standing’s deconstruction of the Neo-liberal consensus and its effects on the government of Britain treads the line between academia and oratory in well managed fashion. It is full of well-constructed examples, such as the company hired on a 25 year tree-maintenance contract by Sheffield Council that cut down most of the trees it was supposed to tend to reduce costs, that serve both to illustrate underlying points and stay with the reader well after the book has been set aside. Standing’s balance does however occasionally wobble. The accusation that the government had abandoned legal responsibility for most of the NHS, found in the chapter on health, while technically correct it ignores the broader complexities of the issue in favour of shock value. This is not to suggest that The Plunder of the Commons is a piece of political theatre or even that such issues are commonplace in the book. It is simply a product of the broader audience Standing seems to have targeted.

The Commons Charter itself takes something of a back seat throughout the book, with its articles placed at the end of chapters and the Charter itself only found in full on the last few pages. The articles themselves are far from immediately practicable and Standing makes no secret of this. Instead they offer a new way of thinking about society, the first kernels of an idea that if fully developed could be proven revolutionary. But that is not the role of The Plunder of the Commons, it is not a manifesto but a call to action. One of Standing’s strongest themes is the need for communal action to preserve the commons whether that be beating the bounds of a field or green, legally or physically challenging acts of enclosure, or holding politicians to account through political process. The Plunder of the Commons is a wake-up call to a British public that has been asleep behind the wheel for the last forty years. As the Charter of the Forest has made abundantly clear, common rights are hard won but easily lost and we can little afford to lose the few we have left.

Your Next Favourite Read, Community Issue

Due to the recent circumstances, a lot of us are finding ourselves with extra time on our hands. What better way to spend that time than to lose yourself in a book? Here are our top four picks to get excited for, fiction and non-fiction.

The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers, by Mark Gevisser

Picked by The Guardian as one of the books to look forward to in 2020, The Pink Line is a groundbreaking analysis of the human rights history of queer communities. Mark Gevisser explores how the social movements of sexual orientation and gender identity rights resulted in both dividing and unifying society from all over the world. Gevisser illustrates the struggles on the queer frontiers through the stories of queer folk spanning nine countries.

Although many countries across the globe have taken multiple steps in allowing the same freedoms to the LGBTQ+ community, there are still many nations that are working to curb their rights and criminalise anything that falls under the definition of queer. Because of this, The Pink Line is an incredibly relevant and important read.

Conjure Women, by Afia Atakora

A debut novel about healers, curses, and bonds among women. Set in the American south, spanning before and after the Civil War, Conjure Women tells the story of Miss May Belle – a healer, and her daughter Rue who follows in her footsteps. When an illness befalls their community, Rue finds to be at the centre of suspicion.

Evocative, sincere, and thoroughly researched, Conjure Women moved back and forth in time to tell a story about how far we are willing to go to save our loved ones, from an exquisite and memorable new voice in fiction.

Self-Care, by Leigh Stein

A satirical look at the modern obsession with the self and a searing criticism of ‘woke capitalism’. Co-founders of a wellness start-up, Richual, struggle to find the balance between being good businesswomen, being good people, and being good friends.

A horrible tweet that turns into a PR nightmare, a sexual misconduct scandal, and a secret about how feminist the company actually is, Self-Care takes apart the idea of a ‘girl boss’ and white feminism through fun, incisive writing. With a healthy dose of humour, Leigh Stein shines a bright light on the ‘wellness’ industry and community.

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett

From The New York Times -bestselling author of The Mothers, an extraordinary new novel that follows the lives of twin sisters who chose to live in drastically different communities as they grew up.

After growing up in a black community and running away at sixteen, one of the sisters ends up coming back with her black daughter to the same town she tried to escape from. The other secretly passes for a white woman, with even her spouse not knowing her secret.

The story goes back and forth in time, addressing the issues of colourism through the Vignes twins’ and their daughters’ eyes. The Vanishing Half looks at our past can affect our lives in a poignantly written masterpiece.