Sometimes I still believe the doctors who gaslit me.
Every time I go to the doctor, I sit on the examination table and mentally prepare myself to be disbelieved.
To be told it’s just normal aches and pains. To be condescended to, or even laughed at. To be told that I am, in fact, healthy — and my perception of my own body is distorted by mental illness or unacknowledged stress.
I prepare myself because I’ve been here before.
I prepare myself not just because leaving without answers is disappointing, but because one dismissive 15-minute appointment can derail all the work I’ve done to validate my own reality.
I prepare myself because to be optimistic is to risk turning a doctor’s disbelief inward.
Ever since middle school, I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression. But I had always been physically healthy.
That all changed during my sophomore year of college, when I came down with a sore throat and debilitating fatigue that overwhelmed my aching muscles. The doctor I saw at my university’s clinic spent little time examining me.
Instead, upon seeing antidepressants listed in my chart, he decided my symptoms were likely caused by mental illness.
He advised me to seek counseling.
I didn’t. Instead, I saw my primary care doctor from home, who told me that I had pneumonia.
My school’s doctor was wrong, as my symptoms continued. Discouragingly, most of the specialists I saw over the next year weren’t any better.
They told me that every concerning symptom I had — migraine, joint dislocations, chest pain, lightheadedness, etc. — was caused by either some deep-seated psychological pain, or just the pressure of being a college student.
Thanks to a few exceptional medical professionals, I now have an explanation in the form of 2 diagnoses: hypermobility spectrum disorder (HSD) and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS).
When I tell this story to friends and family, I place myself in a larger narrative about medical bias.
I say that my experience is the logical outcome of an institution which is notoriously biased against marginalized groups.
Women are more likely to have their pain described as “emotional” or “psychogenic,” and therefore are more likely to be given sedatives instead of pain medications.
Patients of color experience bias and are examined less thoroughly than their white counterparts, which may explain why many wait longer before seeking out care.
And patients with more weight are often unfairly viewed as lazy and noncompliant.
By looking at the bigger picture, I’m able to distance myself from the very personal nature of medical trauma.
Instead of asking “why me?” I can pinpoint the structural shortcomings of an institution that failed me — not the other way around.
I can confidently say that doctors who jump to attribute patients’ physical symptoms to mental illness are too often sorely mistaken.
But doctors hold great power in having the last word in patient’s minds, even long after an appointment ends. I thought that receiving proper diagnoses and treatment would cure my self-doubt.
And yet afterward, whenever I felt my heart pound or my joints ache, part of me wondered — is this real pain? Or is it just all in my head?
To be clear, gaslighting — the repeated denial of someone’s reality in an attempt to invalidate or dismiss them — is a form of emotional abuse.
When a medical professional leads a person to question their sanity, this can be just as traumatic and abusive.
And since it involves the dismissal of people’s bodies — more often, ones that aren’t white, cisgender, heterosexual, or abled — the effects are physical, too.
When doctors mistakenly conclude that a person’s symptoms are ‘all in their head,’ they delay a correct physical diagnosis. This is especially crucial for patients with rare diseases, who already wait
Getting a psychological misdiagnosis can make rare disease diagnostic delayed 2.5 to 14 times longer, according to a survey of 12,000 European patients.
Some research shows that poor physician-patient relationships have a disproportionately negative effect on women’s care.
The fear of being mistaken about my physical symptoms, and subsequently laughed at and dismissed, lingered months after I was diagnosed with two chronic conditions.
I couldn’t bring myself to trust medical professionals. And so, I stopped seeing them for as long as I could.
I didn’t seek treatment for what I would later learn was cervical spine instability until I started having trouble breathing. I didn’t go to the gynecologist for my endometriosis until I couldn’t walk to class.
I knew that delaying care was potentially dangerous. But whenever I tried to schedule an appointment, I kept hearing past doctors’ words in my head:
You’re a healthy young woman.
There’s nothing physically wrong with you.
It’s just stress.
I oscillated between believing those words to be true, and becoming so hurt by the injustice of them that I couldn’t bear the idea of being vulnerable in a doctor’s office again.
A few months ago, I underwent therapy to find healthy ways to cope with my medical trauma. As a person with chronic illnesses, I knew that I couldn’t be afraid of healthcare settings forever.
I learned to accept that being a patient does come with a degree of helplessness. It involves surrendering very personal details to another human being who may or may not believe you.
And if that human being cannot see past their own biases, that’s not a reflection of your worth.
While I don’t let my past trauma control me, I validate the complexity of having to navigate a system with the potential to hurt as well as heal.
I firmly advocate for myself in doctor’s offices. I lean on friends and family when appointments don’t go well. And I remind myself that I have authority over what’s inside my head — not the doctor who claims that’s where my pain comes from.
It makes me hopeful to see so many people speaking out about healthcare gaslighting recently.
Patients, especially those with chronic illnesses, are bravely taking back control over narratives about their bodies. But the medical profession must have a similar reckoning on its treatment of marginalized people.
None of us should have to firmly advocate for ourselves to receive the compassionate care we deserve.
Isabella Rosario is a writer living in Iowa. Her essays and reporting have appeared in Greatist, ZORA Magazine by Medium, and Little Village Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter @irosarioc.