How I Deal With Medical Gaslighting and Migraine

By Leonard Butler
Updated 2024-03-28 17:55:22 | Published 2021-09-20 08:17:03
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    • Explore effective strategies and solutions for managing migraines in this focused section of the iMedix Blog. It offers valuable information on migraine triggers, treatment options, and coping techniques, designed to aid individuals experiencing migraines, as well as those supporting them.

mental health professional talking to patient

I recently wrote a column discussing my experience as a person of color with migraines, where I touched on the concept of gaslighting. Gaslighting can encompass microaggressions, a lack of respect, and a disregard for your reality as a patient, all within a short office visit. Research has shown that medical gaslighting, which involves making someone feel that their feelings are not valid, affects women and people of color more frequently than other groups. Being a Black woman, I have personally experienced medical gaslighting throughout my life, though I didn't have a name for it at the time.

As I write this, tears stream down my face, as I am reminded of people I know who fell victim to medical gaslighting and paid the ultimate price. Some members of my own family were ignored or dismissed, and they are no longer here to speak about it. I want to emphasize that I am not referring to human error, as doctors are only human and mistakes can happen. Instead, I am specifically addressing situations where symptoms are disregarded or assumptions are made that a person is not intelligent enough to understand their own body. This infuriates and saddens me deeply. Sometimes, in an attempt to be heard, I ask doctors to imagine I am their family member. Their demeanor often changes.

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For many years, especially when I was younger, several of my doctors advised me to keep a migraine journal instead of offering proper pain relief or treatment options. I comprehend the value of tracking symptoms to identify triggers, but I couldn't understand why some medical professionals were seemingly okay with me enduring pain. Unfortunately, many of the doctors who took this approach were white males. However, the first doctor who prescribed prescription migraine medication to me was a woman of color, and it was truly life-changing. Prior to that, if over-the-counter medication failed to alleviate my symptoms, I would find myself in the emergency room or urgent care, suffering from debilitating headaches and vomiting. There were times when I genuinely believed I might die. This was not a sustainable way to address my migraines.

On numerous occasions, I felt the need to prove that I indeed suffered from migraines. Every time I was asked to keep a journal, this thought plagued my mind. I did my best to convey that migraines ran in my family, but it often seemed insignificant. With certain doctors, they insinuated that I was exaggerating my symptoms. Why would anyone fabricate a migraine? I can confidently say that spending a Saturday afternoon in the emergency room was not how I preferred to spend my time. During those instances of gaslighting, the focus was typically placed on triggers. Yes, stress can trigger my migraines, but it does not mean that anxiety is the sole cause. When you experience gaslighting, you can feel as if you're going crazy whether you have a migraine or not. Being in a cold doctor's office while wearing a white robe already leaves one feeling incredibly vulnerable.

To those currently enduring medical gaslighting, here are some ways I have fought back. Firstly, trust your instincts. I cannot compete intellectually with someone who has spent years in medical school, but I can rely on how I feel during a conversation. As I've grown older, I have become better at discerning whether a doctor will meet me halfway or if I need to seek another opinion. If my questions are dismissed or my symptoms are minimized, I often begin searching for a new doctor. Secondly, don't hesitate to seek a second, third, or even fourth opinion. It is unfortunate that this is not a standard part of the medical process. I wish every patient was required to seek a second opinion before proceeding with care, and that doctors were obligated to consult with colleagues before making final decisions. At times, I inform one doctor that I will be sharing their notes with another doctor, and I have witnessed their attitude change when they realize their work will be scrutinized. We all bring biases to our work, but for some professionals, the consequences are much higher.

Moreover, do not let finances dictate your health decisions. While we all have financial limitations, I am willing to spend a little more to obtain the answers I need regarding my health. I have encountered doctors who withhold tests due to their high cost, but I believe I should have the final say on what is too expensive. For me, this may involve budgeting or using my medical flex spending card for alternative therapies, seeking out-of-network but highly recommended specialists, or opting for more expensive screening tests that can eliminate certain diseases.

Lastly, bring a friend or loved one to your appointments. I have lost count of the times I have brought my husband along and received a completely different response from doctors. It seemed as if my comments were taken more seriously, reminding the doctor that I am loved by people beyond their perception of me as just a number.

Fortunately, there are compassionate and caring doctors worldwide. However, in this field, the margin of error must be minimal. A bad day at work for some can result in a failed project, while for doctors, it can be a matter of life and death. Let's replace gaslighting with trust, compassion, and respect, and allow everyone the opportunity to live their best lives. If you are seeking support or further information, I encourage you to connect with fellow migraineurs in our Migraine Support Community on Facebook.

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