Medical Gaslighting and Me

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Mindy Tucker

Elissa Bassist is used to being called “hysterical.” She’s the editor of The Rumpus’ “Funny Women” column and for two years she saw over 20 medical professionals for ailments they thought she made up (ha!).

Hysterical is about, in part, Bassist’s experience with “medical gaslighting,” the phrase that describes when medical professionals dismiss your medical concerns or delay your treatment, or label you with suspect words like “oversensitive” or “agitated” — all of which can cause pointless suffering and sometimes death. As Bassist documents in Hysterical, women, BIPOC, LGBTQ people, and older patients experience medical gaslighting disproportionately.

This is Bassist’s coming-of-age story. Growing up in Denver, Colorado, she was often called “dramatic” for speaking her mind or “attention-seeking” when voicing her pain. Because of this, Bassist, like so many women, learned to say “yes” when she meant “no” and spoke with constant fear of being “too much.”

She felt rage from her silence and from being silenced, she writes, but like a good girl, she repressed it. Then, after the 2016 election, throbs behind her eyes morphed into debilitating headaches that eventually traveled down her neck and back and limbs. She tried massages and medication and MRI scans. Until an acupuncturist suggested that some of her physical pain could be converted caged fury. The prescription? Expressing herself. By treating her voice, she would treat the problem.

It was the same advice that Bassist’s mentor, Cheryl Strayed, famously wrote to her in Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” column back in 2010: “So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”

In Hysterical, Bassist screams that silence hurts more than anything “wrong” we could ever say.

First, why “Hysterical”?

I thought of Hysterical during a nap. Each meaning of the word fit the book I was writing about unexplained physical symptoms, about uncontrolled extreme emotion, about derogatory terms meant to silence women (especially “overdramatic” women who change their feelings a lot), and more, a lot more. It’s a historic word (the Greeks and Egyptians used it) and a buzzword (some boyfriends and most elected Republicans use it to demonize women for their opinions and for fretting about reproductive rights). I’ve been called “hysterical” more than any other word and for every reason: for being funny, for being sick, for being sad, for getting hurt, for getting mad, for asking a question, for being alive.

In your research, you learned how physically alienating the world is for half of the population, from seatbelts to toilet designs. What surprised you most?

There’s so much evidence that the world doesn’t care if women die. The U.S. female homicide rate and maternal mortality rate break world records. (In fact, the number of women’s deaths in hospitals has galvanized California to institute a checklist to formally give women the opportunity to speak up for themselves.)

There were more animal shelters than women’s shelters as recently as the ’90s in America. Crash-test dummies are based on the “average” male body, and similarly, medical education teaches the white, male body as “the human body,” and men are the norm and the ideal (everyone else is “abnormal,” which means their suffering is less significant, if even existent). Most medical schools don’t even teach menopause!

Also, there’s a gender gap in illness, physical, and mental. Women are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression and to be medicated. At the same time, most medications aren’t tested on female bodies, and if they are, they’re not tested on menstruating bodies; adult drug dosages are based on a man-​size body, so women take inappropriate dosages, are overmedicated, and are prone to an adverse drug reaction.

What is your warning and wisdom for women experiencing chronic pain but are asked by doctors, “What if nothing is wrong with you?”

My mom’s wisdom is, “Be your own advocate,” and she survived breast cancer three times. This  risks being perceived as “rude,” “stubborn,” “annoying.”

Be annoying and ungrateful and disloyal by keeping receipts: of medical records and medications, exam and lab results, appointment summaries. Take notes during appointments. Ask questions and share in the decisions. Keep a detailed list of symptoms, of where it hurts and when and what it feels like.

What are some of the signs of medical gaslighting, from your own experience, that readers should look out for?

Red flags that I ignored — because I wanted to be a “good patient” and not annoy anyone by making them do their job — were fielding dismissive questions like, “Are you even in the pain that you say you’re in?” Also, I was made to wait too long for appointments and for diagnoses (as women often are), and I was misdiagnosed (as women often are, especially for autoimmune diseases).

Meanwhile, I didn’t know that it was standard for white cis men to have shorter wait times, be given pain medication, to be referred for tests versus to therapists, to be listened to and believed right away — so when that doesn’t happen, question it.

My symptoms, which were killing me (figuratively and actually), were downplayed or questioned in condescending tones by curt, flippant medical professionals who made me feel stupid/unimportant/ridiculous. Communicating with doctors often felt like a bad date.

Shifting gears a bit — how do you think ’90s pop culture shaped and stifled the elder-millennial woman’s voice?

Anyone who grew up watching TV in the 1990s probably grasped three things: Men have a voice. Women have a body. Mentos are “the Freshmaker.” And also that women should be loud in the sheets and quiet on the streets. Magazines especially gave me infinite tips on how I could feel beautiful by letting boys finish my sentences for me. Tiger Beat told me to view and value myself in terms of how boys viewed and valued me, and I learned responsibility by way of pleasing a man, any man, those I choose and those I didn’t. How to be a sex object detached from sex? — let me show you. Then, as an adult, it seemed like a curse, how I could say whatever a boy or man wanted to hear (and literally nothing else), how I could go along with whatever and put up with whatever and not complain, and how often I could apologize.

How do you think your life would be different now if you’d had the same speaking liberties as boys? What has been the financial toll of speaking and living as a girl?

Obviously I’d be a best-selling author/international sensation/running for reelection to political office/be married and divorced. If I had to do the math, the average working American woman will lose $530,000 in her lifetime (the gender pay gap), plus pay over $1,300 per year in “pink tax” plus birth control plus emotional support animals plus beauty care and plastic surgery to reverse-age, then the financial toll is [mimics blacking out].

You use a pseudonym for your ex: “Fucktaco.” What pseudonyms do you think/hope your exes would give you?

Taylor Swift.

Medical Gaslighting and Me