Medical Gaslighting, Soccer, and Little Old Me

I jokingly refer to this as my “I could have gone pro if I hadn’t blown out my knee in the championship game” story. I don’t tell it much, because it feels…hard to say. Whiny, I guess? Mostly because there is an element of “I missed my chance” to it, which feels petty and stuck in the past.

But in truth, it’s not what I missed. It’s more a story what wasn’t done, and something I’ve started referring to as Medical Gaslighting.

Why talk about it now? The world cup definitely brought a lot of this bubbling back to the surface. I used to play against Rapinoe; we were in different city leagues & traveling teams that competed against one another. She’s so fucking fierce and proud and amazing, and I don’t even have words for what it’s like to see her dominate as she has. She worked hard to get where she is and I love watching her.

But also, I find myself fighting the medical establishment again. This new fight, along with the knowledge of how doctors tend to dismiss women, has inspired some reflection. And the only conclusion I arrive at, time and again, is anger. Rage. The kind that heats in the pit of your stomach until it sparks and consumes your whole chest.

To start, I was a soccer player. A very, very good soccer player. As much as that sounds like braggadocio, I can back it up. I had a lot of great coaches over the years that helped me grow, and in high school I further refined my skills playing on the boy’s team, eventually as a starter. When I was awarded All League my senior year, I was the only girl to have ever been given the honor in our division.

I had a coach ask me to play for him my freshman year of college but due to switching schools last minute, I didn’t that year. Instead I took a soccer class for fun, and that coach begged me endlessly to join the women’s team until I relented. So my sophomore year of college, I joined and unseated the current sweeper as a starter (I don’t think she ever forgave me.)

That’s where it really starts, that season of soccer I played in college. I hurt my back early on and played until I couldn’t walk upright anymore. Game after game, fighting the constant spasms, hardly able to walk across campus during the day. Things weren’t good on the team, due to the coach I agreed to play for departing and leaving a couple assholes in his place, but I tried, pushing through so much constant pain and agony, spasms nearly dropping me between classes.

Until one day, I couldn’t anymore. I couldn’t run more, I couldn’t hurt more. It’d been months and I had no more to give. If you know me in person, that’s saying a lot. I’m physically a “go until failure” sort, and I hit the failure point.

I think about this point in my life a lot with my current doctor fight. As of right now, I can safely eat a very limited variety of foods. The list of what I can eat is shorter than what I can’t. “What’s causing it?” people ask. I don’t know. “You should see a doctor!” they helpfully* say. “What does the doctor think it is?”

Well. A doctor would have to actually listen to me when I tell them I’m not okay. That would be a good starting point to diagnosing why I can’t eat but so far… I’m still waiting for that to happen. And even if they listen, I don’t have a few thousand dollars sitting around to lob at tests (Go American medical establishment!) So the doctors go “Well, you look healthy enough,” and dismiss me, time and again.

After a while, if nobody thinks you’re sick, you start to believe that you’re the crazy one.

I’m fortunate in that I have a supportive group of people to lean on, who remind me that what I’m dealing with isn’t normal. Who assure me I’m not losing my mind. Who want to go strangle the doctors who dismiss what I say out of hand, doctors who ask “Have you considered cutting ‘x’ out of your diet?” while holding the list I’ve handed them of everything I’ve cut out of my diet, including ‘x.’

Even so. Am I the crazy one here? It lingers in my mind, dogging my every concern, whispering just accept this, there’s nothing wrong, this is just how things are now, even as I lose weight and go through bouts of being too sick to eat at all.

Not to mention the exhaustion. I have a very hard time fighting for myself and when I work up the gusto to do so only to be called a liar by a doctor, it’s crushing. I’ve been fighting for…what, 3 years now? 4? Eventually, the bastards do wear you down. I’m nearly too tired to fight anymore. A part of me wants to haul my family with me to every medical visit, just so they can fight instead. I don’t have much left in me to do it myself.

Which is more or less what happened with my back. Eventually, I became the crazy person, attention seeking and making things up. And if I’m bad at fighting for myself now, it was even worse when I was younger.

It started with a lot of shrugs in the Sports Medicine building. An intern almost solved it, I know that now. She stretched my hips a certain way and the pain let me know she was on to something. But then her boss said “IDK, here’s a chiropractor to go see,” and kicked me out.

A chiropractor who ran through my insurance money like it was a challenge, hurt me worse, and then told me “Well it’s going to spasm a lot more before it starts getting better.”

Then a doctor who shrugged and said, “I don’t think you really know what a spasm is.”

Then the next doctor, who looked at an X-ray, shrugged, said “You know, a lot of people suffer lower back pain,” and dismissed me from the exam room. He said that to a 19 year old woman, in good physical shape, who couldn’t walk upright.

There was no help. No relief. No suggestions of what else to do. Just apathy, disbelief, and dismissal. I was benched the rest of the season and the woman who’d been scouting me for the university team disappeared. It took my back another three months to stop spasming once the season ended.

What I know now, nearly 15 years later? One good physical therapist could have helped me. One person looking at 19 year old me, laying on the ground, nearly unable to get up, and taking me seriously could have saved me untold amounts of pain. I finally saw a physical therapist at 32, and we dealt with what happens in my hips to make my back go into spasms. I can stop things now before they get bad, without having to spend four days in bed every time, as I’ve been forced to for years. At 32. After I finally sat in a doctor’s office and told them I didn’t want to talk about it, I just wanted a referral.

The bitch of it is, if you talk to your female friends and loved ones, this isn’t an uncommon story. Almost all of us have tales of misdiagnosis, dismissal, and outright being accused of lying by doctors. It keeps us from going to the doctor when we should. It makes up put off visits for too long, ignoring dangerous signs, risking our lives.

Women die from this. This kills people.

Couple that with what we know now about how medication’s effects on women isn’t studied, how we’re not given the correct dosage because nobody bothered to figure it out, how a medicine designed to stop a woman’s pain was deemed better used to make men’s dicks hard, how for years nobody bothered to understand how heart attack symptoms manifest differently in women…on and on and on.

There’s a malfeasance in medicine and when I stop to look back on what it’s cost me, in terms of pain, in terms of opportunities, in what it’s cost the other women in my life, I want to simultaneously weep and break things. Fall apart, and march in the streets. It’s as heartbreaking as it is rage-inducing.

The good news is that it’s becoming a known fact. We now know how women have been excluded and ignored, especially women of color. It’s a problem that’s in the public’s consciousness, which is necessary if we’re ever going to address and correct it. I just hope we manage to do more than nod sagely and admit it’s a problem fast enough to keep more women from dying from neglect and dismissal.

I worry a little bit every day that I’m going to die from a doctor not believing me.

Plus, it’d just be nice to eat a real meal like a human again.

I miss beer.