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  • Writer's picturevictoriaellenmack

Medical Gaslighting

A visit to an eye doctor reminded me what it's like to be dismissed as crazy

About a year ago I realized it was time for my annual eye exam. I’d had Lasik done about 10 years ago, and since then had only needed glasses for distance, but they’d been getting a little bit worse, and I knew I needed a new prescription. I’d been going to the optometrist at the local VisionWorks, and I decided it was time to upgrade to a proper ophthalmology office. I found one nearby, and made an appointment.

The eye doctor was a warm middle-aged man with a thick Georgia accent. We got along very well at first. I told him I had Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, and he actually knew what it was. We chatted about our favorite television shows. Then he turned off the lights, dilated my eyes, and examined them. He told me everything looked fine. He pulled up the vision chart and asked me to read the fourth line.

That's where things started to get weird

I was confused. In my previous appointments at other offices, dilation had always happened after reading the chart. I assumed he knew what he was doing, though, so I squinted and peered at the chart.

I couldn’t read a single letter.

He turned on the lights and sat down, sighing. “I’m afraid you have something called ‘Pseudo-myopia,’” he said.

I blinked. I still couldn’t see a damn thing. “Pseudo-myopia? What is that?”

“It’s when your brain thinks your vision is much worse than it actually is.”

I kept blinking. I really wanted to be able to see him. “You’re saying…I’m making up that I can’t read the words? I’m sure it’s just because I’m still dilated.”

“It’s definitely not because you’re still dilated. That would be impossible. People always bounce back by now.”

“Okay, but like I told you when I first came in, I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, so my body doesn’t ever 'bounce back' like other people’s do. I think it's much more likely to be the dilation than a psychological disorder.”

“You’re getting worked up now, and there’s no reason for it.”

I was getting a little worked up, and him saying I was getting worked up made me more worked up. “Well, I guess I just don’t like being told something is all in my head.”

“I’m not saying it’s in your head. What you’re seeing is real to you.”

I didn’t know what to say. I just sat there. He leaned forward.

“Listen, I’m not saying anything bad about you. This is very common for Type A personalities. You’re obviously a real…a real go-getter. So this makes complete sense. Trust me.”

At this point my face was hot, my pulse was racing, and I wanted to get the hell out of there. I’m a go-getter, so I think I’m blind? WTF was he talking about?!

“Listen, I’m just gonna go.”

“Go? We haven’t finished your ex–”

“I just want to go. I don’t think this is working out.” I don’t even know why, because lord knows worse things have happened to me in doctors’ offices, but I felt I was about to cry, and I didn’t want him to see. I grabbed my jacket and my bag and high-tailed it out of there.

The next day I called and made an appointment with the other optometrist in that office. I refused to pay another fee. When I met with the second doc, I told him I didn’t want to be dilated until after the exam.

And wouldn’t you know it? I could read the letters on the chart much better! In fact, my vision turned out to be just a little bit worse than it had been a year before. Which is exactly what I’d expected. Because I do not, in fact, think I’m blind. I don’t actually make up physical ailments. I have plenty of real ailments to deal with. I don’t want any more.

It blows my mind that people are so quick to assume that so many of us are making up our symptoms. Why on earth would we do that? I mean, yes, I understand that the world is full of all kinds of people, and there are undoubtedly a few who are actually making things up for attention. But–I’m talking to you now, docs of the world–it’s hella rare. It’s not nearly as common as you think it is. Even, believe it or not, among women. Most women don’t make up insane symptoms for attention.

If you dilate a woman's eyes, and she can no longer read the chart, maybe, just maybe, it’s because of the dilation? Maybe she doesn’t have some strange psychological issue that causes her to think she's almost blind? And maybe when she tells you her body reacts differently than healthy bodies react and that’s what’s going on–maybe, just maybe, YOU SHOULD BELIEVE HER!!!

What kind of medical gaslighting have you encountered?

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