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Medical Gaslighting of Women & Menopause - Let's Talk

Medical gaslighting might be something you've already experienced without realising it. Let’s look at how it works, as well as what you can do if you experience medical gaslighting around menopause or perimenopause symptoms here in France. 


What is medical gaslighting? 


Gaslighting' is an informal term for a manipulation tactic where your lived experience is denied and belittled by someone, until you start to doubt yourself.  


The definition of medical gaslighting is when a doctor diminishes and/or dismisses your medical symptoms and your concerns about your health. It might be insinuated that you are just anxious, or everything is in your head. 


Medical gaslighting and menopause


When it comes to perimenopause symptoms, you might be told that your symptoms are too general, 'just fatigue', 'part of getting older', or that you are 'too young' for it to be menopause related. You can walk out of an appointment feeling confused, rejected, overlooked, and hopeless. Not great when perimenopause itself already has us emotional. 


In an article in The Daily Beast by a board certified ob gyn, she admits that in medical school they used an acronym for women who came in complaining of perimenopausal-like symptoms. That being "WW". Short for? "Whiny women". 

Why being gaslit by a doctor matters


Aside from the fact that you walk out feeling hopeless, medical gaslighting can also mean that you don’t receive the treatment you need, and suffer from symptoms from far longer.

When it comes to perimenopause, this can mean months or even years more of not functioning well on a daily basis. 


Or you might be given the wrong sort of medication along with all the side effects and risks that can bring.  I hear a lot of medical gaslighting stories where, for example, women are given the mini pill instead of HRT, or are offered antidepressants.


My experience of medical gaslighting


While it can be easy to moan about the French system, it's far from a French problem. Doctors in places like America and the UK are also happily gaslighting women around perimenopause! Even despite the leaps and bounds made in the latter recently. 


Indeed, my first experience of medical gaslighting as a perimenopausal woman was in England. I went to see my GP for anxiety, mood swings, hair loss, severe sleep issues and night sweats, etcetera, curious if it was hormonal. She offered me, you guessed it, anti depressants.


She then noticed a rash on my hand and decided that otherwise, I might have lupus. Yes, that’s right, lupus. I protested that as a redhead I always had strange rashes, but walked out with the prescription for the anti depressants, and a blood test to rule out lupus. 


My experience of medical gaslighting in France 


My second experience of gaslighting was indeed in France and what I would call ‘semi gaslighting’. The doctor said, "You are fine you just need to have more sex." Very sensitive indeed when I told her I’d just gone through a breakup.


But as I got up to leave she scrawled out a prescription and said, "Oh, and just take that." Waving me away when I looked at it, confused. It was only when I got home and googled it that I discovered that it was for progesterone. She'd given me a form of HRT! So in France it was gaslight on the surface, prescribe on the sly? Thankfully that was many years ago now and I've found better gynaecologists.


Why is medical gaslighting still happening in France? 


Your chance of experiencing medical gaslighting in France is much higher if you see your general practitioner (family doctor) and not a gynaecologist. 


Unlike in other countries, it is the domain of gynaecologists and in some cases endocrinologists to prescribe HRT and deal with menopause here, not your family doctor. Indeed, if you go see a family doctor in a city, they will just tell you to see a gynaecologist. 

The exception to this is countryside areas where gynaecologists are few and far between, and general practitioners take over other duties. So then why are they so under educated? And prone to brushing you off? Well in some ways… they aren’t. They are up-to-date with the only guidelines they have to refer to, the ones put out by the Haute Authorité de Santé (HAS). Which, unfortunately, have not been properly updated in a decade! (Read my article on official guidelines around menopause to understand this issue). 


A gynaecologist, on the other hand, has to be more up to date. They are supposed to know the newer recommendations put out in 2021 by the  CNGOF (Collège National des Gynécologues et Obstétriciens Français).


What should I do if I experience medical gaslighting around menopause? 


So then how should you deal with medical gaslighting for perimenopause if it happens to you in France? 


1. First of all, note that perimenopause-like symptoms CAN be other things. 


Look ladies I’ll be honest I get contacted by women in their early forties who are so caught up in all the online info on perimenopause, they have one small symptom and are freaking out and sure they need HRT.


This is the time of life all sorts of health issues, both physical and mental, can rear up. So it’s important to take a holistic, fair view. In fact a doctor who just immediately agrees with you, is NOT a good doctor and could be overlooking a very serious other health issue.


Look for a doctor who is interested in getting to the bottom of your symptoms. This can mean a full blood profile, and an investigation of other symptoms, such as a pelvic scan for bloating and heavy bleeds, or a cardiogram if your heart is always racing. Or, as in my case, a test for lupus. I mean who knows, right?


3. Stop seeing the wrong sort of doctor, then just giving up! 


I see this so often. Women come to France, assume the system is like elsewhere, and go see their family doctor. They get brushed off, then get angry and emotional (fair enough, I get it, moods can be all over the place in perimenopause). But then… they give up! They decide ‘that’s enough for me’ and slide into victim mode. 


I always ask this question. If this was your kid going through health issue, and the first doctor didn’t listen… wold you then just give up?! Why on earth are you treating yourself hat way? 

Look for a gynaecologist that is recommended by other women and definitely deals with menopause. This is literally 80% of the battle won. Find the right doctor and you are almost there to great treatment. Look for a gynaecologist recommended by other women. 


4. If the first doctor doesn’t work out see another. 


Yes, it seems obvious. But again, I constantly see women have ONE bad experience then give up. Pull up your socks and see someone else. I saw FIVE gynaecologists before I felt sure I got the right regime. Yes, five. But I know I am worth it. Aren’t you? 


Also note you can see as many gynaecologists as you like, as many times in a year as you want, and you receive health coverage each time (the amount reimbursed of course being dependent on what mutuelle you have, and what regime the doctor is registered under, etc).


5. Learn to describe your symptoms in a way that means you will be listened to. 


If finding the right doctor is 90%, what is the other 20% of the battle to getting HRT? Well 10% is definitely knowing how to communicate with a French doctor. And by that I mean how to describe your symptoms in a way that means they will take your situation seriously.


You need to first know the gateway symptoms here (the symptoms that doctors are told to look for by official guidelines). And then also learn the symptoms that the French find important, according to their culture and perspective on life.

Hint: It is NOT the way you describe your symptoms in other countries. They will not care if you are anxious (it’s a natural state of being for most French people). Or care if you have brain fog (which isn’t actually a gateway symptom in any country, by the way, despite being a common side effect). I devote. a section to all this in my book.


6. Educate yourself first. 


The final 10% is to arrive educated. French doctors, like doctors in most countries these days it seems, can be harried, on a short time slot, and, well, grumpy. If you know what you are talking about and what medication you want, it really ups your chances of getting it. This is why I wrote my book, a roadmap to how to describe your symptoms and what medication to ask for. As well as how to find and book the right kind of doctor.


You are powerful, you can choose your HRT journey 

 

Amazingly, women hear me tell them all they need to know, then STILL go to see a family doctor who nobody has recommended, and then moan about how awful France is.


Perhaps the one key thing to avoiding medical gaslighting is this, if I can be brutally frank - you have to WANT to be treated well and have a good experience. Because let me very clear, if deep down you want to have something to complain about, and again feel like a victim, you will find the perfect situation to do so quite easily! 


Medical gaslighting and women's health is a worldwide issue, not just France. We are privileged that gold-standard HRT is available here, for free or at a low cost. There is some effort involved, sure. But to be fair there is in any country. And again, aren't you worth it?


Andrea Marie is the author of "HRT in France" a practical guide to navigating the French health system and getting the HRT you need.

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