If you don’t quite understand how the brain can formulate illnesses when they’re not there, it’s OK—it’s still hard even for me to understand the workings of my mind, even after doing tireless research on the subject and attending biweekly therapy sessions for over a year. It’s especially hard to wrap your head around hypochondria if you haven’t experienced it firsthand. “It’s an obsession, and oftentimes people don’t want to listen to someone’s obsessions,” Gail Martz-Nelson, a Denver psychologist specializing in anxiety disorders told Psychology Today. “‘I’m terrified I have HIV, I’m terrified I have cancer, I’m terrified I have lymphoma.’ People hear that and dismiss it or laugh it off. But being a hypochondriac can be crippling. It’s not a joke.”
My very real paranoia and fear were rarely acknowledged; my obsession shrugged off as irrationality since, physically, I seemed to be the picture of health. This is partly due to the fact that women’s pain is routinely ignored, both by themselves and (more pressingly) by medical professionals. Historically, women have been disparaged from coming forward with their health concerns, as reported in great detail in a recent Medium essay from Eileen Pollack, author of The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club. Pollack exhaustively demonstrates how the medical establishment undermines, misdiagnoses, and gaslights women. For example, she cites research that’s shown how doctors and nurses consider female patients “more demanding” than male patients because they “ask too many questions and ‘communicate too diffusively.'”
“Though we have come a long way since the days of Victorian medicine and women being diagnosed with hysteria, research suggests there is still a gender gap when it comes to medical treatment,” Laura Albers, a certified master wellness coach by The International Association of Wellness Professionals and licensed professional counselor, tells me. “Some stereotypes persist around women being overly emotional and irrational, making it easier for some doctors to react more dismissively when a female patient comes to them in pain.”
This is precisely where the misdiagnosis of hypochondriasis comes into play: “Medical professionals tend to dismiss as hypochondriacs people who visit doctors frequently, use pain medications excessively, ask for surgery, and generally act in ways an invalid would act—all of which correspond with the behavior of someone who suffers from a real disease no one believes she has,” Pollack writes. This is offensive—especially to me, a woman who actually suffers from IAD—and unacceptable.
A potential IAD diagnosis isn’t permission for dismissal from medical professionals. It’s this behavior that’s seemingly heralded the modern comeback of the “female hysteria” prescription. As we push for the medical establishment to start taking women’s pain more seriously, we also need a better system in place for recognizing and sensitively treating possible IAD. For me, my hypochondriasis is my pain, and it’s very, very real.
The fact that I have hypochondria doesn’t mean that I should stop advocating for my own health. No matter their diagnosis or lack thereof, women are not “difficult” for asking questions. We are each our own spokeswoman in a complicated system of frequent, unfortunate oppression and dismissal.
Albers says that women commonly tend to be more in tune with their bodies, and they notice more when they are having symptoms or when something seems “out of balance”—like an intuitive gut feeling that something isn’t quite right. But “if you are continually gaslighted about what your body is telling you, you grow less and less able to trust those signals,” Pollack writes.
Just because I’ve struggled intensely with IAD in the past and more mildly in the present doesn’t mean that I haven’t learned to trust my body’s intuition when it comes to pain and to know when something’s actually wrong with my health. Just like so many women, what I need at the end of the day is to be taken seriously. To be heard.