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Health Talk 06: Medical Gaslighting: how it impacts patients and ways to manage it

In this enlightening conversation, Kelly Mendenhall shares with Celine her work in highlighting medical gaslighting, what it is, and how she has personally experienced it as a Spoonie and chronic condition patient.

Kelly is the senior community leader for SpineNation, one of the leading patient advocacy organizations for back pain. Kelly is also an author, blogger, and journalist raising awareness of medical gaslighting which often leaves women permanently disabled or worse. Kelly is a Spoonie who manages multiple invisible illnesses. She published her debut memoir last year called Skin in the Game: the stories my tattoos tell. She is now working on her second book, The Medical Gaslighting Project.

*This transcript is auto-generated

Hey y'all, my name is Celine and I'm the

founder of Flowly and your host for

today's Health Talk by Flowly.

As you might know Flowly is a mobile

platform for chronic pain and anxiety


Essentially we teach users to control

their heart rate and their breathing to

better manage their nervous system.

We like to invite everyone from chronic

pain patients, chronic pain advocates,

professionals and practitioners in the

industry to really share their different


and experiences on a very unique and

challenging journey often

but i'm really excited to speak with

Kelly Mendenhall today

because not only she is Spoonie herself

but she has years of experiencing

patient advocacy

and writing in the space. Kelly is a

senior community leader for Spine Nation

one of the leading patient advocacy

organizations for back pain.

She's an author, blogger, journalist

and all about raising awareness of

medical gaslighting which often leads


permanently disabled or worse. She

published her debut memoir last year

called Skin In The Game: The Stories My

Tattoos Tell.

And she's now working on her second book

The Medical Gaslighting Project.

My team and I have actually worked with

Kelly in partnering with Spine Nation so

I'm particularly warm to welcome a


and Flowly user. Welcome Kelly.

Thank you so much. Thanks for having me on today.

So I wanted to start at the beginning of

your journey because I know you

managed multiple different

illnesses and conditions

and you've been through it.

What was your journey to

diagnosis? What were some of the

challenges you faced along the way in


Well, for starters, I just would like to


I didn't really think of myself as a

Spoonie when I lived

with PTSD and major depressive disorder

and generalized anxiety disorder. I had

never really put

myself in that category. So it wasn't

until my chronic pain

and spine rehab journey started that I

started thinking of myself

as a Spoonie. I think it's different for


and everyone's journey is different when

it comes to how we self-identify

just like with so many other aspects of


My journey to diagnosis took quite a bit

of time.

So I was a person who experienced

kind of chronic aches and pains and

occasional bouts of sciatica

for several years. I'm talking like

throughout my 20s

and 30s and then all of a sudden

I went from being a person with aches

and pains who had a lot of Ibuprofen on

hand at all times to being a person who

couldn't walk

and had no range of motion in my legs

I could only shuffle my feet a couple of

inches at a time

the pain was so bad that I was like

sneaking into empty offices at work and


in pain and then I'd like pull myself

together and go back out and try and

face it

That happened really quickly. It was that

part of the

progression was very fast and it took


June of 2019 before we had a full

understanding and picture of what was

going on and

that's just with my spine and I have a

whole another set of issues that I'm

dealing with

with my female, my lady bits as I like to

call it,

my baby box. And so

that's like been separate in addition

to the spine but

what it took was firing a lot of doctors

making a lot of doctors angry and

insisting on new doctors

and referrals and I finally got to the

right neurologist

who was like "What on earth is happening?

They've only ever looked at your low


Have you ever asked to have a full

spinal MRI?" and I said "Yes, I asked three

different doctors on three different


For full spinal MRIs knowing that I have

trauma history as far as like physical

injuries and stuff

and they all denied me that. They all

said "No, you don't need it. You're fine.

You shouldn't be having this pain blah


yeah and so this neurologist was like "No,

you have

very clear neurological symptoms. You

have foot drop.

You have hyper reflexes in your arms and

your legs

and your fingers and even your jaw." Like

there I couldn't pass a sobriety


even though I was sober. I was just in

his office and that's one of the things

that they sometimes do

to check your neurological you know


And I couldn't pass the

sobriety test and so he sent me

for those full spinal MRIs and that's

when we found

out the full depth of what was happening

in my spine

and what was happening is that I have

degenerative disc

disease and mine is considered moderate

and probably has progressed pretty

quickly even though I'm only in my 30s


but I had four bulging discs in a row in

my lumbar spine but what they were

missing the biggest piece of the puzzle

they were missing by only looking at my

lumbar spine

was that I had a very rare type of


in my spine called the centralized

rupture. So normally when a disc

in your spine ruptures it pushes out to

the left or the right side

and they can see it when they do scans

and things but mine was a centralized

rupture so

it pushed straight back onto my spinal


that in and of itself is rare but then

it was also at the junction where your

thoracic and lumbar spine

meet right under my bottom rib which is

an extremely rare place to have

a rupture so I was a unicorn in a lot of


I see the unicorn on your shirt right now.

Yeah one of my best friends got

me this shirt

But I wanted to kind of

dive into that a little bit because

you know you're talking about

your unicorn these are very

rare conditions you

talked to like so many doctors. You've had

to fire doctors like

this is I think you know itself this

could be a

for some people traumatic experience

and of itself when you're talking about

something that's health and it's so

vulnerable to each person and yet you're

getting questioned and

people are not taking you seriously and

I think this might lead into

what you're writing about now which is

you know kind of sharing from your

perspective what is medical gaslighting

and what inspired you to be writing

and sharing awareness about this.

Yeah absolutely. It is that, that's a

really big piece of my life now is

raising awareness of medical gas

lighting. So medical gas lighting if

we think of gas lighting

in a romantic relationship or an

interpersonal relationship

we generally in a very general way we

think of it as like

someone trying to make you feel crazy or

make you feel like you're not

seeing reality when really they're like

distorting reality

and so medical gaslighting which happens

to women statistically more than men but

does happen to men too

is when your doctor is doing that so

your doctor

is saying things to you like "Well your

scans don't show any reason for you to

be experiencing that.

So you shouldn't be experiencing that." or

"Are you sure that you just don't feel

like working?"

or I would get accused of drug seeking a


and wanting narcotic and opioids but I

think you and I have discussed,

I early on made a decision that

opioids were and narcotics were not a

good option for me

for one because it was nerve pain and

for two

because I have an addiction history in

my family

very like up to my sister I mean it's

really close

I would get accused by some of them for

drug seeking

and then other ones would get mad at me

when I refused

prescriptions for those kinds of meds

and they would say "Well then it must not

be that bad." And it was like

I couldn't win, right? Those types of

things are

what I'm talking about when I talk about

medical gas lighting and

and it really does happen to women way


than we probably realize and I

found that out on accident so

my master's degree is in political


and I've always been a researcher by

nature and so I was working on an


that I was writing for blasting news


women and chronic pain and

my experience and my mom actually

pointed out to me that the comedian

Jim Gaffigan's wife almost died because

she had a brain tumor and like me

doctors were saying "No everything's fine.

You're fine. There's nothing wrong. You're


and it turned out she had a brain tumor

it nearly killed her

and so I read that article and then

I was like well I wonder if this is

happening more often and that's where

the research came in

and I was like blown away by some of the

clinical and legal studies that have


done on this. It's crazy.

it's absolutely insane and like when I

tell you

every single user we talk to

has experienced this, it is like an

understatement and it's shocking

and it's like I think the work you're

doing is so important in raising

awareness about this to let people know


first of all you you have the authority

to be your own health advocate

and to know that these doctors you know

some might be great but there are many

that aren't going to be there for you

and listen to you

and so I think the first step is

actually recognizing that you're not

alone in this and that it's not just in

your head.

And that's where a community like what

what we have on Spine Nation or in

Flowly that's where those things come

in handy because

you know when I was immobilized my

online community became my lifeline to

the world

and I was scared though and

I felt alienated and alone

because I didn't know anyone else

personally going through anything like I

was going through

well I found people through the online

community and

that helped me a lot building

the online

kind of safety net and people who I can

talk to and commiserate with

and that's really when I dove more into

the Spoony culture

because I was like the these guys

like they know exactly what I'm dealing

with. Yeah exactly.

You know whereas everyone that I

worked with outside the home

had kind of I ceased to exist when I

didn't walk into the office anymore

I had people who are online who I only

knew online

who were checking on me every day and

yeah so that's where

things like Flowly and Spine Nation

come in I think and are critical to our


through stuff like this.

I mean I think

your ability to like, right now the

ability to connect with each other even

online is so critical

but the other thing that you've done is

you have your own blog and you share a

lot of

deeply personal experiences and I wonder

for you

what is the balance in that like. Do you

feel vulnerable? Is it hard to share

these experiences?