This is not a post I’d anticipated writing anytime soon, and it’s only tangentially “church” related. But since I mentioned mental illness and the idea of things not being normative in a recent post, and since I just watched Disney’s Encanto this evening with the family, here we go.
If you are one who is skeptical that medical gaslighting actually exists, here is a story for you. Like a play, it’s made of multiple acts; small stories strung together along a common thread. The thread running through it all is the question – if someone seems to be acting irrationally or extremely (emphasis on seems), try asking why. Doing so could lead to a much more productive outcome.
And before diving in, fair warning to the uninitiated – I’m going to be describing things having to do with pregnancy, childbirth, a woman’s reproductive system, and menstrual cycles. While I’m sharing personal information, this will be a polite conversation using clinical terms.
I will also be describing a traumatic childbirth experience.
It All Began with the Stomach Flu
I was eight months pregnant with our oldest child, Miss Bee, and caught the stomach flu. I was vomiting on the hour and couldn’t keep any liquid down. Standing in front of the open toilet, one hand braced against the pedestal sink and the other braced against the toilet paper holder, giant pregnant stomach racked with pain. I dry heaved so hard that I inadvertently ripped the toilet paper holder out of the wall.
Something was wrong.
I called the advice nurse at the labor and delivery department several times over the course of the evening, knowing I was getting dehydrated and that dehydration was really bad for pregnant women and their babies. I kept getting told not to come in.
The dismissiveness happened right off the bat. When I told the first nurse (around 7pm) that I’d thrown up breakfast, she said, “Oh, you would have digested all of breakfast by now.” To which I responded, “No, there was definitely a spinach leaf in there [I recognized the bright green stem floating amongst the muck], and the last time I had spinach was with my breakfast sandwich.”
Being repeatedly told not to come in was aggravating, because I knew something was wrong.
The First Sign I Should Have Been Taken Seriously
After several phone calls and hours of not being able to keep down liquids, I finally lied and told a nurse over the phone that I had developed a fever. They gave me the go-ahead to come in. When David and I got to the labor and delivery building, I was checked in and examined. The nurse told me my temperature was normal.
Huh. Imagine that.
While I was hooked up to an IV and getting rehydrated, the baby’s heartbeat was also being monitored. The nurse realized that the baby’s heartbeat was periodically dropping for extended periods of time. Miss Bee was showing signs of distress still, even though I was no longer vomiting or in distress, myself. I was kept overnight for monitoring.
Long story short, one night in the hospital turned into three turned into coming within a hair’s-breadth of an emergency C-section (David and I both cried after that one, we had been so helplessly terrified for Miss Bee) turned into an induced labor.
Something was wrong.
Continued Dismissiveness in the Delivery Room
The first few hours of actual labor went smoothly. The last four were torture. The pain was so bad that I threw up again, after having been vomit-free for three days. The labor-and-delivery nurse kinda shrugged and was just like, “Yeah, that happens sometimes.”
I told the doctor that I needed something for the pain. She gave me a cervical exam to estimate how far along in the labor process I was. (If you’re a guy reading this, imagine a prostate exam, but in a cervix, instead.)
It felt like she was shoving her entire fist up my cervix. I kicked and screamed and begged her to stop.
Something was wrong.
The doctor was reluctant to give me an epidural, because she thought I wasn’t far enough along in labor and didn’t want to “unnecessarily prolong my labor.” (Because making less work for the hospital outweighed making less agony for me, I guess.) She compromised by giving me a pill that would “take the edge off.” As far as I could tell, it did nothing. The nurse continued to be similarly dismissive.
At some point, I mysteriously got a new nurse. Her name was Beau, and she was a heaven-sent angel. (It was standard practice at that hospital for a labor-and-delivery nurse to be assigned to two patients at a time, assuming the deliveries were low-risk. David later overheard one staff member saying to another that the other patient our original nurse had been assigned to had complained and asked for a new nurse. Because the other patient and I came as a pair in nurse assignments, I also received the benefit of her standing up for herself.)
Only two hours after my kicking-and-screaming cervical exam, I felt the tell-tale need to push. I reported it to Beau, who listened and called in the doctor. The doctor frowned and said it was really too soon, but she’d go ahead and do a cervical exam anyway, just to check. Having already blocked from my memory the agony of the first cervical exam, I assented.
Again, it felt as though she’d shoved her entire fist up my cervix. Again, I kicked, screamed, and begged her to stop.
Something was wrong.
The doctor announced, in shock, “The baby’s coming!”
No duh, was my thought. I already told you.
The doctor (finally) assented to an epidural. I told her that I didn’t think that it was physically possible for me to hold still for the needle insertion at this point.
I wondered (not aloud) where an epidural had been two hours ago when I’d first asked for one.
Even in my pain, I could tell that the room had turned into a madhouse with everyone scrambling to get things ready for the baby. David told me later that they got things in place barely in time to catch Miss Bee, who came out all in a rush, tiny and screaming.
When the placenta was delivered shortly afterward, it was partially abrupted.
Something had been seriously wrong. Something that put my life and the life of my baby at risk.
But instead of being taken seriously, many of the medical staff, particularly those with influence, had been dismissive.
At some point earlier, I had been feeling feverish. Beau obligingly took my temperature and reported that it was normal. Later, after Miss Bee was delivered, she remarked, “No wonder you were feeling hot! You were just a workhorse!” (My labors turned out to be much faster than what is average.) If my arms hadn’t been full of newborn baby right then, I would have hugged her in gratitude for her affirmation of what I already knew to be true.
That there was a logical reason behind my feeling. That it wasn’t “all in my head.”
The Saga Continued
Six weeks later, I showed up for a routine postpartum check-up with my OB/GYN. I was mostly recovered from the partially abrupted placenta and the second-degree tear I sustained in my perineum, in spite of exhaustion from a newborn who woke every three hours in the middle of the night to nurse.
But one nagging problem persisted. I could not sit down comfortably without a throbbing pain in my tailbone. Sitting down to eat. Sitting down to check emails. Sitting down to read. Sitting down to nurse my infant. Sitting down to use the restroom. Sitting down to drive or be driven in a car. Sitting down in the doctor’s office for my exam. Sitting down to simply rest and recover from labor and delivery, a medical procedure that has roughly the same recovery time as open heart surgery. Even lying down could be painful, depending on how my body was positioned.
Even now as I’m typing, I’ve reflexively shifted to one side of my rear to relieve remembered pain in my tailbone. Try doing that for an extended period of time and see how comfortable it is on your lower back. Not much fun, right?
Anyway, when I told my OB/GYN, she brushed my concerns aside. “That’s normal!” She cleared me to go back to work. To my desk job. Where I spent roughly seven hours a day sitting, plus an hour sitting for my commute. (Fortunately, I had already given notice to my employer that I’d be transitioning to full-time caregiving.)
Something was still wrong. And my concerns were still being ignored.
Of course, this is also the doctor who, having just completed the physical exam at my postpartum checkup, congratulated me on my successful C-section. To which I slowly responded, “I didn’t have a C-section…”
What I Learned Later
Roughly two years later, I was nearing the end of my pregnancy with Queen Bee. At a routine pre-natal appointment with a new-to-me midwife, she offered to do a cervical exam to see if labor looked like it would be starting anytime soon. Remembering the torture of the cervical exams during my previous delivery, I cautiously agreed and braced myself for searing pain.
Instead, I felt nothing. A gentle amount of momentary pressure. Nothing more.
Surprised, I commented on this to the midwife. Having already heard about the abrupted placenta of my previous pregnancy, she paused for a moment before thoughtfully responding. “I think your cervix was irritated and sensitive because of the problem with your placenta. It was probably your body’s way of telling you that something was wrong.”
I had been right all along. But hadn’t been taken seriously.
Later, when in actual labor with Queen Bee, I was describing my previous labor to the nurse assisting me. Her name was Michelle, and she was another heaven-sent angel. When I told her that the medicine the OB/GYN overseeing my previous delivery had given me to “take the edge off the pain” didn’t really do anything, she rolled her eyes. “Yeah, that stuff never really does anything.”
I had been in severe pain, and the doctor gave me the equivalent of a placebo. Again, affirmation that I hadn’t been taken seriously when something was legitimately wrong.
Five years later, I brought up the lingering pain I’d experienced weeks after Miss Bee’s delivery, in the context of difficult labor and deliveries. The woman I was corresponding with empathized with what she described as my “broken tailbone.” Curiosity piqued, I did a little digging around online. And found out that yes, a woman’s tailbone can break during childbirth.
I was suffering from a (likely) broken tailbone. And was effectively ignored by the doctor. Once more, affirmation that I hadn’t been taken seriously when something was legitimately wrong.
As a side note, if anyone happens to think that I’m exaggerating what I experienced during Miss Bee’s labor and delivery, rest assured that I had a far more normal experience with Queen Bee’s birth, for which I was also unmedicated. Particularly now that I have a baseline to compare to, I can most assuredly say that my first labor and delivery (second, if you count my natural miscarriage at 11 weeks, but that’s a story for another day) was not how childbirth is supposed to go.
This was not normative in what my body experienced. And it should not have been normative in how my concerns were treated.
Earlier this year, I had a minor medical procedure. I had been living with abnormal spotting during my menstrual cycle for three years (first experienced under treatment of the OB/GYN who mistakenly thought I’d had a C-section and dismissed symptoms of my broken tailbone).
For anyone who’s wondering, I experienced regular and normal menstrual cycles for 20 years previously, so, yes, I know what “abnormal” for my body is.
I happened to be with a new medical group (and all new doctors) when I developed additional spotting.
When I saw the new abnormal spotting, I had a minor anxiety attack. Which, for most people would be a bit of an extreme reaction. But, given my history of not being listened to when there were serious complications with my reproductive system, should come as no surprise. (Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned my very first gynecological exam, done by a practitioner who didn’t believe me when I said I was a virgin.)
I insisted on having a doctor’s appointment a.s.a.p. with my primary care physician, a woman who also handles routine pelvic and cervical exams for her female patients. The poor male “floating” doctor who filled in last-minute had clearly not been expecting to do a cervical exam that day, but gamely got through it with the help of his lady medical assistant, instead of simply reassuring me “that’s normal.” He confirmed that there was blood in the cervix.
It wasn’t “all in my head.”
Though I did have to wait a few months to see if the new spotting kept repeating and a pattern emerged, I was scheduled for bloodwork, then an ultrasound and an appointment with a specialist, and eventually a hysteroscopy. All of this took place within six months of the first onset of new symptoms.
The hysteroscopy (where a scope is sent in through the cervix to look around and remove any abnormal growths) determined that I had not just one but two uterine polyps. Both of which were removed during the procedure. (If you are wondering, uterine polyps can sometimes cause miscarriage and infertility, both of which I’ve experienced in the last 10 years, and can also sometimes be cancerous.)
A few days after the procedure, David’s aunt and uncle happened to be in town. “How are you feeling,” his aunt asked sympathetically, having heard about my recent procedure.
“I feel great!” I responded enthusiastically. “This procedure has been an answer to prayer. I’ve been living with weird symptoms for three years, and someone finally did something about it.”
It was funny. When I mentioned my upcoming procedure to family and a handful of friends, they were all concerned and offered to pray. For which I am very grateful. But the morning of my procedure, it dawned on me that I hadn’t prayed at all, myself. As I later told David, “I’ve just not really felt the need to pray. God has been answering my prayers already through the actions of the people around me, and I haven’t really had to ask for anything more.”
Once the ultrasound had been scheduled, my anxiety had dissipated. When a shadow appeared on the ultrasound, I experienced relief instead of trepidation. Because it was affirmation that it wasn’t all in my head, that something was actually wrong. The difference was, now somebody who could do something about it was willing to act.
When my concerns were taken seriously and acted upon, I was far less anxious about what was happening.
How This Relates to Mental Illness and Encanto
For those unfamiliar with Disney’s Encanto, one of the themes is how the tragedies experienced by the grandmother and matriarch of the family, Abuela Alma, affect her children and grandchildren. As a brand-new mother of newborn triplets, she lost her husband under heroic yet tragic circumstances and had to forge a new life for herself and her family, alone. At the end of the movie, decades later, their home and family have both literally fallen apart. And Mirabel, Abuela Alma’s often-excluded granddaughter, upon understanding the full extent of Abuela Alma’s experiences and seeing Abuela’s dawning realization of how she’s inadvertently harmed her own family, extends the gift of grace to her.
And the audience is left thinking, is it any wonder that Abuela Alma has acted the way she has? Has made the decisions she has? After what she has experienced? Her actions, while ultimately harmful, are also completely logical.
I was officially diagnosed with generalized anxiety in 2021. Which is a bit of a double-edged sword. Because while I’m finally getting official treatment for it, now I worry that I won’t be taken seriously by others when they see “anxiety” on my medical charts.
But, taking a step back and looking at other aspects of my medical history, like the story shared above where actual problems and valid concerns were treated dismissively, is it any wonder that I have anxiety?
For Further Pondering
For another’s perspective on depression in particular, and how it might be the more “normal” response, check out Meredith McCaskey’s post Actually Sane.
Or the song Surface Pressure from Encanto. Particularly if you come from a legalistic background, or are a neurodiverse individual with a history of masking.
As for how this relates (tangentially) to spiritual abuse – is it any wonder, when confronted with the disconnect between how Jesus acted in the Gospels and how many of his followers act in the church, that some of his followers decide to leave the church in their pursuit of Jesus? Or that those who have experienced spiritual abuse can be extremely uncomfortable in a church or religious setting that to others feels perfectly normal and “safe?”
And if you happen to be in church leadership, this question is for you – do you ever wonder if there’s a little bit of Abuela Alma inside of you?
Just some food for thought.