Help me stop gaslighting myself.
May 29, 2012 10:17 AM   Subscribe

Help me stop gaslighting myself. I need to take better care of myself physically and emotionally, because invalidating my own problems is going nowhere.

Personal details:
Female, early 20's, recent graduate, Canadian, lives alone, minimal support network, family lives outside the country, financially dependent on family

The problem:
I have a tendency to blame my behaviour instead of addressing my health issues. My internal narrative of "suck it up, that's just how things are, normal people just deal with it" hampers my ability to prevent injuries and take better care of myself. It's a damper on my quality of life.

I avoid going to the doctor. I don't have a family doctor. I only go to walk-in clinics at the urging of friends, usually weeks after I've exhibited symptoms. I'm uncomfortable around doctors, but I'm still going to the doctor tomorrow because it's likely I'm fighting two separate recurring infections at the moment, and I've been experiencing symptoms for a month. I'd usually let it go, but it's seriously keeping me from fulfilling my obligations to others, which is why I'm going. I don't know how serious it is, but I'll find out tomorrow.

A non-medical recent example of this problem was when my fridge broke. It would stop working for a couple of hours each day, make funny sounds, and food rotted quicker. It made funny sounds for longer periods of time, but I didn't realize that it wasn't working properly, and I ended up eating vinegary food for a while. My brain dismissed the issue as "it's your fault that you're not cooking more often, you can't expect leftovers to taste great", "you leave food out too long", etc. I honestly didn't think about it at the time, until my family stayed with me for over a week, figured out the problem, and bought a new fridge. My parents were concerned that I didn't see the problem.

But it's not the fridge. I do that to my body too. Whenever I feel sickly, I blame myself for not exercising more, and try to sleep it off. I don't buy medicine either. I think my lack of initiative when it comes to medical professionals stems from how my family deals with illness. My mother hasn't seen a doctor in years and often self-medicates with herbal remedies. Or we try to get over illness by "working it off", I can't recall a day when my father took a day off from work, and I'm encouraged to "work it off" too or else I'm just being lazy/being overly dramatic. When I take days off school or work because I'm feeling ill, I feel guilty for being lazy, and for not diagnosing my problem to begin with so I feel illegitimately ill. It sounds bizarre when I type it, but this is really how I've dealt with my health my entire life, which is no why surprise why I'm so prone to being sickly. Looking back, I think so many of my ongoing pains are due to me not taking my symptoms seriously. Example, I took a long time to diagnose my whiplash and to get to a physiotherapist (who only saw me a few times and was expensive for my student budget) And now years later I'm paying with persistent back and neck pain, but my brain just keeps on telling me to suck it up, because other people have been through worse.

It sounds silly, but I'm really miserable. I want to have more days where I feel normal. I have social engagements, volunteer engagements, etc. but I can never commit fully because I feel held back. I'm very good at hiding it from others. I only go see friends when I'm having a normal day, but I'm often at home sleeping 12 hours a day, trying to sleep off another aggravating sinus infection, wondering why I have no energy and why it's I'm aching all over. But it's not like my symptoms are really serious, it's just like I've been living with a persistent cold for four years, but it's making me miserable. I've been able to be alone so much because of my class schedule (or I just skip classes), but I'm transitioning to the 9-5 workforce in a few months, and I'm really worried that this behaviour will hamper my work performance. I've had full-time work in the past, and I've called in sick an average of 3 days per month, and there was a period where I couldn't get to work for a week, but my employers forgave me because my performance improved much after that. But I really don't want to subject any future workplace to this BS behaviour of mine.

And I want to show my family that I can take care of myself, because when they see me being sickly, they think that I'm being immature and can't take care of myself that I must leave Canada and go back to my country of origin where they are living now. It's a topic that they constantly bring up, but they don't see it as forcing me back, they see it as "better opportunities", "being with family". I feel like it's a punishment because I'm inept at setting myself an adult in this country. But I don't want that, because I'm a citizen and I've lived here most of my life. So that's added stress too. My family may seem irrelevant, but they are relevant, especially when it comes to my emotional health and where my self-gaslighting originated from.

I guess the other reason why I don't know how to address my health problems is that I use sleep as an escape. If there's problems in any other parts of my life and I can't deal with the stress, I try to sleep it off too. So I'm not sure if I'm feeling sickly because I don't want to face my problems, or because I actually am sick. Best case scenario is that I get tested for allergies, and that explains my ongoing sickliness for the past several years. Worst case scenario is that it's just all my brain and I just have to overcome it behaviourally, but I don't know how. God. I just want to be a normal person in my 20's, I want to trust my self, I want to stop thinking that I'm crazy for experiencing pain, I want to function normally, I want to stop being so goddamn sickly, I want to take care of myself, and I don't want my family to cart me off to another country. Any advice is appreciated. Tough love is okay too (spoiled privileged student problems, maybe this is part catastrophizing, I know I know I know) but I need constructive tips on how to change my behaviour.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, (and I am not a mental health professional, mind you) you sound like someone who is depressed. And I don't mean sad. I mean clinically depressed where your brain has a chemical deficiency. That's a likely reason why you dismiss how you feel and things that might make you feel good. Your "depression brain" is in control and keeping you isolated and from seeking help.

You absolutely have a right to feel good and you are not a bad person for needing help. Not everything can be fixed with herbs and work. In fact, most things can't. I urge you to seek medical and mental help. You're worth it.

I wish you all the luck in addressing it. Asking for help is the first step.
posted by inturnaround at 10:24 AM on May 29, 2012 [7 favorites]

Not taking care of yourself is absolutely a sign of depression.

Sit down and make a list of the things you feel like are wrong. Include the example above about the refrigerator. Include the sleeping, lack of energy, work absenteeism. Include the things you have diagnosed as infections, and the other things you have diagnosed as allergies. Show this list to the trained person who has been to medical school and start working on them.

You do deserve to feel better. It's okay to get the same care for yourself that you would probably recommend to a friend or family member.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:43 AM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Why are you telling your family when you're sick? It's really none of their business. Do you talk to them every day? You may want to cut down on the interactions so they don't know the ins and outs of every moment of your life, and when you take sick time, it can be something between you, your medical professoinal(s) and work.
posted by xingcat at 11:03 AM on May 29, 2012

I need constructive tips on how to change my behaviour.

1) Get a phone number for a therapist. You can do this by seeing a general practitioner. Or, since you mention being a student, you likely have a counseling center on campus. It may be hard to look up the phone number, especially if you have trouble getting to a doctor regularly, but do it. It doesn't matter if you are sick right now--don't wait to get better. Do it.

2) Make an appointment to see the therapist. Do it.

3) Talk to the therapist. I suspect this will be the easiest part. Explain how you feel regularly. You don't have to impress them--you don't have to worry about whether or not your problems are "serious" or "spoiled privileged student problems." It doesn't matter. Just talk, just say what you've said here. You can do it.

4) Probably, don't talk to your family about it until you've spoken to your therapist. I don't know what your family is like, but it sounds as if they will be a source of (needless, useless) judgment rather than support. You don't need that. A therapist could help you figure out how to deal with their attempts to help.

It may sound difficult, and you may want to shrug off this advice on the assumption that your problems can't be serious enough for a therapist. But you can do it. Please, do.
posted by meese at 11:26 AM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Do you have an appointment scheduled now? If not please make one.

It might be helpful to come up with a decision matrix for when to go to the doctor, and rely on that. For instance, if you are spending more than 2 days in bed sleeping yourself better, go to the doc. Sinus infection? Go to the doc.

Remember that sometimes seeing the doc and getting yourself sorted out can mean and OMG big difference in how you feel. And sometimes it's just about finding out that "oh this weird pain in my tummy is not going to kill me, I can take an aspirin and forget about it."

Do you have a close friend you can discuss this with? Sometimes when you question your judgment it's nice to be able to call someone up and say "Hey, I have a low-grade fever and a persistent cough. What do you think, should I see the doctor?"

Think about what can you do to make doctor visits more pleasant. Find a primary care doc you feel comfortable with. When you visit the doc, bring a cup of tea and a nice book to read in the waiting room. Wear your comfiest sweater. Anything that works for you.

And if you can, I think therapy would help you with what seems to be depression and also with drawing some lines with your family. They make decisions in a way that works for them. Clearly it's not working out so well for you, and it's perfectly all right for you to decide you're going to handle your health care differently. My therapist is also a nurse. I see her once a week, so it's easy to say "BTW, I've been having x and y. Do you think I should see a doc?" Something like that might be a good fit for you.

(I just spent several weeks feeling miserable and wanting to sleep a lot. Finally went to the ENT. I had a sinus infection. He gave me antibiotics and I started feeling better right away.)
posted by bunderful at 11:31 AM on May 29, 2012

When you go to your doctor, be sure NOT to minimize this!

That means: Tell him/her how long this health issue has been been going on AND that you regularly tend to first ignore problems (including your own health) because you feel like you ought to be able to just suck it up and keep going regardless. Then, when eventually those problems become serious because you've just ignored them, your inclination is still just to want to go to sleep. Mention that in the past people have even stepped in to help you because they're alarmed you let it get to that point.

If, after all that, your doctor does not start asking you more questions to assess you for depression, than you should bring it up yourself, because those are classic reactions when one is depressed--ignore the problem, procrastinate and blame yourself, lose motivation entirely, give in to mental exhaustion.
posted by misha at 12:21 PM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Your attitude isn't wrong, or gaslighting yourself, or anything like that-- it just isn't well adapted to the situation you're in right now. These are habits you developed, possibly, when you grew up in a family where everyone was quite busy, and you had to be the "responsible one", and no one was going to go out of their way to give attention to your problems, because they weren't as important as everything else going on. So you learned to be independent and "power through" problems. That's good! However:

I do that to my body too. Whenever I feel sickly, I blame myself for not exercising more, and try to sleep it off. I don't buy medicine either. I think my lack of initiative when it comes to medical professionals stems from how my family deals with illness. My mother hasn't seen a doctor in years and often self-medicates with herbal remedies. Or we try to get over illness by "working it off", I can't recall a day when my father took a day off from work, and I'm encouraged to "work it off" too or else I'm just being lazy/being overly dramatic. When I take days off school or work because I'm feeling ill, I feel guilty for being lazy, and for not diagnosing my problem to begin with so I feel illegitimately ill

This isn't necessarily wrong. I, technically, have a primary care doctor, but I haven't seen him in a couple of years. The problem is that you obviously have underlying health issues, and you have to address them, and they require attention because, unlike a lot of things in life, they aren't just going to go away. This is like your refrigerator-- it's not going to fix itself.
posted by deanc at 12:23 PM on May 29, 2012

I just wanted to add to my voice: please go to the doctor and start working towards dealing with your depression. Remember, you CAN do this. Just start with your GP, and then from there begin to take baby steps towards getting better. Set a goal for yourself: try to do one thing each week towards getting better.
posted by emilynoa at 12:26 PM on May 29, 2012

From the perspective of someone who is not a medical professional but dealt with some of these issues:

Worst case scenario is that it's just all my brain...

Yes, that's exactly right. It is all in your brain. Specifically the chemicals and their interactions in your brain. That's not the worst case. That can be fixed.

...I just have to overcome it behaviourally, but I don't know how.

You don't know how because its not possible or at least incredibly incredibly difficult to fight with your brain and try to change the way it works by brute external force.

...they see me being sickly, they think that I'm being immature and can't take care of lack of initiative when it comes to medical professionals stems from how my family deals with illness...

Like you I come from a culture that is incredibly resistant to ideas of therapy or any understanding that depression is anything other than a failure of willpower. My parents response to any apparent difficulties was "why don't you just talk to us about your problems; we just want whats best for you; we can't be happy unless you are happy; what do you have to be sad about, you have it so much easier than we did at your age." It's an incredibly powerful trap. If they can't be happy unless you are, and presumably you want them to be happy, how can you tell them that you are unhappy. How can you talk to them about your problems if you feel (rightly or wrongly) that they are the source of your problems? If they want the best for you, why are they so resistant to getting help from anyone else?

Tough love is okay too (spoiled privileged student problems, maybe this is part catastrophizing, I know I know I know)...

You are certainly not spoiled, perhaps coddled and smothered and tired from fighting against that. And you are not catastrophizing; if anything you are underestimating the seriousness of your situation. The only tough love I would offer - and again I am not a professional just an asshole on the internet - is this: try for a little while to quiet down the part of your brain that speaks in the voice of your parents and start talking and listening to people - friends, nurses, doctors - who can show you some tools that might - might - make your life better.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 12:36 PM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Please consider printing off your question and taking it to your doctor. I can't help but fear that if you do go to a doctor you minimize what your problems are, as you don't want to seem whiney.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:43 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't know why people are telling you it's in your head. You may be both depressed AND physically ill. Your physical ailments may have some mental roots and still be just as real. I always thought that my sleeping 12 hours a day was a sign of depression, because I was legitimately severely depressed and displayed many other symptoms of that. However, it became very clear after all of those symptoms resolved from thought/spirit/lifestyle changes and medication support and the sleeping didn't. Stress and trauma can cause physical problems. Don't be so quick to write this stuff off as just depression - there are plenty of clueless doctors who will be happy to do that for you, so you're going to have to learn how to stand up for yourself - it's not easy. I would recommend finding an osteopathic doctor if you can; they are trained as rigorously and thoroughly as MD's, and are considered as equivalent, but they have a more holistic view of the body and tend to ask more questions, spend more time and look at the whole picture.
posted by decathexis at 2:47 PM on May 29, 2012

Wow, that sounds a lot like what I went through, down to the being blamed for being sick, and told how I couldn't really be that sick, I was just being lazy, attention seeking, etc. etc. absolutely crazy when I had lost a lot of weight, could barely eat or walk, and was in constant misery. And this despite I was seeing doctors and went to the ER twice. So I think I can weigh in on your question...

One of the biggest problems of gaslighting and what sounds like a narcisstic family dynamic where the children's problems are dismissed in favor of the parent/s, is that you have been seriously encouraged to trivialize your own problems in favor of your parents "more important problems" and encouraged to doubt what you have seen with your own eyes.

Start by recording your symptoms and write them down so you don't feel tempted to doubt yourself. If you don't feel you can accurately write how severe they are, just describe it in concrete terms as possible- what you are and aren't able to do. What allowances you have to do to work around your illness. How often it happens, and what it feels like.

This is also a good way to talk to doctors. It's easier to say, I have x symptom five times a week, than to try and convince them you are ill when you aren't convinced you are ill, when you are being told by people close to you that your very real health problems are somehow character flaws or some nonsense like that.

Actively seek medical attention. Because of the gaslighting and narcisstic family dynamic, you might feel that doctors will not take you seriously, and that you shouldn't go. Don't fall for this, go to a doctor. And be persistent until you are healthy again. If your family will not help you, make sure you go by yourself or get a friend to come with you. You must take your health more seriously! I made the mistake of falling for the crap about how my illness was actually some kind of immaturity or weak character, and left my health problems untreated for years, until they got so bad I almost had to be tube fed. Go to a Doctor!
posted by tachikoma_robot at 4:31 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Probably should rephrase that- get a primary care doctor- it's good that you are seeing doctor(s) about your recurring infections, but infections aren't your only symptoms and or underlying problem.
posted by tachikoma_robot at 4:36 PM on May 29, 2012

I'm very good at hiding it from others.

You've probably internalized that your sickness somehow is a reflection of how terrible you are- based on how your parents have treated you- and you've been told that being sick is a shameful thing that has to be hidden from the world. BS. This is a terrible thing for parents to tell their kids, people get sick for concrete reasons, due to some biological system not working correctly, or they get sick because they've been exposed to something. People don't get sick for any other reason, no matter how much your parents try to convince you otherwise. Get treated.

Tough love is okay too (spoiled privileged student problems, maybe this is part catastrophizing, I know I know I know) but I need constructive tips on how to change my behaviour

The only thing you need to change is to stop trivializing your very real problems. While it sounds like you've got health problems to me, even if it was "just" depression or stress, those are also serious health problems, just a different kind. Find out what it is (although personally I think allergies should be checked out) and get it treated accordingly.

Also, odds are from reading this- you might want to limit contact with your family as much as you can while you pursue this. They are actively undermining your confidence in yourself, and gaslighting your health issues.
posted by tachikoma_robot at 5:00 PM on May 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

I got told all the time as a kid if I was sick that it was either my own fault or I just wasn't trying hard enough to recover. Now, with kids of my own, I can see how bizarre that is - you don't ignore a broken arm for a few days because it'll "get better".

As an adult, I fall very frequently into downplaying my own misery until it snowballs, and not taking care of myself. My husband at times will feed and water me because I can ignore hunger, thirst and pain for ages and will forget to eat or drink for a day. I post up reminders, or add normal stuff like "eat lunch, shower in the morning" to my to-do list, and give myself rewards when I cross them off.

Do you want an objective pain scale - some way of measuring if this is 'real' misery? I have used my husband as a sounding board to figure out how bad a situation is. Do you have someone relatively normal/healthy who you can trust that can tell you frankly "Okay, this sucks badly" or "No, this is normal stuff, you're okay to go"? It should be someone outside your family of origin so it's not complicated by personal history.

It sounds like mild depression complicated by your upbringing leaving you with the ability to power-through bad stuff, but not to recover and be healthy outside of a crisis. Was your family always lurching from crisis to crisis so you never really just got to be, but were always surviving drama from someone?

Definitely see a therapist and a doctor if you can. It's not selfish or indulgent and it doesn't mean that you're too weak or incapable to live on your own. Think of it as a broken leg - you might need a cast and some crutches for a while, but eventually you will walk without pain. Except it's your brain/mind which needs some help.

And really truly limit contact with your family members who aren't supportive if you can. Increase your contact with other people in your life - work colleagues, classmates, anyone. Go for walks in the park and nod/say hi to people. I used to talk with some people a lot, and when I had to cut them off because they were toxic, there was a gap left where I used to have phone calls and visits. It helps to have other people to talk with (even just social chitchat) so you don't feel lonely and end up reaching out to toxic people again.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:47 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
"Hi all, this is the OP. Thanks for all the thoughtful responses. Glad to know that a serious response is needed and I'm not overreacting.

@ tachikoma_robot: Man, you have my childhood spot on. I had received medical treatment in the past as a kid, but I remember it being limited, and many of my illnesses were minimized by my parents because they didn't consider it worth going to the doctor for, and many of my interactions with my parents with regards to physical/mental health had been negative. I remember suffering from panic attacks in public spaces, becoming the target of their anger, and becoming even more agitated and running away, then returning home to be shouted at for behaviour I couldn't control. So yeah, have internalized that my illness/symptoms are a character failing on my part that I have to suppress, rather than something that I need to overcome with the help of an outside party.

My family comes from a conservative Asian culture that doesn't have progressive attitudes towards mental health, it's the attitude of normal vs. institutionalized. They took my health seriously when I had dengue fever, but when I was a depressive teenager with panic attacks, they actively shamed me.

So I saw a doctor, got antibiotics for my infections, and also learned that I have allergies. Not sure if they're seasonal, or to what exactly, but I'll find out. So far regular allergy medicine is helping me feel more normal so I'm taking them daily. Without them, I'm basically bedridden. I talked to the doctor about my fatigue and oversleeping, and he chalked it up to the allergies.

I am planning to go see a counsellor at my university though to talk about depression. After talking with some good friends (including one that had depression in the past) it sounds like that's what I have. From the outside, I know that I am a lucky person with a good standard of living, but I feel a disproportionate amount of despair and sorrow. I have moments when I am normal, but out of all the range of human emotions, despair is the emotion I experience the most, and this has been going on for a very long time, and it keeps me from living a normal life. I accept that, and I know that I can fix it with the help of a professional, so I'm taking it seriously as a health issue.

Thanks everyone for your support. If you're interested, I'll let you know how my appointment with the counsellor goes."
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:23 PM on May 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

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