Illustration: Karolina Burdon

MIND

A woman struggling with her mental health risks being labelled hysterical

Female hysteria is a thing of the past in 21st-century medicine, but there is still a stigma attached to being a woman experiencing mental-health issues, says Eleanor Morgan 

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By Eleanor Morgan on

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It’s universal sign language – the little move we often do to signify that we think someone’s “mad”. You know the one. You lift your hand to your temple and quickly move your index finger around in circles. We have a good arsenal of words, too: “mental”, “bonkers”, “crazy”, “hysterical”. Of course, both men and women are the lucky recipients of these codings. But although the “mad” jibe is genderless, there’s a particular perniciousness that comes with being labelled as a mad or hysterical woman. 

Words are not just words. Language is how we codify ourselves in society. Linguistics change with time; words develop plural meanings. Today, we might use “hysterical” to amp up how funny we found something, or how much someone was laughing. “Oh you should have seen him, darling,” says your mum, describing your dad watching the dog do something gross with its bumhole when guests were round, “he was hysterical!” But its etymology (from Latin hystericus “of the womb” and Greek hysterikos “of the womb, suffering in the womb”) is distinctly female. It’s something worth remembering. 

“Female hysteria” was, until the 20th century, considered a medical condition. It was “treated” for hundreds of years across Europe. Women diagnosed with hysteria exhibited a wide range of symptoms like faintness, agitation, insomnia, bloating, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, irritability and altered sexual desire – all symptoms well recognised today as being part of the spectrum of how anxiety and other mood disorders manifest – and, in extreme cases, women were sent to mental asylums. But, because a woman’s hysteria was regularly attributed to sexual frustration (ie her not being able to come, and therefore reduce anxiety, via the wham-bam of vaginal intercourse with her husband), physicians would often instruct her to stimulate herself privately at home. If she couldn’t do this to, er, fruition, the physician would try and do it for her. Eventually, doctors fingering their patients in their offices became a questionable practice and vibrators were invented for the job, later becoming a commercialised product so women could do their thing on their own. 

Eventually, doctors fingering their patients in their offices became a questionable practice and vibrators were invented for the job

Female hysteria is a thing of the past in 21st-century medicine. Symptoms of anxiety are rarely thought of as markers of sexual frustration and, although I can frequently attribute my propensity for anxiety to “trouble in the womb” (PMS makes everything worse), horniness doesn’t often come into it. But said propensity has been a source of shame for my entire adult life. I have always feared being seen, and therefore diminished, as hysterical. So I kept quiet about it. “It” being the daily fear of having a panic attack and making a spectacle of myself in public – fainting, vomiting, dying. This manifested in a catalogue of avoidance behaviours, escape-route planning and generalised worrying about things big and small. I worried about worrying, fearing the fear itself. 

To me, the connection with the shame I had about myself and the history of female hysteria is important. Hysteria, for so long, was linked with femaleness in such unflattering ways. Over time, critical thinkers have suggested that hysteria can be reclaimed as something that, in being a specifically female pathology, speaks to, and against, the patriarchy. Only, as much as I loved reading Hélene Cixous at university, I still think to be a woman and labelled as hysterical is the bullseye of insults – even if we don’t let on. Why? Because it plays into the belief that we can still be so easily reduced to our biology. The possession of a womb. A curved vessel of reproductive duty and hormonal volatility. 

The self-stigma I had about the way I’ve suffered since I was 17 (the age I was when I had my first panic attack), and how I imagined people would see me if I redirected my inner monologue outwards, made me keep my mental health to myself. All the masking tactics over the years made my anxiety so much worse, twice resulting in what can only be described as proper breakdowns – even though clinicians avoid using the term nowadays. Behind the cover-up was the fear that, were I to be open about the deathly panic attacks (which I somehow managed to hide from everyone) and daily feelings of dread, I’d be the one people roll their eyes at and say things like, “No, but she’s actually crazy,” doing the twirly-finger thing; forever branded, like the burn on a dairy cow’s arse. 

I didn’t want to be that woman. 

Women have been fighting for control for so long, to shake our image as frenzied, chocolate-stuffing slaves to our moon cycles, but however independent, strong-minded and capable we are, the “mad” insult cuts to the bone because it immediately suggests we’re not in control of ourselves. It speaks to a concern so deep, so conditioned, it can be difficult to summon a retort. We’re left, for a second, blinking in the headlights of histories that have wanted to keep us and our minds quiet.

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Sadly, “mad” and similar words are still used facilely, all the time, in the face of female emotion. Very often, they’re directed at women by men. I have witnessed it in work environments: variations on “Calm down” thrown at those who have become passionate (too vocal! Too emotional!) in meetings. Women (including myself) being called defensive or told they’re overreacting when we’ve respectfully disagreed with a male opinion. I have seen it in friends’ relationships: women being told they’re “acting hysterical” when they’ve expressed upset over their boyfriend’s actions and he doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong. Women do it to each other, too, though. I’ve seen it, people who I know have suffered with anxiety or depression being referred to as “properly mad”. I’ve almost certainly done it myself in the past. 

We are all a bit mad – we’re definitely not all clinically anxious or depressed, but every single one of us, female and male, have neuroses because we all have brains

Three years ago, though, my panic attacks became so frequent and so dramatic, they all joined up. I actually did feel “properly mad”, experiencing an episode of anxiety so acute that I lost all sense of self. I had no idea what I was capable of any more or how I’d ever get out of it. On the crest of this episode, I began telling people. Finally. I got the help I had needed for a long time. I apologised to my friends for being so flaky and told them why. I told my family. Now, I’ve written a book about it, using my own experience of anxiety to look outwards and ask questions about the global experience of such an infuriating condition. It feels strange and, I’ll be honest, quite frightening. There is nowhere to hide.

But I wanted to explore why myself and millions of other people (according to the World Health Organization, problems like anxiety and depression affect one in three people in the community and are slightly more common in women) have felt as though they’ve had to hide. I also wanted to try and dismantle why I had agonised so much about being seen as anything but the strong, gregarious, successful woman I was on the surface, and why many others do the same. The idea that we can’t be be all those things and be mentally vulnerable sometimes must be challenged as regularly and rigorously as possible. 

A major part of the problem, I think, is how our media continues to point its clawed finger at any woman who appears to be vulnerable or suffering. I have written about this at length in the book, but on any given day we are reminded that mental distress is still something that has the power to tarnish a woman’s reputation, chink her armour. 

People never forget the images of “crazy Britney”, do they? The images that surfaced of her after shaving her head in 2007, being chased by paparazzi desperate for a shot that would make her look most unhinged and therefore most profitable? The endless, playground “Look at the crazy girl!” mocking of Amanda Bynes during her psychiatric episodes? The constant hounding of Lindsay Lohan when she was allegedly struggling with addiction and other psychological issues? More recently, the fevered press speculation over Sheridan Smith’s mental health, after she took sick leave from Funny Girl, reminded us that there’s still a gleeful want, somewhere, to point to a vulnerable woman and say, “Look! Bloody women! Can’t keep it together!” All this percolates into general consciousness. It is ridiculous to claim otherwise. 

The thing is, though, that we are all a bit mad. We are. We’re definitely not all clinically anxious or depressed and not every change in mood should be pathologised, but every single one of us, female and male, have neuroses because we all have brains. The highly individual ways in which our past memories inform the present and the patterns of our behaviour means we all have hang-ups and funny ticks which may or may not get us into trouble from time to time. No one is completely “sane” or “sorted” – it is impossible. Yes, the ways we view our own and other people’s behaviour is subjective, but I am incredibly wary these days, particularly after all the research I did for the book, of anyone who claims to have never felt mentally precarious, even a little bit. Furthermore, the use of “mad” or “hysterical” as kneejerk put-downs for any woman whose behaviour slips even slightly from what we might consider as “normal” now makes me angrier than ever. We are big thinkers by design. We can do better. 

@eleanormorgan

Anxiety For Beginners is available to buy now

Illustration: Karolina Burdon
Tagged in:
mind
Health
Mental Health
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