By Georgia Elander
CN: Mental health slurs,
Women have always been made mad by men. We have had madness constructed onto us, built into us, drawn out of us, in many different settings and by many different means across the history of lunacy, psychiatry and medicine. And this ‘female malady’ still sticks to us today in a myriad of ways: from the epidemic of mental health problems facing young women to the still-common ‘hysterical’ label attached to any woman who dares to speak out.
‘Hysteria’ is just one example of the distinctly ‘female’ history of our understanding of madness: originating from the Greek word ‘hystera’, meaning uterus, it was used up until the middle ages to refer to a condition whereby a woman’s womb was believed to wander about her body, causing irrational behaviour. Amongst the symptoms of this condition were irritability, nervousness and sexually forward behaviour; one of the key cures was regular sexual intercourse within marriage. This is just one in a long line of ways in which ‘madness’ has been leveraged as a way of forcing women into socially acceptable behaviours and pathologizing those who failed to conform. What’s extraordinary is that the concept of ‘hysteria’ still permeates our culture, and is still used to silence women who dissent; who express too much emotion, or express it wrongly.
‘Madness’ has had a slippery definition across history and still does today, meaning very different things to different people in a range of contexts – my hope in this article is to go some way to reclaiming the term for women like me who sometimes feel out of control, at war with our brains, and scared of going (or being) ‘mad’.
A few months ago, I made the decision to open up to someone close to me about my mental health problems and how they manifest themselves in my close interpersonal relationships. It’s something that’s difficult to articulate, but I explained that it feels like there’s something inside me that needs to be contained – that wants too much, feels too much, is too much. Putting it like that I made a connection I’d never made before: I thought about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s statement that ‘we teach girls to shrink themselves; to make themselves smaller.’ It was a quote that meant a lot to me when I was struggling with disordered eating, but I had never thought of it in emotional terms before.
Once I did, a lot of things seemed suddenly quite obvious. It’s a cliché that men externalise their emotions while women internalise them, but it nevertheless has some truth to it; and when we as women spend our lives being talked down to, not taken seriously, taught that we only have value if we are beautiful and quiet and small, and that if we are not then we are ugly or mad – and then if we are not allowed to express the discomfort and pain and frustration of living like this – why would we not go mad?
Historians of female madness have noted that the treatment of ‘madwomen’ has always been about containment: in the asylum, in marriage and the home, in prison. But it has also been about teaching us to contain ourselves.
This is not to discount the very real experiences of women with mental illnesses – to say that they are ‘just a construct’ or something that we unconsciously bring upon ourselves. Whether these illnesses are the result of social conditions or chemical imbalances in the brain (and I think it is ultimately near impossible to detangle the two) they are entirely real, as is the pain that they cause.
But for me reconsidering my mental health problems in this way – thinking that maybe I was not the problem – was revolutionary. Why should I damage myself by fighting constantly to contain my emotions for the comfort of the men around me? What might my life, my relationships, my mental health be like if I had allowed myself to be mad when I needed to?
Living as a woman in our culture is exhausting. Sometimes I am more aware of its crushing weight than at others; sometimes I can shake it off for a while; everybody feels it differently. But we all live under it and we should not bear it in silence. If screaming at the pressure makes us mad, perhaps we need to think differently about madness.
Find more of Georgia’s personal and political writing here.