As I write this, I am coming out of what has felt like an interminable two week slump, brought on by hormonal changes, the colder and darker days of fall and time change (this weird thing we do twice a year just to fuck with our circadian rhythms a bit in case we weren’t already fucking them up enough by forcing capitalist agendas on our bodies).
The hardest part of these phases is not necessarily the lack of energy or productivity, no, it’s the harsh self-talk that accompanies these inevitable ups and downs that accompany life, and especially women’s lives.
A few years ago, as I painfully started to develop self-awareness of my symptoms and my body, I started tracking my menstrual cycle because I thought I could correlate my mood changes with the flux of my hormonal cycle. I remember when I was preparing for my bikini competition back in 2016, and every time the second half of my luteal phase would arrive, the mood changes and food cravings were so overpowering that I’d end up binge eating, essentially “ruining” my diet plan (I notice emotions rise up in my body as I think back to that time – a mix of anger, sadness and compassion). I’d report these slip-ups to my coach and I remember her saying that “PMS wasn’t an excuse to cheat on my diet”.
It has been a heartbreaking realization to learn about the powerhouses that are women’s bodies, and how much our cultural structures have alienated us from our wisdom and even labeled our natural, deeply instinctual experiences as crazy, imagined, hysterical.
A common thread amongst many of the thinkers, writers and researchers whose work I’ve consumed in the last few years is that of the historical (and ongoing) invalidation and repression (and at times pathologizing) of women’s bodies, experiences and needs.
The word “hysteria” comes from the greek base noun “hystera”, meaning “womb” (i.e. uterus), and the greek adjective “hystereikos” meaning “of the womb”. This points to the long held belief that many ailments observed in women were linked to the presence of their uterus. One does not need to dive deeply into the history of hysteria in the medical and psychiatric worlds to learn about the horrendous treatments that were forced onto women to rid them of their “illness”. Hysteria, once described as a disease of uncontrollable emotion that predominantly affected women, was in fact a recognized diagnosis in the DSM until 1980.
Gabor Maté talks about post-partum depression as being a societal problem, rather than the individual woman’s problem. Women are not meant to support growing tiny humans all on their own, apart from a community of loving and supporting individuals. And especially not while simultaneously caring for often emotionally immature and maybe even dependent male partners. In her book Flo, Alisa Vitti writes about the way society was built around the needs and capabilities of men, and later, as women entered the work force, we paid no attention to how women’s hormonal variations seriously do impact their ability to focus, be creative, alert and productive.
If anyone has any doubts about the power of women’s bodies, I invite you to look around at the mothers, and especially the new ones, in your life. In the last two years, I have had a handful of friends enter into the wonderfully powerful and magical world of motherhood (though I don’t doubt it is also a tremendously challenging and at times lonely world, given our current societal structures and norms). When I look at my friends who, through the power of hormones, have literally harvested tiny living humans in their wombs, brought them into this world and fed them solely from their bodies, I start to understand and honor these powerful hormones.
How can we simultaneously down play menstrual hormonal changes as “just in your head” or “not that bad” when these same hormonal pathways are literally responsible for the creation of new human life?! I think that we should call these ideas madness, rather than to call women mad for being influenced by their hormones.
Having this knowledge and awareness helps, at least cognitively. But the truth is that when I am taken over by the hormonal surges after ovulation has passed, 30 years of conditioning take over and I adopt the popular dialogue that “I am crazy, I am lazy, something is wrong with me and I should just suck it up and keep up with the demands of society” (remember, that same society that was constructed around the needs of men).
I am learning, slowly but surely, to be kind to my body and its magic, to embrace the wilds waves, rather than resist them, to even harness their power. But it’s hard, hard when there is not much room and much support to do so.
A few weeks ago, a friend asked me if I had ever watched the disney movie Moana. “Yes”, I replied, “but it’s been a while. I remembered loving it though. Maybe it’s time I watch it again.” She concluded: “yes, I think it’s time.”
So that night, I purchased the movie on Google Play and cozied up on the couch with some pop corn to watch it. As Moana struggled between honoring her community’s traditions and following her intuition, I felt a deep sense of resonance. I was also really drawn to the character of her grandmother, who laughably labeled herself as the “village crazy”. Although this is a children’s movie and this concept was framed as humorous, I think there is a deep, sad truth about our society’s tendency to label those with ideas and beliefs that we don’t understand or feel threatened by, as crazy (and we circle back to this idea that women have been labeled as witches and crazies for centuries, even millenia). Later in the movie, when Moana realizes that Te Kā is in fact Te Fiti, driven mad by having had her heart stolen, I wept.
At first, I wasn’t really certain why these strong emotions were welling up inside me. But after some reflection, I have learned that it’s because it echoes my experiences so well, touches this part of me that knows so much, and yet that I have repressed and even hated for so long. This part of me that has only grown louder, presenting as symptoms of “mental illness”, the more I repressed it to fit in to society. This scene in the movie mirrors the feeling that my heart, the essence of who I am, has been demonized by the labels and pressures of society, leading me to believe that I am a monster, and eventually behaving so.
Just like post partum depression is not a sign of a woman’s failure, but rather her community’s failure, I believe that a lot of the symptoms and conditions we routinely label as “mental illness” are more accurately representing our society’s current short comings.
And for these reasons, it becomes increasingly difficult for me to practice in the medical field, where little to no attention is paid to exploring how an individual’s circumstances may be contributing to their symptoms. Where the complexities of our human existence are categorized and reduced to tick boxes and medical labels. Often, because of time and resource constraints, we default to prescribing medications to alter that person’s experience. We blame the individual. And then the individual often comes to adopt this information as truth, for how could our trusted medical system and professionals be wrong about such a thing?
In her book Divergent Mind, Jenara Nerenberg writes about the origins of medicine and psychiatry, and how it is deeply woven into our society’s patriarchal fabric. She also writes about the evolution of the DSM and how, as I mentioned earlier, it’s actually more representative of the current time’s societal woes, rather than based on actual physiological conditions.
When one takes into consideration the roots of psychiatry and what shapes the diagnostic tools we use in these fields, we can begin to imagine that this perspective is maybe only one version of the big picture. That, although there may be some validity and even some utility to methodically classifying symptoms and conditions, that it falls really short of actually helping humans be whole and lead healthy lives.
The reality is, I feel deeply ill-equipped and unprepared to truly support individuals struggling with symptoms of “mental illness”. And not because I don’t have years of training in psychiatry and psychopharmacology, but because I think that our current views of “mental illness” are rudimentary at best, entirely wrong, at worst. It feels harder and harder to try to make individuals fit into one diagnostic box or another, when I am losing faith in the benefits that this actually provides.
I suppose all I can do for now is continue on this journey of self-discovery in the hopes that it leads me to more wholistic and helpful ways of viewing mine and others’ struggles. Somehow, I have faith that this path I am forging will be followed by many after me, and that it will become easier for others to find wholeness and healing.
But who knows, after all, maybe I am simply hysterical.