Because I am a Woman: women and mental illness


I first read Susan Bordo when I was thinking about recovery, trying to make sense of my own experiences. Unbearable Weight put into words the seething rage I felt over my treatment at the hands of others. First, I developed a (biologically rooted) illness that was a manifestation of the expectations of my body, then I was ostracized, locked up, and made to feel like a flawed, damaged human. Not even human. Half a human. Bordo writes about how the anorectic is performing a political protest without realizing it. Perhaps my years wearing my angst prepared me to become an activist.

I’ve been shoe-horned into a lot of clinical diagnoses. The one that has always struck me most is borderline personality disorder. The majority of people diagnosed BPD are women. But to me, it seems as though society first constructs and then punishes when it comes to mental illness. You must conform, but you must not conform so well.

One of the diagnostic criteria for BPD is promiscuity. This came up frequently with the (man) therapist I had who liked to diagnose me BPD. He was more interested in who I was doing what with than I was. And now that I am removed from the situation, I find it fascinating. A woman exploring her sexuality is pathological on a clinic level. I was eighteen and trying to figure out my sexual desires. How many people does a girl have to fuck to be promiscuous? Now how many does a guy?

This is perhaps an obvious example. Take the criteria of fear of abandonment, unstable relationships, unstable and reactive mood, and inappropriate anger. As women, we must be nurturing and giving. We must not want for ourselves. We must not voice dissent or anger. Yet there is the archetype of the psychotic bitch. The Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. I hate you I love you I need you fuck you no I hate myself. Women’s protest is pathological. If we are angry, we are threatening. If we are unstable or sexual, we are threatening.

I had a fight once with a guy I was sleeping with. He lied to me; I confronted him. Instead of the rational, adult thing, which is to say, Okay, you caught me, he told me in elaborate, thorough descriptions what a crazy bitch I am, how much of a fucking psycho. I had stepped out of bounds by asserting my right to the truth with a guy who I was fucking. Because I am a woman, it was crazy, not justified.

You hear all the time about how prevalent depression and anxiety are among women. We are constantly unfulfilled, sad, worried. Caroline Knapp described the deep and unsatisfied desires of women in her book Appetites. Perhaps we are all such a sorry sort of creatures because we have fostered desires which society denies us. I see a parallel between the slew of drugs for women’s mental illnesses and the Mommy’s Little Helper valium of the bored housewife post-war era.

Before I go any further, I’d like to put out that I am not at all suggesting that mental illness is all in a woman’s head. That it’s something society creates in the hapless dupes of culture. Rather, I think that mental illness has an underlying biological component, genetics often, but the ways in which women’s mental illness is perceived by the larger society is completely different than how men are perceived. Mental illness, which is biological, is gendered, like sex characteristics. There is a physical, biological reality, but then all kinds of social forces create meanings out of them. I am not a woman because I have breasts and a vagina. I have breasts and a vagina, and I have learned that these must mean I am a woman. Similarly, I have a certain genetic and biological predisposition. The state of culture guided how I expressed this predisposition, and then society interprets my expressions.

Take for example my battle with self-injury. Women are taught that we must be clean and neat. We must be passive. Even in a society where little girls join sports teams and do mixed marital arts, we are still taught not to want too much, as Knapp writes. Our energy is directed inward, while men are encouraged to be “macho” and outward, sometimes aggressive and violent. There are men on MTV who have become rich and famous for inflicting on themselves the same kind of abuse I inflicted on myself. The internet is filled with videos of boys and men having bloody, violent sporting accidents. Yet that is part of growing up as a boy. A girl who does that, who channels her anger at herself, is pathological.

I think of the invisibility of sex workers with mental illness. The predominant stereotype of the sex worker is the whore with parent issues, the crazy whore who must enact her sadness through sexual promiscuity, fucking strangers to fill the void. So, understandably, many have distanced themselves from this image. It has been constructed to control women’s behaviors. You don’t want to become that crazy whore, do you? You must be a good girl so that you do not grow up to be a crazy whore.

We must be objects of sexual desire, but we must not be subjects of sexual desire. The subject is the pathological one.

I can’t find a way out of this maze. It’s a tangle, a jumble of historical injustices. When you then also consider the further inequalities experienced by women of color, immigrants, queered sexualities, and so forth, it’s even more dizzying.

I’m probably one of the only people in the world who enjoyed the movie Anatomy of Hell. There is a moment in that film that I think is utterly brilliant and illustrates how I feel about this. The woman is in a club. She is hiding in a bathroom, and she cuts herself on the thigh. The man comes in, sees her, and demands to know why she is doing that. She replies simply, “Because I am a woman.”

The woman is dirty, dangerous, sexual, mad, unstable, erratic, completely raw emotion, reducable to her body. As a result, an entire industry has built up around policing women’s behaviors. We must be good girls, or we are mad. Jane Ussher’s Women’s Madness is another book that has shaped my thoughts on this subject. I read it before I was even interested in recovery. A feminist psychoanalyst, Ussher writes of the many ways in which madness and being a woman go hand and hand. Again, it would be just plain naive of me to suggest that crazy is all in our heads. The perception of our crazy is shaped by how society views us as women.

I carry with me the physical reminders and the internal terror of being forcibly committed, of having a stranger sneer at me that I am out of control. Of having the one thing I had to keep order in my otherwise chaotic world override everything else I was to just one thing: a crazy girl. In many ways, I will always be a crazy girl. Only now, I refused to be ashamed. Shame silences. I want to start a dialogue. I want all of us crazy girls to continue a conversation.


One Response to “Because I am a Woman: women and mental illness”

  1. 1 Amber Rhea

    Great post. I’ll have more thoughts later, but just wanted to let you know I read it and really enjoyed it.

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