As Mental Health Awareness Week draws to a close, I decided to do a post on my relationship with mental illness, and the role it plays in my feminism.
If you don’t know me very well, you’re probably under the assumption that I’m silly, playful, easy-going, and carefree. You probably wouldn’t think that there are days when I can’t get out of bed. Times where overwhelming anxiety made me vomit. You probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you I’m often riddled with self-doubt, extreme pessimism overcomes me, and I’m paralyzed with fear without the remotest perceived threat.
I suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and there are good days, and then there are days that hurt like hell. There are days where I feel on top of the world, and days where I can’t stand to look at myself in the mirror. That’s because a substantial component of my anxiety is characterized by a skewed self-perception. Granted, we all have our struggles, and I’m neither the first nor the last to have negative thoughts, or a poor self-image. But here’s the best way I can describe the role of GAD in tainting my self-perception: while a “normal” person has the proverbial devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, I have a devil on either shoulder, kicking the shit out of the angel trying to keep my head—and my self-esteem—afloat.
I recently confided in a friend that I was having an “off” day, where pretty much my entire existence felt like a big fat awkward fucking moment. Her response: “Are you on your period? You know how our hormones are. And anyway, we’re women, what do you expect? We’re emotional, and we can’t really control it.”
…WHAT? Wrong. This is exactly what pisses me off about being a woman with a mental illness. I have abnormal serotonin and dopamine levels, and this fact—not the fact that I have a vagina—is what makes me have the illness that I have, thankyouverymuch.
In our society, there seems to be an inextricable connection between being a female and being “crazy”. Apparently, a woman claiming to have a mental illness is merely emotionally off-balance (“she’s a woman, go figure!”). GAD? Bipolar? Panic Disorder? ADD? Depression? PTSD? Cut the bullshit. Don’t blame your brain, blame your uterus!
The problem here is twofold: first is the false assumption that having a mental illness makes an individual “crazy.” Second is the idea that, thanks to girly-hormones, women are particularly susceptible to being crazy. So, when I say I have anxiety, it’s met by a disturbing “duh” factor.
I’m familiar with the statistic that more women have depression than men. In fact, depression was once referred to as a “woman’s disease”—I’m dead serious. However, lest we forget that mental illnesses are self-reported. When having a mental illness is framed as “catching the crazy”, and women are framed as being susceptible to raging hormones, it’s easy to invalidate women with mental illnesses. And frankly, it makes it even more difficult for men to come to terms with a disorder, or seek the help that they need, if they feel that they’ll be ridiculed, marginalized, and emasculated for reaching out.
Perhaps the principle means of overcoming the stigma against mental illnesses, then, is to stop ascribing a gender discrepancy to them. For the longest time, the fear of being seen as a “bad feminist” for admitting my disorder was added to an already-overwhelming list of things that make me feel anxious and inadequate. But here’s another instance of speaking up in order to overcome barriers. I will not feel any less empowered because of my illness, nor will I ascribe it to faulty hormone levels that occur because, “well, you know how us girls can be.” However, I will communicate my illness to others, so that they can understand how I’m feeling, and how I react to certain things—my anxiety is a part of me, but it’s not all of me. Yes, it’s something I wrestle with, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let someone tell me that I’m probably having a panic attack because I’m ovulating.
I also find the courage to speak up about this as a way of empathizing with others. I know what it’s like to think that you’re just going crazy, and that there’s something wrong with you, and that’s as horrible as it is wrong. Seek help, and be good to yourself. Understand that if you have a mental illness, you’re not any less of a man, or a hormonal, bitchy girl. Don’t let society’s slam words like “psycho”, “crazy”, “insane”, or “ridiculous” make you feel like a fuck-up. Speak up, and find empowerment in communicating your illness. And treat yourself with the same dignity and respect that a patient with any other disease would show herself.