The problem of feminist mental health

In 1963, Betty Friedan dropped a bomb on American culture called The Feminine Mystique, a book that diagnosed untold millions of women with “the problem that has no name.”  The book kicked off the Second Wave of feminism, but if you’re a regular reader here you already know that.

What I want to talk about is another problem that, though it is named and we all know it exists, is rarely discussed openly in feminist circles: the stubborn problem of feminist mental health.   Everyone we know is on an antidepressant or twelve, yet we talk more about abortion, sexual assault, gender identity and other formerly taboo topics than we do our own addled minds.

Believe me, this is no royal “we” I’m utilizing here.  My own mental health, on unstable ground since my teens, has been in a slow decline for the better part of a year, due to factors both internal (genetic predisposition, hormone disregulation) and external (professional disappointment, thorny family issues, a friend’s terminal illness).  Like many other smart, capable, honest women I know, this is how I faced it:

Some time ago, I expressed my disgust over one body part or another (belly? batwings? blotches? pick ‘em) and a feminist friend stopped short.  “You?” she asked.  “You feel body shame?”

“Of course I do!” I replied.

“But,” she spluttered,  “you are such a GOOD FEMINIST!”

I laughed and told her I was a feminist because I have body shame, I know how much it sucks, and I want to stop it!  Duh!  I use this anecdote to illustrate something I’ve been thinking about for a long time: are feminists depressed/anxious because they’re feminists, or are they feminists because they’re depressed/anxious?  Are we the chickens, or are we the eggs?

From childhood on I felt uneasy with cultural norms–I was always the only kid in my social circle who loathed the ending of “Grease.”  We sensitive types recognize injustice more quickly and are attuned to suffering more deeply, so it makes sense that we would seek to participate in movements that are dedicated to ending injustice and relieving suffering.

We are chickens.  Depressives and anxiety fiends make great feminists.

The work of feminism, whether in action or in our own minds, is exhausting.  Being aware of oppression is a painful state.  In the phraseology of most popular philosophical text of the late 20th century, we swallowed the red pills, not the blue ones.  Additionally, feminism confronts the horrors of rape, sexual assault and abuse, domestic and dating violence and other REALLY REALLY AWFUL THINGS that over time become re-traumatizing.  A lot of the things I hear and know are very upsetting, and there are times when I just can’t fucking take anymore.

We are eggs.  Feminism can make you greatly depressed and anxious.

Oh lordy.  Pass me a doll, won’t you, love?

And what do you know: it’s red.  How appropriate!

Like all GOOD (if not great!) feminists, however, I try not to paint everything into a binary box, so I am in no way suggesting that this is an either/or proposition: feminism and happiness are not mutually exclusive.  Why, one arm of the vast right wing conspiracy is dedicated solely to convincing women that we’d be better off in our pre-Friedan kitchens and baby nurseries, because all this agitating for equal rights is what’s making us so cranky!   Perhaps that is one reason that feminists like me have been cagey about admitting to emotional frailty.  Despite the fact that 11% of Americans take antidepressant medication these days, talking frankly about mental health care feels about as safe as walking down a dark alley, drunk, in nothing but filmy lingerie.

Didja get the analogy there?  In America today, the prevailing wisdom is that people with mental health challenges bear some of the blame for their condition.  As in, “yeah, no one deserves to be raped, but y’know, you really shouldn’t have been in that alley, drunk, in your underwear.”  Anorexics are told to EAT A SANDWICH.  The anxious are told to PRACTICE YOGA.  Addicts are told to QUIT ALREADY.  Depressives are told to SUCK IT UP FOR GOD’S SAKE, YOU’RE BRINGING ME DOWN.

Ahem.

This is the part of the blog post in which you, dear reader, usually discover the Great Lesson in all this, but today I don’t have one.  In fact, I’ve been putting off writing this blog post for weeks, hoping for a bolt of clarity, either intellectual or emotional, that has yet to strike.  I am eager to hear your thoughts on the matter, though, both as they relate to your own story and to the big-picture issue of keeping sane in a world that isn’t.

In any case, I’m resolved in 2012 to speak more frankly about my own struggles.  Will it be more or less difficult than my perennial resolutions to exercise daily and eat more green food (apple Laffy Taffy excepted)?

Watch this space to find out.

14 Responses to “The problem of feminist mental health”

  1. Miriam says:

    wow, it’s like you could see all my muddled thoughts in my head and then write clearly about them. I’ve been having a slide into depression over the last year or so as well, and sometimes I feel like I would be just so much happier if I was stupid (the blue pill) I heard that more intelligent people are more prone to depression. lovely. I don’t have any answers either, just I’ll be watching this space with great interest.

  2. Cassaundra says:

    yupperdoodles! it SUCKS out there. and we have a longer fight ahead of us every minute as the backlash pushes us 15 steps back for every one forward that we take. the only thing helpful i have to offer is this: the more i move into separatism, the more i do whatever it takes to have les and less to do with men and male-identified women, the happier i become. and the easier it is to be happy and at peace. just personal experience, but it makes a lot of political sense too. if we consider the planet to just be one big unhappy dysfunctional family, based on an abusive marriage to a controlling arse, maybe we collective women need to collectively pack our collective bags and collectively leave the collective men and collectively get our own damn houses where we can collectively live in collective peace?

    • ethan says:

      Wow. I didn’t realize I’d be confronted with transphobia on a feminist blog post about mental health but there it is. I take issue with your use of “male-identified women” phrase. Can we talk more about that? I think feminist history and struggle has everything to do with trans people’s current position.

  3. Sonya says:

    Hi Shannon, and thank you for this honest and very very important blog post. And I applaud you wildly for connecting what goes on in your own head with larger issues. I have also felt or picked up the sense that a “good” activist somehow shouldn’t share issues of personal struggle that relate to the issues he or she is working on. I have no idea where that comes from, the idea that our heads are supposed to be purely liberated spaces. It’s not possible… and I think that this is part of why I have experienced activist burnout periodically. So kudos to you for opening up the space for others with this post as well. (Waving hands as a medicated and anxious person.)

    The idea of Consciousness Raising in second wave feminism is one of the only places where I read about a model for connecting the dots from one’s personal life to one’s politics and back again. As a memoirist, I’m always interested in the truths contained in personal stories, and I think it’s strange that in many public (and conservative) conversations about memoir, it’s assumed that the genre itself is “self-centered”– that by starting with one’s own issues, we’re necessarily trapped there. I don’t find this to be true at all, but I think there’s also a body/head divide in our culture that manifests itself in the fear of those personal stories and an assumption that they don’t contain anything of value, much less the seeds of analysis and larger intelligence.

  4. Miriam says:

    I’m glad working on separatism works for you, but I’m going to take a wild guess and say that I don’t think it would work for most people. I don’t have a perfect marriage with a man, but it’s fair, equal and loving, he’s a feminist and we are raising our children (a boy and girl) to be feminists as well.

    also, having dated women as well as men, I don’t think we’d have “collective peace” if we separated men and women…and where would you put trans folks? or anyone who doesn’t identify as a man or woman?

    snarky- yes! because being “separate” worked so well for black people and white people!

  5. Ami says:

    It sucks, in so many ways, to be fighting this fight, but I don’t think running away from things is the answer. That’s certainly not going to bring about the kind of change that many feminists seek, to make the world more equal and less hostile to women and their rights. If that’s your preferable way of dealing with the crap that is the world, more power to you. I think that we still need to work on enlisting more people, both men and women, in the movement for equality.

  6. A very good friend told me to come out every day – to peel, to reveal, to say out loud more of me. Here is another powerful example. We have to tell the truth of our fissures, our weaknesses, our need for rest – both short term and prolonged. Ultimately those of us who are perceived as “got it together,” are as conflicted, thoughtful, sleepless, stressed out as the general population. If feminism was the answer to it all – we would be a lot more popular, as a movement, Frankly, when I write or talk, I am, for the the most part, peeing in their cheerios with a lot of bad news.
    I would not be who I am without Prozac in 1996 + a very strong shrink – a big tall man who stopped me in my pity party, my malaise and my self hate. Now I have a charmed life that I have a lot of control over ~ through being a recluse. Not an option for most.
    We must come out! We must say
    I am fat
    I had an abortion
    I am bi
    I am religious
    I am in trouble
    I am unstable
    I am seeking
    I am lonely
    and know that it is membership in Western Civilization humanity; to change, to flow, to fall, to shout, to lose it, to do the best we can.
    Thank you for this powerful coming out, Shannon.
    your fan, Zoe

  7. great post. yes, there is a culture of blame attached to mental health. i’ve worked in mental health for years. there is an “us” and “them” when working as a clinician. there is a lack of sharing among clinicians re their own mental health issues. i often felt that i was the only clinician who struggled with the same ‘problems’ as our patients…of course, that was before i got older and wiser and copped onto the fact that other people operated with these things called boundaries…
    the reality is that none of us gets to float above our temperments our biology and our massive shame based socialization of women (and more and more men).
    as a parent i am accutely aware of my children’s mental health. as a writer, i muck about in my own daily.
    i hate my stomach. wish i felt like running. want to turn the news off when i hear about another abduction and rape of a young woman. scream at the televison shows i walk in on my teenagers guffawing at; jokes about men and women and the perpetuation of inequality and sexism so blatant it hurts to see…but i take my pills. i lean into the shit. all of it. and some days i meet with success and other days i marinate in a mood that threatens to drown. that’s the life of the conscious. and for some it’s easier than others. but for the rest of us, there’s connections, discussion, strong tea, rest and the ungoing process of getting to know ourselves so that we may serve the greater good. because the very personal is the political – not the selfish or self-centered. but the political.
    thanks for starting this conversation. it’s one i’ve not been brave enough to start.
    miriam

  8. ethan says:

    I appreciate your words, and I do see the weight of them – we don’t talk about mental struggles, as though they may be catching.

    Some things that I rely on when I’m falling down that hole is to surround myself in the struggle of anti-oppression work. Within that space there are so many strong people with an innate sense of community. Whether it’s going out to brunch after my clinic escorting shift or inviting some people over to craft after we work at the Shot Clinic, being around other people who are invested in their own self care while they work against oppression has been so healing to me. So let me know if you ever want to brunch or craft with me!

  9. “we don’t talk about mental health struggles, as though they may be catching…” true enough.

    in response to cassaundra: i am raising an amazing son. i do not see his world and his struggles as separate from my own. we can not afford as a people to separate ourselves from each other. additionally, male identified women are women who like men? is that right? i’ve never heard that before. are there women identified men? i’m totally confused…not really.

  10. […] Originally posted at The Radical Housewife. […]

  11. Laura Nevitt says:

    Powerful Shannon and thank you for sharing. I was particularly touched having grown up with a mother who had mental health issues – some pretty severe and undiagnosed for years- but mostly I remember the stigma that haunted me and my sisters our whole life – ‘the crazy nevitt girls”.
    I often wonder if my introvertness is also tied to a bit of mild depression.
    As i was reading I was also thinking how the stigmatizing of this issue disables us from supporting each other. Because we don’t want to talk about it and acknowledge it, it makes another barrier for supporting or helping each other in a positive and productive way – in terms of moving women forward.
    I applaud you for putting it out there and creating a space to talk about it.

  12. Wifebeater69 says:

    You bitches would probably be a lot happier if you stayed at home, cooking, cleaning, and having babies as God intended. Instead you whore around town and obsess about the injustices of the world, while constantly telling yourselves how strong and independent you are and how you don’t need men. Is it any wonder you’re unhappy, really???

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