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The hysterical woman

By Mahirah Syed 

Featured in our fall 2019 issue

Trigger warning: self-harm and suicidality 

“Julia doesn’t think you’re okay,” said the psychiatrist about why she was sending me to the hospital against my will. “I don’t think you’re OK. And there's a part of you that knows you’re not OK, otherwise you wouldn’t have come here today.” 

I was escorted to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in the back of a police cruiser. Being criminalized just because of a mental illness is nothing new to many who experience mental health issues.

I spent that day trying to affirm the psychiatrist that I had no desire to go to the hospital and that I wasn’t a harm to myself or others. But that didn’t stop her from calling three different officers to supervise me on my way to the hospital.

That wasn’t the first time a mental health professional disregarded my wishes. I am only 19, but I have seven different clinical diagnoses. My disorders range from bipolar to psychosis to disordered eating. Explaining the history of my mental health to a doctor during our first meeting has always been difficult because of my fear they may react the same way that psychiatrist did.  

After hearing a list of my clinical disorders and of my previous suicide attempts, I often see therapists and doctors staring at me with skepticism and worry.

I'm not the most balanced person, but I'm lucid enough to know how I'm feeling or what I want. My disorders have still often led to me being discredited and patronized by mental health professionals. 

My first trip to the hospital ER was when I was 14. I chased a bottle of Tylenol with nail polish remover. I can't recall that night, but the scent of remover still makes my stomach churn. A few days later, I was relocated to a psychiatric ward. After being discharged, I transitioned into one-on-one therapy. It took me attempting suicide to be given the mental health aid I desperately needed. 

One of my diagnoses is borderline personality disorder (BPD). BPD is described by CAMH as a “serious, long-lasting and complex mental health problem” that is revolved around emotional dysregulation and extreme reactions. Symptoms range from extreme moods and suicidality to impulsive and dangerous behaviour. 

Women are diagnosed with BPD more often than men. Clearview Hospital states that doctors are more likely to diagnose women with BPD, even if the only difference in patient criteria is gender. This exposes an implicit bias toward diagnosing women with BPD, which could be because symptoms fit tropes and stereotypes that have been perpetuated by our society and culture throughout time. 

Throughout history, hysteria has been undeniably attached to cisgender women. The term itself came from the word uterus. Hippocrates, an ancient Greek philosopher, believed hysteria was caused by atypical womb movements which categorized hysteria as exclusive to cisgender women. 

“Female hysteria” was once a common diagnosis for any woman that didn’t conform to gender stereotypes. The symptoms ranged from lack of appetite, promiscuity and irritability. Normal emotions and feelings were scrutinized as abnormal. Women were taught and socialized to be submissive and subservient, and if they betrayed that behaviour, they were diagnosed with hysteria.

“Female hysteria” was dismissed as a mental illness in the 1980s, but toxic tropes, such as women being "insane," are still prevalent today.

Zelda Fitzgerald, writer and prominent icon during the Roaring ’20s, was repeatedly called crazy for almost a century. Zelda’s husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald, plagiarized writings from her journals for his books throughout their marriage. Fitzgerald wrote to Zelda's doctor depicting Zelda as a failed, deluded artist with recurring breakdowns, nervousness and even cited a shopping problem. Fitzgerald weaponized Zelda’s mental health against her and profited off of her content. 

Today, many scholars allege that Zelda might have had bipolar disorder, but was never diagnosed. Society finds it easy to demonize and label mentally ill women as “crazy” and unreliable narrators. Whenever we start describing a woman as crazy, we are using it to actively undermine their reactions and feelings. 

My mental health has improved an exceeding amount in the past year. I take my medication regularly, make appointments with my psychiatrist and employ coping mechanisms from therapy when my mood spirals. This doesn’t mean that I’m suddenly OK, but I'm able to manage my feelings a lot better.

In my first semester of university, I was in a bad depressive state where I dropped and barely passed most of my classes, and now I’m able to take a full course load. I would ignore friends for months without telling them a reason, just because I felt slighted. I would cause problems in my romantic relationship just because I was bored. Now, I’m living with one of my best friends and I’m in a supportive relationship. 

Being mentally ill doesn’t make you “crazy,” hysterical or whatever derogatory word that people use. Having BPD might fill your life with large lows and grandiose moments of elation — but I can tell you, it’s not a death sentence. 


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