The problem of feminist mental health

Originally posted at The Radical Housewife.

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.”  She changed for a guy?  Yuck!  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.


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.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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