I was 12 years old the first time I experienced my first significant struggles with anxiety. Although I’d always been a kind of overwrought child, it had mostly manifested in a sort of obsessive hypochondria about my physical well-being. Every bump was a malignant tumour waiting to strike me down, every graze was an invitation for gangrene to set in. As each new possible malady presented itself, a hot wave of nausea would come over me. This is it, I’d think. I’m going to die.
I was distressed by these feelings, but they didn’t consume me. It wasn’t until my family moved from our home in Oman to the much colder climes of England that I began to feel ill at ease in my own head. The onset of puberty and all its raging hormones can’t have helped the confusion and displacement I was already feeling, but within a few short months I was battling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a form of chronic mental illness that invariably leaves its sufferers exhausted, scared and depressed.
Unfortunately, like many young girls, I was also extremely skilled at hiding it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for my OCD (which had hitherto been expressed with typical tics like constant, obsessive hand washing, repetitive turning on and off of light switches, and repeated intrusive thoughts) to transpire as an eating disorder. My OCD tics were all about establishing some kind of control, and it stands to reason that controlling my body would become a part of that. I tracked my food intake religiously, allowing myself to consume no more than 800 calories a day. In less than three months, I lost 30 kilograms – but for a formerly chubby girl, this was a state of being that was treated by those around me like an accomplishment instead of a warning sign. Nor did anyone notice later when I began to purge the small amounts of food I allowed myself to eat.
Beyond Blue notes that women experience anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder at higher rates than men. Our susceptibility to mental illness is exacerbated by a range of factors, including pregnancy (up to 10 per cent of all pregnant women will experience depression or anxiety); early parenthood (1 in 7 women are likely to experience some form of postpartum depression); intimate partner or family violence and/or sexual assault; the burden of care and emotional labour that is left to women; and hormonal fluctuations (such as menopause). It is not unreasonable to suggest that the gender inequality that informs the society we live in is also responsible for provoking mental unrest in women, particularly in light of how it also teaches us to question our own interpretation of events and stay silent on issues like sexual harassment, assault and discrimination.
And yet, whenever discussions of mental health care are raised, they seem to predominantly deal with how mental illness affects men. This focus is necessary, of course – men are less likely to seek help for mental illness (because patriarchy instructs them to be stoic and resist ‘weakness’) and more likely to end their lives by suicide. Addressing this tragedy is essential, as is ensuring access to services for people predisposed to keep their pain secret.
But women are three times more likely than men to attempt to end their lives by suicide, and rarely is this discussed. Nor is there any understanding of the concept of ‘slow suicide’, such as the attempt to literally erase one’s existence that comes from starving yourself into invisibility or self-harming by use of methods such as secret cutting – both methods of self abuse that are predominantly practiced by women.
And while society is becoming much better at broaching the issues that influence poor mental health in men (for example, the devastating rate of suicide in young gay men marginalised by homophobia), it is still hesitant and even hostile at times in regard to discussing the range of abuses that tear away at the mental fabric of young women – like sexual violence, street harassment, the marketing of sexualisation, slut-shaming, body-shaming and sexual exploitation. Worryingly, attempts to discuss these issues are often retaliated against with accusations of ‘misandry’ and ‘feminazi agendas’, teaching young girls (once again) that it is their job to absorb the anger of everyone else (anger that is pathologised as deranged and unstable when expressed by women) and translate it into quiet, invisible suffering rather than upset the status quo.
Do people not notice or care about erratic mental illness in girls and women because we are so adept at hiding it, or do they not notice because our default state has always been dismissed as one prone to irrational hysteria?
As a young woman, I thought my history of mental illness marked me as different somehow. It took me a long time to realise that there were millions and millions of girls just like me who were slowly sinking beneath the currents of their own lives, simply because we have all been taught to let ourselves quietly drown while pretending to everyone else that we were simply waving.
This article first appeared on ‘Daily Life’ on 21 April 2016.
Author – Clemetine Ford