Few women are prepared to face their own crazy selves—off of antidepressant meds—if it means risking the stability of their relationships.
Last week Salon filled its social networks with a provocative 2011 piece from Jowita Bydlowska entitled “I choose sanity over sex.” Bydlowska says she used to love sex, but now she’s on Prozac and it’s taken away her sex drive. No matter, though. Both she and her boyfriend like her better when she is “not crazy,” as she attests with this exchange:
Me: “Would you rather more sex, but with a crazy devil?”
Him: “No, I’d rather less sex.”
I read this piece with a lot of interest, because probably like many of you, the crazy woman inside my head is strong. I should, by all accounts, be on lithium, and if I lived back home I certainly would be, as I discussed in a recent piece on living with manic depression in a developing country.
Let me make something clear: I do not in any way enjoy my own emotional instability. My internal crazy woman is what some folks might call “a psychotic bitch,” and is as likely to get me fired as to mortify me in front of my dearest friends. I have, at various points, punched my boss in the face when I was drinking, had a panic attack while on a Skype call with the director of my company, and entertained morbid fantasies for longer than is strictly healthy of letting out some of my overflowing self-loathing with a small, discreet slice in my skin.
But that said, when I ask myself the implicit question posed in the Salon piece—would I choose sanity over sex?—or more precisely: Would I choose to manage my emotional wellness with drugs even at the expense of a fulfilling sex life?—I come to the opposite conclusion as Bydlowska (and it’s not because I’m promiscuous).
More precisely, I ask myself: What exactly do we mean when we talk about “sanity,” anyway, and in particular the sanity of women? And is trying to banish or muzzle the insane person inside us a desirable goal? What if we tried to listen to what that crazy person has to say and figure out what needs she is trying to get met?
Now, I am not advocating that we women collectively hand in our Xanax and give ourselves over to wildness and self-destruction. (And I admit I also take drugs to help manage the symptoms of my craziness; they just tend not to be legal.) But the fact that female “insanity” is such a generalized problem—according to this New York Times article, one in four American women between the ages of 40 and 60 is on antidepressant meds—should call into question the extent to which we have pathologized the variability of our emotional state.
Again, I don’t think we should simply hand ourselves over to our most extreme emotions. (And here I offer a disclaimer: I am no psychologist, and have never even been in therapy. These opinions are simply the result of my lived experiences, so I invite you to take them seriously at your own risk.) But our anxiety, depression, and/or mania are at bottom simply expressing unmet needs or unresolved trauma, an inner child throwing a temper tantrum at being so thoroughly ignored. By not allowing ourselves to sit with these negative feelings, I believe we crazy women are collectively missing an essential opportunity for self-knowledge and growth.
The reasons we avoid this process are myriad and obvious. First, we’re afraid of stigma from friends, partners, husbands, bosses. In my experience, men in particular are often bewildered or outright terrified by female “craziness,” and some men stigmatize or shut it up in any way possible with Bitches Be Crazy–type dismissals of any scary feelings. Bydlowska herself made clear that her decision to continue with Prozac at the expense of a mutually satisfying sex life was partly due to her lover’s preference for the version of her that is “not crazy.” Few women are prepared to face their own crazy selves if it means risking the stability of their relationships.
Then there is the very real fact that sitting with extreme negative emotion can incapacitate you. At times I have been forced to operate in the lowest-possible gear, working the absolute minimum number of hours needed to pay my rent and feed myself and my pets, and spending hours every day for weeks crying and journaling about my own sadness. I know many women who have become suicidal during this process, and literature is full of them. (Think Plath, de Beauvoir in The Mandarins, Lessing in The Golden Notebook, to name just a few.)
Besides being extraordinarily unpleasant, that level of emotional incapacitation is completely impractical for most people who have families and jobs. This is especially true for women, who tend to be the organizers and administrators in a lot of families, the ones who care for dependents and in general get things done.
And then, once we confront the ugliness of our crazy selves, we often have no idea what to do with that information. Engaging with your inner psychopath requires a kind of meta-self acceptance: When you look inside, you will likely discover that part of yourself is a reprehensible asshole, and then you must consciously decide to accept and love all of yourself anyway, in the faith that only such complete self-understanding and acceptance can make you a better person. That’s complicated, like learning to be a good parent to yourself, and can often just as easily result in further self-loathing rather than growth.
But growth is possible. This week I read another wonderful “ideas summary” over at the blog Brain Pickings on the new concept from Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology, of flourishing. The idea is that we should focus less on alleviating suffering, and simply learn to accept that suffering is inevitable and must be sat with, and in the meantime focus on amplifying the positive emotions and connections in life.
In Seligman’s words: “Relieving the states that make life miserable…has made building the states that make life worth living less of a priority. The time has finally arrived for a science that seeks to understand positive emotion, build strength and virtue, and provide guideposts for finding what Aristotle called the ‘good life.’”
In this line of thinking, by medicating away our own negative feelings, we are stunting our own emotional maturity. This, in turn, keeps us from living the full range of positive emotion and the good things life has to offer. I’d love to see a world where we women can accept, own, and get on speaking terms with our crazy selves, and see the self-concepts and lives that might emerge by accepting that challenge.
And if it means we all start having much better sex again, well, that will just be the cherry on top.
Samantha Eyler is a freelance writer and editor raised in Kentucky and London and now based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman, and is one of the founders of the London Fields Feminist Book Group. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.