CW: misogyny, misdiagnoses
The opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and are not representative of the views of The Hysteria Collective as a whole.
“Hysterical” is an insult launched at women time and time again. Its definition is rooted in the medical condition Hysteria, which was a valid diagnosis until its disappearance from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980. But what if the sexist foundations of Hysteria have just been transferred onto other under-researched invisible illnesses, which still have huge stigmas of inauthenticity and sexism attached to them?
I’m a huge book lover and a film fanatic (no surprises there given that I’m a screenwriter!). But the real loves of my life specifically are nineteenth century fiction and period dramas. Case in point, I know every word of Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice (yes, I prefer it over the 1995 BBC adaptation and, no, I will not take it back). It wasn’t until I became chronically ill, though, and on my 1,285th rewatch that I realised Anne de Bourgh was a spoonie (meaning someone with a chronic illness). After that, I started noticing more and more characters in classic novels with similar symptoms like Lucy Snowe in Charlotte Brontë’s Villlette (1853). I felt a real affinity to these characters because of their symptoms but also mostly because of the mockery, caricatures and dismissal of them and their symptoms. I’m convinced that the mysteriously sick women peppered throughout nineteenth century literature are in fact suffering from a multitude of mental health conditions and invisible disabilities.
During the time, these characters would most likely have been diagnosed with Hysteria, a misogynistic medical diagnosis almost exclusively given to women. In fact, the word itself originates from the Greek word “hystera” meaning uterus and a whole other name was given to men exhibiting similar symptoms. The history of Hysteria and the medical papers from the time are jaw dropping. I did a lot of crying and shouting when I read On the Pathology and Treatment of Hysteria by Robert Brudenell Carter (things that would have had me getting a diagnosis of Hysteria even without the rest of my physical symptoms!). From my reading, I put together a list of symptoms that would appear on a nineteenth century equivalent to our condition-specific NHS webpages. The list is two pages long including symptoms like debilitating fatigue, fainting, dislocations, brain fog, migraines, gastrointestinal issues, “obscure pulse” and “hysterical knee, elbow and shoulder” (or joint pain), all of which are on the list of symptoms for my own conditions: EDS, POTS, ME/CFS, and NDPH.
When you read on to the proposed treatments of Hysteria, it gets a hell of a lot darker: asylums, forced marriages, the rest cure, force-feeding, moral treatment and even clitorectomies. The root of them all is misogyny, whether that be in the actual abuse and brutalisation of women or in the lack of research on the female body. Of course, we have made progress over the last 160 plus years, but sexism still dominates a woman’s ability to receive appropriate diagnoses, medical research and life-saving treatments. You just have to take one quick look at the huge number of stories of women suffering with endometriosis to know that. Despite it being the second most common gynaecological condition in the UK, it still takes 8 years from onset of symptoms to get a diagnosis and the cause of endometriosis is unknown with no definite cure.
The characters suffering in some of my favourite books from the nineteenth century would have been tortured in the name of treatment just like the real women who were diagnosed with Hysteria at the time. I genuinely believe that if those women were seen by a GP today in 2021, they’d (eventually!) be diagnosed with a variety of invisible physical and mental disabilities like myself. That’s a small win, but the very recent time I went to my GP he air-quoted depression and insisted my very high heart-rate (now diagnosed as POTS) was anxiety because it was a given that a “young woman like myself must be a bit nervous seeing a new doctor”. There may have been four waves of feminism and countless medical victories since the Victorian era but we’re no where near medical equality or near banishing medical gaslighting. After all, “hysterical” is still an insult thrown almost exclusively at women whether they are disabled or not.
Image courtesy of Lily McDermaid.