My hope for this blog is that you will find something relatable and that we can have a conversation about the culture of medicine that we rely on and are immersed in. Before I tell you more about why I chose to frame my blog around the notion of hysteria, I want to give a little more context for my own experience with chronic illness.
I, like many others, have found incredible comfort and strength in this online community of spoonies (those with chronic illness, disability or limited energy - a term coined by Christine Miserandino.) In many ways, I feel that my ability to self advocate comes directly from having the privilege to learn from the experience of others. That being said, I am new to this world. I became sick in January of 2018 and am currently still on the road to diagnosis. I'm hesitant to describe my illness without this diagnosis (I will do a longer blog post about the evolution of my illness when I have more information) but suffice it to say that my symptoms have dramatically changed by life and abilities. I am not a doctor, nor am I an expert in living life with a chronic illness. However, that might be my strength. I hope that for those of you just starting off on this seemingly impossible journey, my experiences can be relatable and we can learn how to navigate this together. I also want to share my perspective as someone who was once on the outside looking in - critiquing how women are treated in medicine and now being on the receiving end of many of the same issues. It should be said that the title of this blog is a sarcastic, and pretty bitter, reaction to the way my and many many others' illnesses have been dismissed. By drawing attention to these issues through our own experiences, we might have something to learn about micro (+ macro) aggressions in the medical field that effect our health every day. So, there's no better place to start than with a hysterical rant about hysteria.
Hysteria is a term which has evolved over time yet has been continually defined by its ability to pathologize the emotions of women who are responding to their oppression. Historically, hysteria (that relating to the uterus) alludes to the notion of a “wandering womb” which has the potential to migrate to the brain and overtake women’s capability for reason. Though presented as a physical phenomenon as far back as 1900 BCE, the implications of this wandering, the breaking down of physical boundaries and the impact of the uterus on female reason, has evolved over time to provide an explanation for female madness, monstrous birth, and ailments. In Hippocratic medicine, hysteria results from sexual frustration or hyper-sexuality related to an imbalance of humors. Similar concepts can be found in the Victorian notion of hysteria wherein the “nerves” became sites for women’s hysteria to manifest in the form of epileptic seizures, fainting spells, or emotional outbursts. Hysteria, however, goes beyond the reproductive function of the uterus. It also describes an emotional state wherein women are undermined as a result of their anatomy, and the weight such anatomy holds culturally.
Freud’s observations published in his 1895 Studies on Hysteria describe hysteria as the physical manifestation of emotional trauma. Trauma, in Freudian theory, is an event which occurs in childhood, often linked to seduction either through pleasure or pain, which is recalled later in life and is at the heart of neurosis. Often this trauma is repressed and the symptoms of hysteria offer evidence to the root of trauma in order to cure it. Today, this phenomena is referred to as conversion disorder. Hysteria has not dissipated from medicine's understanding of the human body, it has only taken on a new name. But is conversation disorder gendered in the same way as hysteria? What does this new term mean in the context of chronic illness? I hope you'll stick with me for an upcoming post on conversion disorder and psychogenic diagnosis, including my own frustrations on my road to answers. More to come!
Image Credit: A painting of a woman in a fashion pose with the anatomy of her neck exposed Fernando Vicente.