Myth of the Hysterical Woman

I was a twenty-one-year-old college student, several weeks away from getting married, when I suffered from “hysterical” appendicitis.

If the phrase hysterical appendicitis confuses you, be glad. You have not missed any basic tenant of human pathophysiology.

Before this “hysterical” episode, I had lived the first two decades of my life without a serious health condition or illness. Even the typical monthly struggles which many women endure were absent from my experience. I ate little, slept little, overworked and appeared to have a high level of functioning despite these poor choices. 

Instead of attributing my functioning to dumb luck, I assumed a rather high opinion of my pain tolerance and ability to push through physical and mental ailments. “The lady has no excuse” I would laughingly say to friends and shy away from any display of discomfort, pain or anxiety. These things could be managed by will power. I was not a hysterical young woman, but someone who was always in control. Always.

One day in December, I noticed a sharp pain in my abdomen. Odd in sensation, my mind attributed it to the inaugural skinny jeans I wore.  2009 fashions were treading new and uncharted territory. Time passed, the pain intensified, accompanied by dizziness, aching and fever. My fiancé voiced his concerns, but I had a final exam that evening and was not going to miss it. I insisted it was caused by trying to wear skinny jeans…

By the time of the exam, my fiancé was begging me to seek some kind of medical attention. I said “no” and hobbled off to take the test.  I was tough and could overcome this. After finishing, my professor noticed I appeared to be drooping off my chair and insisted I go home immediately. I don’t remember walking home, but I do remember collapsing in my apartment and having my roommate and fiancé both insist it was time to go to the hospital.

“Can you rate your pain on a scale of 1-10?” asked the triage nurse.

Shaking and feverish, my pride wavered. “I…I don’t know. This might sound silly, but it feels bad. Maybe, maybe 8?” I looked up and saw a skeptical look on her face. Then that same doubt, that same fear that grips a woman when she voices concern about herself came out. “Perhaps I’m being a little…”

“Hysterical?” the triage nurse said while nodding her head.

Her tone, her choice to finish my sentence with that word, effectively silenced me. It was everything I feared to be labeled as a woman.

I took a seat in the ER waiting room. Hours passed. People who appeared to be in far less pain were taken back. My fiancé, a young man who had not experienced the dismissive attitudes that follow his female cohorts, became irate. He continually asked why I wasn’t being seen. He was told I’d be taken back when it was time. Other people waiting began to move away from chairs near us for fear of catching the bubonic plague.

Finally a nurse took me back to an exam room. A raging fever and a localized area of pain led to testing.

Shortly thereafter a doctor came in and said my appendix was nearly ruptured and I would need to be moved into surgery immediately.

Like so many women, I felt greater relief at finally being believed than being diagnosed.

Right before the doctor turned to leave he asked how long I’d been waiting in the ER waiting room.

“Four hours.” my fiancé said angrily.

The doctor shook his head and walked out of the room. I never saw him again, but there was something in his brief display of indignation that has forever left me feeling grateful to him.

What happened to me that night in the ER happens to women on a continual basis. Doubted and patronized, we fear to advocate for ourselves. We experience situations when our voices are silenced, our sentences left to trail off, our concerns, pains or threats dismissed. We know we have already been diagnosed with female hysteria, a condition of a feeble mind that leads to anything we say being questioned and belittled.

From the moment a little girl is born, our society collectively assumes a tendency toward female hysteria.  Little girls’ tears and fits, their adolescent pains and anxieties, their grown up fears, attacks and health conditions are often thought an exaggeration.

What sad and tragic things have been left to unfold because of this attitude.

Several days after my appendectomy, I stared out the immense windows of the hospital lobby. A Christmas tree lit up the space, I fumbled with my engagement ring and was thinking some serious thoughts about how lucky I was to be walking out into the world again.

Then I saw the triage nurse walk past me on the street; the one who must have rated me a two on the pain scale and diagnosed me with hysteria. She appeared happy to be off work and had a bounce in her step. I felt enraged and wanted to run after her, tell her that I hadn’t been hysterical and that I shouldn’t have been left to wait hours in such pain. But I didn’t, of course. I still didn’t want to appear…hysterical.

And over the years my anger at the woman has subsided into a kind of remorseful understanding. I should have received timely medical attention and not been dismissed. I was not at fault for that. I also know I carried with me those same harmful dismissive attitudes about female pain and vulnerability

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Part of confronting the myth of female hysteria, that great pillar of sexism in our society, means acknowledging when our attitudes about will power and control over pain continually leave women in dangerous situations. I used to tell this story and laughing brag that I aced that exam with appendicitis. I don’t anymore. There’s nothing to brag about. Seeking medical attention or help from society in a time of pain or vulnerability is what should be bragged about and celebrated. Women should be supported and cheered when coming forward with their needs. Women and men should be cheered when immediately responding to these needs. Celebrating strength in silence and willful self-harm is only celebrating sexism.

We are in the midst of a cultural revolution, one led by women who are sharing their experiences of sexual, physical and medical trauma. These days as I notice my vanishing appendectomy scar, I wonder if we have finally begun the process of healing from the myth of the hysterical woman.

 

My Son, This is What it Means to be Southern

My son,

You asked me today what it means to be ‘southern’.

It’s good that you asked. You are being raised in the South, and you will be shaped by its meaning. Now you are very young and were given a simple answer, but as you grow this meaning will grow with you.

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Being southern means being tied to the land – overgrown and luscious, maddening in density. Our land is fragrant, and always resisting cultivation. The slopping fields, deep woods, and coursing rivers bear the names of British monarchs, founding fathers, and peoples long ago stripped of the land they alone had loved. We utter all these names and thus give them power to shape us.

Being southern means enduring our summers. The heat and humidity make us a little wild. This wildness permeates our language, our posturing, our emotions, our very ideas of life, and meaning. We often straddle a desire to be both gracious and raw in authenticity.

We’ve created literature, music and cuisine celebrated the world over. We’re a land of celebrated authors and musicians, as well as countless women and men who had to leave their work nameless.

We recognize that “y’all” is the single most satisfying phrase to utter.

We crave porch sitting and tea sipping.

We showcase in no quiet or subtle ways the very marrow of human nature. We as a people have loved intensively and hated in tragic proportions. Our language is spoken with meandering poetry, and with arresting derogatoriness. We are renowned for our hospitality and made infamous by our segregation. There always seems to be a war brewing. It will be your generation’s job to finally bring peace.

Southerners claim the most paradoxical of heritages. A heritage that birthed modern ideals of liberty and freedom while simultaneously enslaving many of its members. Some people liberated while still oppressing. Some people lived in chains, but never stopped dreaming of freedom. We have tended things that should have been left behind and neglected many thing that only propelled us toward justice.

We southerners are not a melting pot, but a boiling stew, in which the influences of countless civilizations are colliding and marinating with one another. You must remember those who still yearn to taste true freedom.

My son, you must one day come to terms with the paradox of your heritage. You will be proud, but you will also feel anguish. You may love, but only after knowing that loving something doesn’t make it perfect. You can speak of your experiences, but you must also listen and learn from voices of those who have not shared your experiences.

For you, being southern will mean carrying on traditions that bring beauty to the world and embracing changes that make our culture worthy of the land which nourishes us.

 

 

Teaching Kids About Dreams, Jobs and Dignity

 “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Adults love to ask this question of children and relish the answers we’re given.

We love to hear the originality and confidence children possess when saying they’re going to be an astronaut or doctor. Out of love for them, but also pride in the way it reflects upon us, we actively nurture our kids’ highest aspirations.  We want to believe our children can achieve anything. The bigger the goal, the more incredible the feat, the more our hearts yearn for its fulfillment.

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Encouraging our children to dream is one of parenting’s most beautiful endeavors.

But there’s another component to consider when talking with children about their career ambitions, and it warrants just as much cultivation as dream-building. This component may not be as romantic, but it’s intrinsic to many of the disparities facing our society and thus deserves to be equally emphasized.

We simply need to do a better job of teaching kids that all work, done with dignity, has value. All work, not just the coveted positions, is necessary to the world we live in. All people, no matter their occupations, are deserving of respect and appreciation.

The Messages We Give Our Children

When I was in high school, steeped in honors coursework, I was asked by a teacher during class to share what “I wanted to be.”

I told him I wanted to be a school bus driver.

His response was not a favorable one. I was lectured in front of my peers on how each one of us is called to “dream big” and use every ounce of our talent to pursue these  dreams. Otherwise, we were wasting our potential.

I wanted to be a school bus driver because I enjoyed driving. I liked the idea of taking children to and from school safely. I loved country roads and the idea of having a route in a rural county appealed. I was also from a low-income household and somewhat uncomfortable with the culture and assumptions that surround an “honors” education.

The teacher’s perspective seemed especially nonsensical to me later that afternoon as I stepped off the bus and said goodbye to the woman who had once again ensured I’d made it safely home from school.

Alas, I went off to college and never became a school bus driver.

Americans love a strong work ethic, but we also have a blatant hierarchy of “worthy” and “unworthy” jobs which consumes much of our discussion surrounding employment. This has caused a tragic cycle of injustice and heartache over what makes a person a worthy contributor to society.

There’s currently a great deal of frustration surrounding the disparity of work, the ability to make a living and the giving and receiving of respect. I’m not an economist or a sociologist, but the lack of dignity given to huge segments of our workforce seems central to our woes. How can we make changes and ensure our children grow up with genuine appreciation and respect for all those who make our society function?

Lessons in Work and Dignity

Millennials in particular are criticized for not wanting to take jobs considered menial or unglamorous. I have not found this to be the case. But even if were true, the irony that Millennials are faulted for having the very attitude perpetuated by so much of society cannot be lost.

Most of us heard at some point in our education that we’d be condemned to “flipping burgers for a living” if we didn’t apply ourselves – having a job flipping burgers being portrayed as a negative thing.

With the economic difficulties, I think we are at a crossroads. There’s a great deal of learning to be done, but we can use our experiences to be more intentional about fueling dreams and teaching our children the dignity of all work.

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As parents we can be intentional about stepping outside our niches and ensuring we have friendships and meaningful relationships with people from a diversity of occupational backgrounds. Exposing our children to this diversity will open their minds to new possibilities and drive home the point that no job is above or beneath them.

We can ensure that the quality of our interactions with others is not dependent on their job statuses. There are few things as painful to experience as a human treated as less important because of the type of service they are providing to society. Our kids need to see that their parents acknowledge the personhood of all. The person cleaning the doctor’s office is just as worthy of respect as the doctor doing the examination. The person serving our food is just as deserving of a sincere “hello” as the CEO dining at that establishment.

We need to debunk the myth of the “lazy poor.” It’s served as a convenient excuse to justify disparities in our society, but we all know deep down that the families working the hardest are often the ones getting paid the least. There is nothing “lazy” about a person holding down multiple part time jobs to put food on the table, or someone who is rolling up their sleeves and doing the job most are unwilling to perform. If a service is necessary for our society to function, but the person performing that service is not receiving a living wage, how can we teach our children that this is a just or sustainable situation?  

Fundamental to all of this is our openness to our children’s dreams, even if they diverge from our own. Perhaps we imagine our kids as Nobel Prize winning scientists. But they may not want to follow the course we have laid out for them. If we give children unconditional love and support, they will grow up reflecting these same virtues to all those who labor alongside them.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have dreams for my children. But the only one I’m really comfortable sharing with my children at this time is a hope that they will live their lives and do their work in a way that treats fairly of all those whose paths they cross.

Between you and me though, the kid who becomes a school bus driver may end up being my favorite.

How do you emphasize to your kiddos the respect due to all who work in our society?