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.