The Mad woman in our collective attic. Mental imbalance at menopause?

mad woman, menopauseI was inspired to entitle this piece “The Mad woman in my attic” based on my own experiences of what could probably be described as mental instability during my perimenopause passage. By the way, this instability arrived in my life co-bundled with spiritual expansion and ecstasy. Interesting.

During this frenzied and disruptive time, I also (mostly) recognised that my fantasies, beliefs and behaviour had to be hidden. At least, as far as I was able. Looking back, I think I was like my friend’s cat. She used to hide her head under the bed, thinking she was invisible. I suspect I thought my incipient lunacy was well disguised too.  Ideas, understanding  and desires that boiled unannounced to surface of my mind, simply had to be kept to myself. Because sharing them was more dangerous than keeping them locked away, whirling around and banging like sledgehammers on the door of my psyche, I endured.

 

And a deep inner voice warned me not to ask for help in case I was, in fact, considered to need medicating.  This potential loss of access to my own psyche, crazy as it got at times, was not something I would countenance. So I kept up with the basics.  Clean clothes were always ready in drawers: good meals served up on time: school runs and family commitments honoured. In between, I journaled and felt what I was feeling. Some powerful instinct told me I was not mad, I was just experiencing my own repression. It got messy. I allowed some of my fantasies to drive me and that, my friends, was at the time, an error.  That is not the point of this article though.

menopause and mental healthThe spectre of the mad woman is somehow considered to be more chilling than that of a mad man.  A mad man, while dangerous, has power. He does stuff. Rules countries, destroys planets. A  mad woman is usually locked away, has to live in a cave as an oracle,  or is  infanticised in some way.  The image of the ‘brilliant, nutty (male) professor” and “crazy useless woman” still exists, hanging around eerily  in many corners of society, art and imagery.

So as I researched my theme, I discovered out that in 1979 a seminal feminist publication called “The mad woman in the attic” was published by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. (The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination)  I have never read it, but it was the symbolism of keeping part of myself ‘locked up’ and then reflecting more widely on female characters in literature that were also ‘locked away’ that had sparked me to write. I knew about the demented  Mrs Rochester,  wife of the manly protagonist, in Charlotte Bronte’s ” Jane Eyre”. And of course,  the gloomy shade of the late Mrs de Winter (“Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier). Poor Mr de Winter (!). He had to get himself a new woman, innocent and powerless, after his mysterious conflict with the late Mrs d W.

Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White” heroine was drawn from an asylum (and based on an actual legal case)  and Mary Shelley’s swooning heroine, who was too weak and too pure to resist the wicked, sexy Count Dracula, was locked in her room supposedly for her protection. In reality, she was waiting for the devil by night to visit! There is a lot of baggage for womankind – and our men – to carry forward. We are scary when we are not rational. Allegedly.

 

In Victorian times, it was simple enough for a man to have a woman committed to a mental asylum (Dickens did it, when his wife kicked off about his affair). All it took were two doctors to agree with him and the woman would disappear from society’s view. In London asylums, women outnumbered men by 2:1 during this period. I had a friend who worked as a psychiatric nurse and back in the day when care was being returned to ‘the community’ a number of elderly women in his hospital were found to have been there solely because of  pregnancies conceived outside of wedlock. You aren’t surprised, I know. No wonder my mother kept her feelings to herself and lashed out in private only. I feel for her.

Perhaps it is our society’s (gradually changing?) views of the un synthesised woman (she as madonna or whore rather than madonna and whore and all stations in between) that keys us into seeing a stereotype, when a woman ‘loses it’. (In England the term “mad cow” was a common insult –  perhaps less so, since BSE. I don’t know). How could the gentle, self sacrificing pacifist mother/wife/daughter become a howling banshee? How, indeed? Well, I know how I did.

And is it just me, or do I detect a subtle societal cue that is used to train us from early on? A few words placed so as to alert us to our innate ‘instability’? I am referring to the manner in which  women are often criticised  for being ’emotional’ (or at least, I was!) which is a short-hand way of saying ‘unstable and unreliable’.  Many a time, I’ve been told I am too ’emotional’ which is clearly a ‘bad’ thing and created a dynamic in which it was completely OK to disregard my credibility. (“I can’t take you seriously…”)

 

My aim here is to explore the fear that is held in a woman’s own psyche – one that says she is, in fact, mad. My aim is not to point the finger at a disintegrating patriarchy but grasp ownership of our own ghosts and ghouls.  Do we fear this might just be true? Albeit, only a little, or now and again.  Is it this lurking  fear, that ‘they’ might be right, that holds us back and fuels the repression of our gifts even more? Is it this fear that (in some cases) makes us take the pills, numb out on Netflix or Prosecco, cosmetic adjustments, shopping… where staying ‘normal’ becomes a distracting, military exercise in self-management and self-control?

Is it this  same fear  of being ‘off the planet’ and not fit for ‘reasonable’ company, that silences our intuition? Does this fear of being lunatic, locked away or just not valued by our nearest, become the gag on  our natural gifts? Does it stops us from speaking up about what we ‘know’ but can’t ‘prove’ and in so doing, minimise our contribution to life – and our personal fulfillment?

I’ve had too many instances of ‘knowing’ now, not to be comfortable with my own list which is headed “See, I told you so!”  Citing even just one instance, is worthwhile. It’s the one where my instinct led me out of the morning shower, ‘for no reason’ and, dripping water, out of my bathroom, then my bedroom, up a short corridor and across a hall, to find my little 3 year old son quietly standing poised in an open (upstairs) window.  Yep, that is enough for me to trust that this is not lunacy, it is an inbuilt and perfectly natural part of being a human.

 

But by mid life stuff those secret  fear-based ideas had backed up in me –  and were hammering for a release. I panicked in private. Could it be that the men and women who had told me over the years that I was ‘imagining it’ (Don’t be silly, how could you know that?”) could have been right all along?   Maybe I was losing it – this ‘other’ woman seemed to be SO unlike me. Man, she was WILD!   But I held on to the voice inside that said, “You  have to go through this”.

 

I admit, that if mad meant my psyche could not be contained in the restricted vanilla box of my former existence, I was mad. If madness is the feeling of having more to pour into life and experience than your society/mind/life allows; having more desires, wants, needs and a deep craving for acceptance of all of my selves was, and is, madness, I am mad.  Madness might even include (as it did for me) experiencing a series of ‘past lives’ spontaneously, night after exhausting and entertaining night!  Being woken at 2 am by people that had ‘passed on’ with whom I had unfinished business.  Seeing visions of the Planet’s future: connecting psychically with living people, talking with animals, seeing nature spirits.  Oh there was never a dull day. Or night.

 

Was I a mad woman, to want fiery passion? To see things I had only dreamed about?  I wanted adventurous sex in all its flavours. I craved variety. Conversation about everything. Was I a mad woman to want a partner to have fun with, to experiment and evolve with? To do stupid things with?  Mad to want to stick a lump hammer through the bleating, boring TV screen and dance naked in the rain. (I got rid of the TV. Dancing naked in the rain is easy). No, I was just evolving and the parts of me that were screaming for release would not be pacified by anything but expression.

What is mad is a society that does not accept the (healthy) expression of emotion and desire as a human need and a potential path for avoiding mental problems. And this rant (despite that it may occasionally read so,) is not a criticism of ‘the patriarchy’. I hope that the Adam and Eve bickering is behind us now. Women need to protect this gift, their gifts, and not be cowed into agreeing that there is something unstable about having them. I’ve just completed my day, which included a psychic reading/ healing, a walk, Yoga, cooking and eating lunch, getting the washing done and writing this. All without foaming at the mouth.

I will add a caveat, please be diligent. Mental illness comes in many forms. I suspect that I had moments of psychosis (kundalini psychosis is a ‘thing’) and maybe because I’m an old soul, I stayed calm inside while observing the (strange) thoughts and behaviours, it passed. I came through my ‘passage to power’ with the aid of a journal and one friend who would witness and not judge. I don’t recommend it. Find the support that is right for you – but find it. Otherwise, it can be a lonely and frightening road.menopause mental illness

Menopause, mental illness and my mum.

Menopause, mental illness and my mum.

 

menopause mental illness

My mum was in her early 40s when some dramatic changes became apparent. I have kept a photo of her in which she has a big, saggy belly emerging. It was a look she hated and was so out of keeping with her svelte, elegant and active self. She kept dieting, and worked physically hard but the low hanging, softly bulging belly did not recede. It made her feel even worse about herself. Her personal beauty had always been a protective shield, a defending wall, which hid the messed up and frantic child beneath.

 

I was only 15 but I sensed all of this. She had never really ‘let me in’ but I knew she was tormented by bad dreams, extreme ideas and paranoia. The outside world was a threat. People wanted to steal her things. People were dirty, lazy, liars, left wing, spoke incorrectly, didn’t hold their knife and fork properly , were rude, (mostly this applied to my choice of friends and sometimes to me). Her mental view of the world was that it was scary and not to be trusted.

Despite all this, she made sure we were  fed properly every day, clothed mostly by her genius with thrift, and a sewing needle. We lived in a very tidy home and her standards wore her down. Her focus was homemaking in the day but mostly obeying and adoring my father. She always made sure he got everything his way. His needs were top of her list even when I was old enough to know she was bored and wanted more  freedom and variety.

Then her temper  (which had always been erratic and scary) became unlivable with. Her jealousy, mood swings and sometimes, what felt like downright hatred of me, were very damaging to my self confidence and our relationship. Her mental health could never be questioned, because she was always, always, right. She’d never been easy to get close to – now I tiptoed around her even more. She was not a woman I could confide in, or trust.

 

At aged 18, I fell deeply in love. He wasn’t what she would have chosen for me (because, bless her memory, she was an outright snob) but she was also insanely jealous of me, beating a door down once, where he and I were hoping for some privacy: screaming at me and hurling insults. Half an hour later – she was once again, the locked down, aloof and perfectly mannered middle class woman. It was never referred to. I found out she was secretly taking sedatives which her twin sister had given to her (Patsy also died of breast cancer a year after my mum) and from 6 pm every day in the week, she was sipping Martinis before getting her ‘face on’ to go to the local with my dad. She knew how to anesthetise, for sure.

She died at age 51. The big saggy belly, despite trips to the GP (who assured her it was ‘just her age’) turned out to be grapefruit sized cancerous growths on her ovaries. They erupted when she was visiting her sister in Australia and only then was the extent of her illness revealed. She of course, had never said a word.

What was happening in my mother has – without my knowing it – driven me for answers to the questions I asked after nursing her and watching her illness take her away from us day by painful day.

I now believe that my mother’s illness, while there was a potential for it in her genes (my cousin also died from ovarian cancer and we know she has the BRCA1/2 gene defect) was also driven by her environment. I don’t just mean her home, or her food choices – I mean her mental wellbeing and her ability to self-regulate, ask for help and manage stress.

 

My mother had a secret need to express herself as a fiery, active, creative beauty, This was held firmly down by her beliefs, conditioning and the expectations she had created for herself. My father allegedly, did not want her going to work (“It would look as though we needed the money”). We did. My father – and by now my mum – were drinking every night and all weekend. They were considered to be fun, social party animals – which they were – but the prison of her life had her trapped and I knew her spirit longed for more.

Could her cancer have been avoided? How can I say? I can say that I have been in a couple of genetic research programmes, donated my blood and time to help solve some of the mysteries but I’ve always believed it’s my mind set and my own determination not to let my self expression be forced to wither, that has helped me stay well. I have shared this in every research programme I’ve been part of.

My hero, Dr Bruce Lipton, the Harvard cellular biologist, author and luminary (“The Biology of Belief”) says that the amount of DNA responsible for illness is about 1%. Everything else is mind stuff.

I see that at mid life, the combination (about which I have written widely) of Kundalini energy rising up, and the opening of the Chiron gate allowing the influx of more Uranian/Saturnian energy down, is potent. If this annoys you or means nothing, just think of petrol being poured on an oil leak that is already alight. That’s what I see.

Nature just wants to flippin’ well expand and when that force is restricted – well, try keeping a stallion away from a mare that’s in season. You’ll see what I mean.

 

menopause mental health

 

 

My friend Katie Phillips has recently blogged about her mother’s suicide at age 49, which she feels, was possibly related to the stress of unsupported perimenopause.

If you, or a woman you know, is feeling lost: mentally unwell or acting eratically, please do not dismiss it as just ‘her hormones’ or ‘her time of life’. The push, the energetic impulse, to come to terms with life at mid way – to deal with unresolved trauma and pain, is likely to be driven by hormones – but it is not a random ‘thing’. It is not  disassociated from the woman’s lived experience – it is something that does need support and proper guidance.

I know a lot of dark secrets now, about my mother’s early life. She would be shocked and embarrassed that I do. How I wish that she had lived in an age when discussion and admission of her pain, her confusion and her fears was acceptable.

menopause, mental illness,

Sure, she looked OK: fabulous, even. She was beautifully turned out at every moment of the day. Certainly,  she lived was in what seemed a safe and secure environment. But underneath that carefully presented surface was a heaving mass of pain, fear and rage which eventually turned into a heaving mass of cancerous cells.

 

 

 

My mother, Maureen Bluebell Bennett (15.4.1929 – 25.1.1981) is on the right hand side, just a few short weeks after her partial hysterectomy in Australia,  in 1976.  One ovary was partially left and her fallopian tubes were also left intact.   She had to have her procedures  completed in the UK, for reasons of finance, I believe. There was a long delay between the two operations.  Her best friend (in the purple sweater) also died of ovarian cancer. RIP sweet ladies, I am hoping you are free to be YOU now.