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

mad woman, 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

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