Elissa Bassist is an essayist, humorist and editor of the “Funny Women” column on Ruckus.
Below, Elissa shares 5 key insights from her new book, Hysterical: a memoir. Listen to the audio version – read by Elissa herself – in the Next Big Idea app.
1. You can’t imagine it.
“And if all is well with you? a gastroenterologist asked me the day before his call with the results of my blood tests which revealed a fatal illness. For two years of my life, one doctor trained another, and I got no diagnosis. The diagnosis was that everything was wrong with me or that I had a mental illness. This is ‘medical gaslighting’, when doctors ignore your concerns or delay treatment or describe you as ‘hypersensitive’ even when you are in pain. It causes unnecessary suffering and even death. If you are female, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, or older, you are more likely to undergo medical gaslighting.
Red flags that I ignored – because I wanted to be a “good patient” and not bother anyone – were dismissive questions about my symptoms that made me feel unimportant and ridiculous, such as: “Do you even have the pain you say you have? in?”
The average white male has shorter wait times for appointments and diagnoses, gets painkillers when he needs them (even if he doesn’t need them), gets referred for tests, and is listened to and believed. We are the experts and authorities of our own bodies. When something is wrong, we know it, we feel it, we are in bed because of it. We are not making it up, and no one in a position to save us should assume that we are.
2. You are not crazy.
You are crazy. Every woman has heard it at least a thousand times. Some doctors didn’t think I was sick; they thought I was crazy. In 2017, former presidential aide Jason Miller called then-Senator Kamala Harris “hysterical” during a hearing on Jeff Sessions’ collusion with Russia in the 2016 election. “I mean, she was asking tough questions,” Miller offered as evidence.
Labels like “mad” and “hysterical” blur the distinction between vocal, curious, emotional, irrational, neurotic, crazy, melodramatic, hormonal, hypersensitive, irritating and clinical – until “vocal” itself is a symptom . Until expressive women are crazy, whether or not we are crazy, sick or mentally ill.
“The medical establishment only needs a small revolution: to listen to and believe women and marginalized communities.”
We are addicted all the same. Women are over-diagnosed and over-medicated for mental illnesses, but we are under-treated for physical illnesses and are more prone to chronic pain. One study “estimated that up to one-third of primary care patients…have ‘medically unexplained symptoms’” and about 70% are women.
The medical establishment only needs a small revolution: to listen to and believe women and marginalized communities. Stop telling women to “lose weight” as a panacea. Treat a woman’s body like the human body. Include women in medical research. Test drugs on women. Teaching about menopause in medical school. Remove “crazy” and “hysterical” from the medical vocabulary.
3. Emotional pain can become physical.
Being called crazy or any other synonym keeps women quiet while keeping us crazy. It also keeps us in pain, which keeps us helpless. It drove me really, really, really crazy. But I didn’t say I was mad until someone asked me.
Every undiagnosed sick person will hear, “Have you tried acupuncture? I did it.
“Are you angry?” the acupuncturist asked me during our first session.
“Yes,” I said, without thinking or pity.
She asked me how many times I was angry.
“All the time.”
She asked me if I had expressed my anger.
I laughed, like it was an option. As anger should not be squeezed out of my mouth like wisdom teeth. She suggested that repressed rage was a contributing factor, if not a catalytic force, for my physical illnesses. She was kind of saying that I has been hysterical.
“Basically, if you don’t share your story, your pain will tell it for you.”
Plot twist – there is truth in the connection between mind, body and throat, on the inside translating on the outside in the form of intense pain along the nerves. Today’s mind-body physicians theorize that some physical pain is, in fact, repressed emotional pain that finds expression, that emotions like rage build up in the unconscious, become inarticulate until ‘they reach their maximum capacity and tell the brain to create physical symptoms. Basically, if you don’t share your story, your pain will tell it for you.
4. Silence can make us sick.
Women have learned to be genteel, quiet, polite, respectful and unselfish, and because of this we report our pain less than men, and we repress it.
Talking to me is not how I learned English. Instead, I learned to speak fluently about apologies, asking, miscommunication, deleting. I felt like I had to say the “right” things to fit in at work or in a relationship. According to endless reports, women have everything to lose and almost nothing to gain from speaking out, moving or speaking out. My experiences, across time and space, have reinforced silence as my best option.
My inability to speak for myself became so extreme that I was referred to an OCD specialist. My silence had metastasized into an obsessive fear of “saying the wrong thing” that compelled me to compulsively question, edit and censor myself. It made me physically ill.
Punishment is known to cause digestive havoc, respiratory issues, and full body stress; it endangers our minds, bodies and souls like a virus by reducing free will, compromising thought and sense of self, while isolating and weakening us. Women – who should be seen and not heard – are particularly susceptible to incommunicable physical pain without origin.
The acupuncturist who had diagnosed my rabies prescribed me a talking cure. As if treating the voice would solve the problem.
“As my survival instinct was to remain silent, speaking was simple but not easy.”
In the 19th century, a woman – the “hysterical mute” “Anna O.”, whose real name was Bertha Pappenheim and who later founded the Jewish feminist movement – coined the term “talking cure” to describe how the expression restored sanity and health. His doctor was Dr. Freud’s colleague; both men helped “hysterical” patients by getting them to talk about what they couldn’t. They then put the unnameable into a narrative and the symptoms into a critical interpretation, after which the symptoms dissipated.
In the 1980s, psychologist James Pennebaker discovered that “expressive writing,” his theory that writing down your wounds helps heal them, improved immune function.
The phrase especially helps women. Author Soraya Chemaly writes in RAge Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger about research showing that “the survival rate of women with breast cancer who expressed their anger was twice that of women who kept their anger to themselves”.
Part of my survival was learning to express every emotion I had and to speak up for myself – with doctors and in general about anything I was told not to talk about because it wasn’t “kindly”. Since my survival instinct was to remain silent, speaking was simple but not easy. “It’s a risk,” my OCD specialist told me. Risk of going against lives of socialization. Risking saying the wrong thing. Risk of being seen as unreasonable and risk of being called unacceptable. Risk requiring help. Risk again and again, as if your life depended on it, because it does. Your voice is as essential as your breathing or your heartbeat.
To listen to the audio version read by author Elissa Bassist, download the Next Big Idea app today: