Reading Response: Out of Her Mind

Thanks so much to forum member Meredith for this Community Contribution Reading Response of Rebecca Shannonhouse’s (ed.) Out of Her Mind: Women Writing on Madness. As always, if you’re reading something you’d like to share with others, shoot ∃ an email at definefunctioning [at] gmail [dot] com. (I’ll add your reading to the Current Reading panel and post your Response when you’re finished.) What follows is Meredith’s response.

Shannonhouse Out of Her Mind: Women Writing on Madness by Rebecca Shannonhouse (Ed.) highlights many unpleasantries about being mentally ill, which can help validate persons struggling with such things and illustrates some of the ways in which the mental health industry has changed. Shannonhouse also chose more current stories depicting the ways in which that industry has not changed. The book confirmed my belief that we mentally ill must take a proactive approach to healing. While reading, I could empathize with all the women, and I recognized my good fortune to have had recent great support and success in living with bipolar. I have become passionate about my care, do research on my medications, stay in regular contact with my psychiatrist, and see my therapist often while working on changing my longstanding behaviors related to being bipolar. Shannonhouse’s book reminds me of the importance of fighting for ourselves and forcing the mental health community to not only see us as intelligent humans and partners in healing, but to alter the inconsistencies in their field.

Shannonhouse began her chronology with an excerpt from Margery Kempe’s The Book of Margery Kempe from 1436. Kempe’s recounting in the third person of a short but intense segment of her craziness is raw, including devils, flames, and being hauled about. Of course, in 1436, people considered crazy were banished to some of the most abhorrent places.

Those places did not change much from Kempe’s time to the 1800s when Dorothea Dix, a social reformer in Massachusetts, went from asylum to prison chronicling the state of the inhabitants to later discuss with the legislature. The despicable conditions of the institutions and other places they kept mentally ill people drove these women to rally for humanity. Though I have never experienced hospitalization, someone I know recently had an eye-opening experience after being checked in by her doctor. She was treated as if she was either five years old or an animal, and she had to fight to be released. And fight she did.

Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, in the excerpt from Willow Weep for Me (1998), very clearly described the painstaking life of a woman consumed with depression. She defined depression, she discussed it as we discuss it and other mental illnesses, and she tied it to social issues. The cyclical logic of being and staying depressed is something I have experienced for years, getting caught up in my own hopelessness and proliferating depression further. By enhancing my awareness of my thought processes and their effects (for better or worse) on my feelings, I have begun to mitigate the negativity as it arises. Early awareness is key.

Some of the more famous women included are Zelda Fitzgerald, who hardly wrote once deemed mentally ill, Sylvia Plath, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman who wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” in 1892. Gilman’s vivid descriptions of her world around her, the one room in which she was confined due to a “nervous condition,” drew me into the wallpapered hell. I completely identified with her sense of being alone to fend for herself because no one would believe something was really wrong. I also entered her room as she described the living furniture and the woman behind the wallpaper. I could easily have been her. I had been in a similar relationship and for various reasons was, thankfully, able to get the help I needed to see straight, at least at times.

The stories collected remind me of The Snake Pit and others condemning the mentally ill to be at the mercy of others for always. I remember watching The Snake Pit and feeling the frustration of not being treated respectfully and the feeling of desperation at being at the mercy of others. It is certainly a way we can live, but I believe more and more of us are taking our illness into our own hands, doing the research, and questioning the practices of the mental health community. Most of Shannonhouse’s book reminds me why that is so important.

Feeling disconnected from my own mother and knowing I’ve stopped from killing myself because of my children and not wanting to cause them so much pain, Signe Hammer’s story along with Linda Sexton’s, drove home for me the pain, the identity issues, and the being wanted and being loved issues. They are powerful excerpts. All my wonderings about my children’s lives should I commit suicide were realized in those two stories alone. There is no doubt in my mind that I would leave them with much pain and lifelong scars. Even if I don’t keep from committing suicide for me, I keep from doing it for them, and sometimes that is enough.

There are stories about behaviors, those around medication, some with ECT, hospitals, and doctors, and stories with definitions coming from those who suffer. I found myself identifying with nearly every woman in the book on some level. There is an underlying strand of suffering and stigma in the stories of the past to which I certainly could relate with regard to the beginning of my healing journey. Being the daughter of a psychologist who offered no help in my teenage struggles, I internalized the stigma as many of these women did, and many more today do.

However, one of the identities I further developed in myself from reading Shannonhouse’s collection was that of advocate, at least for myself if not for others. The discussions I have with fellow mentally ill people do often center on the injustices of our general treatment by society and the mental health community. Some go on to speak on a more global level for which I am grateful. Making those connections with advocates keeps the torch afire for us to do our own work in managing our illnesses.

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