Misunderstandings of mental illness abound, but if there is one theme that I would like to argue most specifically against, it is that the sad woman is somehow mysterious and alluring. Let me be perfectly clear: there is nothing sexy about having the underwire taken out of your bra, being watched while you shave, being seventeen and on a children’s unit and eating Froot Loops and playing bingo. If anything, being depressed is the opposite of what I personally find attractive: depth, confidence, ambition. Yet this trope persists: no one would have read Prozac Nation if Elizabeth Wurtzel hadn’t been so damn hot.
It continues to frustrate me that popular understanding of women’s depression is limited to The Bell Jar and other similarly sensationalized, not to mention outdated, portraits. A woman’s vulnerability, they seem to say, is somehow evidence of her allure; depressed is just another word for coy. I assure you, real mental illness doesn’t exist to satisfy a fetish. The troubled history of women and psychiatry is only reinforced by these concepts of the mercurial, irresponsible, self-absorbed woman who so clearly needs intervention to return to the realm of acceptability. Too often, women are the patients and men the authorities.
And if we’re not sexy, we’re selfish. We fail to be the whore and we also can’t get the selfless Madonna quite right. Selfish is one of the worst things a woman can be, and what is more selfish and self-indulgent than to be unable to carry on with one’s relatively comfortable, uncomplicated existence? Feminism did not absolve me from this guilt. It became even easier to think of the massive, overwhelming problems in this world and find my own struggles shameful and insignificant.