This is going to rankle. And it will probably get me into some trouble down the road. But I’ve just had a massive realization, putting decades of lived experience, a background in social research, and my knowledge and everyday living of the culture together.
The great unexamined problem in this country isn’t men’s mental health. It’s women’s mental health. It suddenly dawns on me that women are in terrible shape in terms of their emotional health—just terrible—and that it is in fact largely verboten to say, acknowledge, or even think this.
Women have been placed under more pressure than ever before. They are now living in the isolating, disconnecting, and largely unemotionally instrumental world of the workforce. They are cut off from traditional social networks and living arrangements that they are biologically more wired to rely on. At the same time, they are subject to increased pressure because they must outperform at work to fight gender bias, and in directions that are likely not biologically as natural to them, on average, than they are for men (abstract thinking, competitiveness, ruthlessness, cold assertiveness, etc.). They are judged on their appearance, judged on their children, etc., and they are, in fact, miserable.
It dawns on me that I have never known a fundamentally happy woman. I’ve not known one, my entire life. Wait, I take that back. I do believe that I have met and know one, a personal friend.
But in general, the women I’ve known have shared a deep core of desperation, sadness, isolation, fear, repressed anger, exhaustion, etc.
And the most pernicious thing about all of this is that they can neither express it nor seek help, because that is seen as an indirect nod toward sexist thinking, toward a betrayal of the cause. Their problems are culturally held to be caused by the patriarchy, by men, and by capitalism. They are constantly pressured and sanctioned and judged by other women and the community of women, and these same other women hold them to effectively be traitors to the cause or apologists for sexism and oppression—reactionaries, counterrevolutionaries—if they express their suffering in terms of personal mental health and need, rather than in terms of protest, blame, and political action.
It is not men who cannot “cry for help” these days. Men are applauded for it! So sensitive! So introspective! So attuned to their feelings and in touch with their feminine side! It’s okay to cry, you know! At peace! In balance! All in pursuit of the goal of arriving at mental health!
No, it is women who cannot cry for help. If they do that? They are blaming themselves, setting back the cause, being brainwashed by the ideological hegemony of the male, white, corporate oppression, giving men a free pass, internalizing their oppression, letting down their sisters, etc. No, they must be strong! Decisive! Lean in! Enlightened! Organic!
While men can pay their bucks and seek mental health and receive back-patting from the cultural vanguard for such actions, women are forced to rely on aromatherapy, yoga, jack-Buddhist meetup groups with other similarly vexed women, New York Times self-help bestsellers written by social media mavens, and self-directed pep talks. And they must smile through each one of these, rather than cry—smile at the awareness, the sisterhood, the new world of progressive progress that their feminine self-treatment is bringing about and the joy that it is required, on pain of ostracism, to bring about—in contradiction to the dour gray predation of the patriarchy, whom they are through such processes bringing down.
And behind it all, they suffer in silence. Some of the women that have known break down and cry in back rooms when no one is looking, day after day (at times, often, it has been on my shoulder) in long, embittered, desperate soliloquys about the insufficiencies of their selves, the blackness of life, the sadness and panic, the degree to which they hate men (irony apparently lost on them—I now realize with a shock that this is actually a covert, socially acceptable way of saying “I hate women, including myself!”), etc. Then, they wipe their eyes and emerge from these rooms with a brave face and fists against the patriarchy in the air, all smiles and “strength,” as though such repeated moments reveal nothing about the states of their lives.
Many won’t even admit to themselves that they are emotional wrecks. They march on with smiles, their feelings are betrayed by their strange self-defeating decisions (that are, in fact, covert cries for help), their brittle-as-glass demeanors and temperaments, and the way in which their smiles are characterized by a wince-inducing level of teeth-gnashing, their fingernails digging into their palms so hard, day after day, as to make one think they’ll soon draw blood, even as they make their enlightening, uplifting progress and speeches and “lean in” with the best of them.
I don’t know why I’ve never intuited this before, but this morning as I was quietly and contentedly doing dishes it really hit me as I reviewed a lifetime of knowing women from different places and in different walks of life, across different contexts. Miserable and at the breaking point, they are required on pain of excommunication from cultural womanhood to blame it on men and to seek treatment only under the guise of happy self-improvement and patriarchy-battle, and only in the form of upper-middle-class consumer lifestyle goods, activisms, and services.
Bourgeois lives of silent desperation, indeed. I suddenly strongly suspect it’s become worse and more pervasive than ever, not better.