A Short History of Hysteria

By Christina Shideler

It was the ancient Greeks who coined the term “hysteria”; Hippocrates, in fact. It means the disease of the movement of the uterus. Oh shit, where has my uterus gone? you may be thinking,  if you are not letting the young men of Argos defile you. Don’t worry, a man will tell you to respect the phallus, giving you hellebore and presenting you like a plate of figs to the virile men below. This self-same man, Melampus, might refer to your “uterine melancholy,” if you keep it up. If you flee from the small life of impregnation after impregnation, a swollen belly near a hearth, a great gaping hole. Your humors must be off if you are not in a marital bed eager and waiting. Here, ancient Greeks and Egyptians say, place these malodorous substances near your vagina and scare that womb right back into its place!

In the Middle Ages you’ll fare even worse if your uterus decides to up and migrate. St. Thomas Aquinas says that “the woman is a failed man” because women just love to sin. Women are clearly far weaker than men and you strangest of them, you non-servile women, you must be making love to the devil. We bet you’re a witch and well, God says, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

And they didn’t. Centuries of women up in smoke.

Oh the Renaissance! Oh huzzah, don’t you know we learned perspective and science and rationality returns. Oh wait, what’s that? Oh yes, we’re still killing witches, move right along.

And we cannot forget Salem. Those young girls staring and barred eyes, prone to sudden movements and raucous noises. A bevy of girls just squirming under Puritanism, under man after man after God. And we all know how that ended.

And our cities grow, we find ourselves in a cavalcade of humans and factories begin to rise. Women beside women, rows and rows of women weaving and sewing and stopping for nothing.  And here comes Joseph Raulin saying that hysteria comes from foul air and “unruly social life.”  Men could get hysteria too, but it’s the women who are affected because they are “lazy and irritable.” Meanwhile, Pierre Roussel writes that women are born wanting to be mothers and the moral compass for bands of well-behaved children. And hysteria comes when that natural desire is unfulfilled. God, women, why can’t you stop being so lazy, man up, and birth some cherubic little virtuous babies?

Don’t worry, ladies, things get more fun for you as history goes on. You’ve still got smelling salts in your pocket to shoot that uterus back into place but now you’re entitled to “hysterical paroxysms.” Some fatigued doctor gives a “pelvic massage” and ugh, it sure is a lot of work but then you start shaking and moaning and finally calm down!

Finally Freud comes and tells us we’re all just fucked up about sex; that hysteria is a lack of fulfillment of sexual desires. And on come the suffragettes and the sexual revolution and waves of feminism and the only hysteria left is mass.

And now you legions of women are free! Free to ignore the pressure of an adolescent body with synthetic tits, to ignore the centuries-laid undertone that weight is a moral issue. To be childless, ignoring the sad sighs and remonstrations that you are just being selfish. Ignore the legion of media telling you to manage a successful non-threatening career while being thin, amiable, friendly, sexually adventurous but not too, coupled, and beautiful.  Good luck!  Why would anyone be hysterical now?

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Four Principal Ways

“There are in our culture four principal ways in which a person tries to protect himself against basic anxiety: affection, submissiveness, power, withdrawal.” — Karen Horney, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time

I. Affection

“The motto is: If you love me you will not hurt me.”

See how good I am?
I am good like the dog;
I take only what you give,
I do not ask for houses
I only ask for the trinkets to fill them,
for the food I look forward to all day,
for the love I can get without whining.

I only steal tacos when you seem done.
I only ask for hands when I am scared.
I only mark where your ex has been.
I only try to run when you are looking the other way.

So I am not happy like the dog,
and I live five times as long.
I hope you’ll forgive my long sad life
and let me curl fetally beside you.

II. Submissiveness

“The motto is: If I give in, I shall not be hurt.”

Mark my words: none is mine,
I won’t scrap over scraps,
or get defensively fit;

hey muscle guy go ahead,
you’ve paid your world rent in gym sweat.
Meanwhile I’m proving myself with good jokes,

open doors, and a well-fed dog.
Go on fitted suit, polished shoes,
you’re making the numbers work;

those excel sheets don’t have shit on you.
I’ll keep filling up Word, leaving the rest
of the Office Suite mourning its obsolescence.

You go, Sir Miss Uniform,
you wear your power on your person,
and I’ll follow you into hell.

III. Power

“The motto is: If I have power, no one can hurt me.”

Use 100% of your brain,
not 10%, you loser.
And when you walk,
flex all of your toes —
this is a numbers game.

Be sure to save your thumbs up
for totally sick power moves,
and don’t high five unless
your broseph is crushing it.

Let’s fist bump beneath the stars,
trace Cassiopeia’s titties
while the wolves start to gather.
We’ll tame them with our righteousness
and become the chancellors of the night.

IV. Withdrawal

“The motto is: If I withdraw, nothing can hurt me.”

Hello I am a very small feeling
when my tentacles don’t reach out
when I don’t expand like magic grow capsules —
just add water and I go from meek to dinosaur.

You see I’ve found this space
beside the left ventricle
where I can lurk, pumping
vague longing into capillaries.

When spooked I grow large
with emotional plumage,
and when ignored I wax
with tufts of indifference.

You see I am quite almost nothing,
a floater on your heartsight,
a rock in your loveshoe,
emotional tinnitus.

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I Forgot I Was Sure I’d Die

“It is precisely in women that the danger-situation of loss of object seems to have remained the most effective. All we need to do is to make a slight modification in our description of their determinant of anxiety, in the sense that it is no longer a matter of feeling the want of, or actually losing the object itself, but of losing an object’s love. Since there is no doubt that hysteria has a strong affinity with femininity, just as obsessional neurosis has with masculinity, it appears probable that, as a determinant of anxiety, loss of love plays much the same part in hysteria as the threat of castration does in phobias and fear of the super-ego in obsessional neurosis.” — Sigmund Freud, Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety

There exists a plane of
forgotten panic attacks —
where staggered breath
and flexing toes meet,

where imagined catastrophes
project across clouds
and all peripheral noises
coalesce into home invaders.

The world has ended
a thousand times over
and pieces of it fall
like hail on twitching me’s.

All beloveds — man dog velvet couch
are mid-walk farthest away
and not even the couch
looks back.

They are not monumental
like the first — watching fan blades
warp, thinking it asthma,
all the rapists on the block.

Nor comic like the one
in English class, arms tight against
breast, teacher asking
“Did your bra come undone?”

They are simply this:
another day I thought I’d die
another day I didn’t die
a hysterical woman, roll on.

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You’re Still Here

“In anxiety there is the selfish infinity of possibility, which does not tempt like a choice but ensnaringly disquiets with its sweet anxiousness.” — Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety

You’re still here.
You still have him
and the grand fluffy one.
And every time you look down
at your legs and find them alien
you’ll remember the peppery sensation of the anesthesia
and all the books whose contents you’ve forgotten,
ripe to re-read on a blanket in a park
or more likely the warm boat of bed.

And your memory may be worthless,
stand-outs more fact than remembrance
or the ex-boyfriend whose scent lingered
far longer than your love,
your first head-on collision with cologne.

But he’ll still bring you flowers
when you ask for rosé
and his long legs carry beer
when you’re standing awkwardly at a park
between someone you’ve twice-forgotten
and someone who only knows this iteration,
the one whose spark is gone,
the fatter one with less danger.

And you’ll survey the city from on high
and be more impatient with crowds
than impressed with sights,
but the buildings stack like sugar cubes
and the proud lights of thousands
of housing projects and HQs alike
scream “I’m here” better than a poem ever could.

But tonight you’ll come home
to that flickering, broken entryway light
and you’ll know you’ve built something
in this mess of hair and dust,
in the marks of hands against stubborn doors,
the Craigslist furniture and self-made art.

You will lie in bed with him
and the grand fluffy one and know
that you’ll outlive the years
until you don’t
and maybe that will be okay.


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Christina ShiC.Shideler_headshotdeler is a current student at The New School Creative Writing Program, and she hails from the faraway land of Texas — but before you ask her, no, she doesn’t have an accent. She’s currently working on an in-progress hybrid genre book that analyzes the cultural history of anxiety, hysteria, and that thing that happens when your uterus goes AWOL. When she isn’t analyzing anxiety, she writes sarcastic poems about celebrities and makes animated gifs of shaking asses. In a former life, Christina worked in publishing, but these days. she spends most of her time talking to her dog in a high-pitched voice. She also has a curio cabinet that includes the best Valentine’s day present she ever got — a chicken heart in pink-colored alcohol with a rose petal.

Photo courtesy of Megan Sykes.