Madness in Mad Times
In 1892, Charlotte Perkins Gilman published a short story titled The Yellow Wallpaper. Gilman’s female protagonist was relegated to an upstairs room by her husband, a doctor, for a ‘rest cure’ to address her ‘nervous depression, despair, and hysteria.’ (Gilman had been given this “treatment” for depression herself, by a Dr. Silas Mitchell).
Enclosed, trapped, powerless, and pathologized (gaslighted), Gilman’s character became intoxicated by the wallpaper in the room. In the first third of the story, we find her in what seems like a petty preoccupation with the wallpaper, irritated and angered by the pattern in it, the sallow, yellow color, the sheer incongruence of the design. But as the pages turn, her intrigue with the wallpaper grows, over time ‘finding’ a woman trapped within its patterned contours.
The story continues to chronicle the protagonist’s building ‘madness,’ as she alternates between self-doubt and engagement with the woman (sometimes women) she is able to discern in the wallpaper. The protagonist refers to the guidance of those who are taking care of her, guidance she originally obliges but comes over time to question, then confront. Before long, you can’t help but join in her mounting irritation with the way they dismiss and minimize her distress and coddling her into ‘recovery.’ Over the course of the story, Gilman’s character builds the capacity (in a kind of defiant, madness) to dismiss these ‘caretakers’ who pity her condition (again, gaslighting). She finds an intimacy with her direct experience, learning to trust what she is seeing, feeling, discovering in a conscious awakening to a self-authorized reality of her own.
A feminist is any woman who tells the truth about her life. – Virginia Woolf
Gilman’s story culminates with the protagonist successfully stripping the wallpaper off the walls setting free, to her great satisfaction, the woman she sees caught there. When her husband opens the door in the final passage, he finds his wife proclaiming in delight: “I got out at last, I got out at last!” Said husband then faints and we are left with the image of a woman crawling in circles around him in the room, ‘mad’ and elated. We are also left with a disturbing but strangely intoxicating paradox about the relationship between a woman’s madness and her liberation.
There is a long history in feminist literature of women escaping conventional reality through surrender, in impossible circumstances, to so-called ‘madness.’ This surrender is not a collapse in defeat, however, but one that allows the women in this fiction to find access to previously, unattainable tastes of freedom. It’s the kind of surrender that allows who-you-thought-you-were to die to discover the person you really are.
Whether in Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Kate Chopin, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Bessie Head, or in popular movies like Thelma and Louise, Girl Interrupted and The Hours, women have often found in the exploration of ‘madness’ a portal to a more authentic truth. This inquiry, over time, has crafted a healthy doubt about whether it is women who are mad or the culture that has led them to betray themselves.
Women who ‘misbehave,’ are ‘too emotional,’ don’t fit gendered expectations, or who aren’t white and actually have needs and bodies of their own(!) are often joined by people with histories of abuse, neglect, and trauma in being labeled by conventional society as “troubled.” This marginal status so often leads to self-effacing afflictions of shame, isolation, and self-doubt. And yet, from a different vantage point, the so-called ‘troubled-ones’ can be seen as the carriers of the trouble with our culture – its madness. In fact, seen differently, it is on the backs of the ‘troubled’ that we find the imprint of our collective human failure to evolve cultures and life conditions that support safety, love, joy, security, acceptance and holistic thriving. Especially in America – a country that for its entire history has been committed to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the lost ones, the ‘mad’ ones, may be the messengers of what is broken, not so much in them, as in the culture that broke them. As such, the stories these people tell about a path to authenticity can unfold a roadmap to our larger culture’s recovery.
When living in times like ours – times that evoke feelings of despair, anger, hatred, and grief – times that seem, in too many ways, to no longer make sense – some of us are driven ‘mad.’ After all, people do get driven mad in maddening circumstances, as when the truth is called fake news, when the lines between entertainment and reality, news and marketing disappear, or the long-revered idols of democracy and capitalism that our lives have depended upon appear to be approaching an eerie twilight.
Turning towards the despair, isolation, anxiety, anger, and hatred is counter-intuitive. It calls for a courageous and vulnerable self-honesty right at the time one’s instincts choose fight, freeze or flight. Moving towards these places, after all, we hear voices, especially as women, from both inside and out, telling us we are unruly, out-there, too emotional, destructive, imbalanced, hysterical (overly feminine), wicked, irrational, weak, nuts, frail, hysterical, crazy, mad. These difficult emotions are territory many of us have learned to avoid, choosing instead to persevere, endure, numb out, defy, or to shrink, into smaller (less-threatening) versions of ourselves.
Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. – James Baldwin
It takes a lot of “I can’t take this anymore” to risk crossing those judgmental waters. Sometimes, like Gilman’s character who falls apart and begins to question the conventional wisdom around her, we need to be taken to an extreme to learn the one essential ingredient to a good life, the ticket to a spirit of adventure and irreverence: Knowing when to start just not giving a f*&k!
For Charlotte Perkins Gilman, it required this spirit to create a story we remember over 100 years later that was based on a life she was told again and again was broken. It requires facing off with that inner judge – with the will to win! – to arrest its effect of slowly eroding our inner guidance. It requires being willing to tolerate the shame and to risk letting go of all that is familiar in ourselves to make room for all that we are. In this willingness to fall apart, opening to what we don’t know, we scratch at the wallpaper of our lives until we meet our grief with immediacy, finding compassion for ourselves, uncovering inner truths about value, love, strength, and beauty that have been hidden too long.
As all who have pioneered the territory of gender and madness know, the journey uncovers truths that bear important messages, truths that reshape us, truths that tell us something new about what it means to be human, and by extension, to be human citizens – together – of the precious, life-giving planet we share.
America Under Gaslight
In the first essay in this series, I wrote about my personal history as the daughter of a parent with malignant narcissism. Unpacking this term as it lives in others and those around them a bit provides something of a context for the muddled madness I grew up with, but that, I suggest, is a hallmark of the Trump presidency.
We are all, to some degree narcissistic at our egoic core, but when narcissism is severe it takes the shape of a personality disorder. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a misunderstood, largely undiagnosed beast of a mental illness that hurts its hosts as much as those who surround them. The host, however, typically doesn’t feel their own hurt – the utter emptiness within them – because s/he masterfully projects their negative experiences onto others. The afflicted individual goes through life endlessly and voraciously consuming people, places and things in an effort to allay the hollow sensations of highly brittle self-esteem. (An overview of the possible childhood tributaries to developing narcissism here.) Unable to see themselves in a real way, narcissists hunger for more and more mirroring, never getting enough – enough fame, love, admiration, wealth. Never.
Those with NPD see reality through a distorted lens twisting it (often lying) to serve their grandiose self-image. However, narcissists often don’t know they are lying, they are unconscious of their needs and the way they distort reality to serve them. The disorder, furthermore, renders them allergic to self-reflection, growth, and change. The capacity for empathy in them is also somehow, and often irreversibly, broken.
It took me maybe twenty years to get perspective on this illness and its impact both on my father and our family. It took that long to understand and then accept that it is futile to expect someone with NPD to function like an ordinary human being. My father looked and appeared normal; in fact, he was very successful and ‘functional,’ but his mental illness rendered him ‘inhuman.’ He was not evil, he did not see or understand his lack of morality – but the damage he wreaked around him through his disconnection with his own heart was devastating. He suffered from a mental illness and needed help, a lot of help, but he was constitutionally wired to indignantly deny he needed it.
No doubt, those who live in the shadow of people with NPD like I did, know with painful, infuriating familiarity the feeling of being used-up, gaslighted and of living with a self-doubt that grows in reality’s distortions where self-care gets steadily abandoned. For those embroiled in these relationships, all of these truths make up a very hard reality to wake up to. Staying embroiled, however, will eventually make you mad. The only ‘way out’ is to begin to objectively identify the contours of NPD and to build the capacity for a self-referenced truth that is able to call a spade a spade.
In spite of years of working through the worst of my personal history with narcissism – the self-doubt, depression, grief, acceptance – the first year of Trump’s presidency sent me into a dark and frightening place. Demonstrating so many of the characteristics of a malignant kind of NPD, Trump tripped a wire in me. The weeks following the election felt cataclysmic and worsened daily as Trump’s actions dovetailed with memories from my history. I had a chilling familiarity, after all, with the patterns of Trump’s distortions of fact and self-serving fictions. It was a familiarity that years of therapy had provided a degree of wisdom about, but my nervous system was unprepared for how I would be impacted by when these dynamics played out on a national scale in a country I thought I loved. When I began to see how the American news media had no idea what they were up against (or were not willing to name the ‘spade’), my confidence fumbled. Day after day, I saw the media playing into Trump’s narrative, frantically fact-checking and reeling over his tweets rather than naming the mental illness that was driving his behavior.
As I watched all the moral outrage that was further polarizing the country, I found myself slipping into my own form of madness. My compulsive addiction to Apple News belied an acute familiarity with how bad this could get for our country. I felt I needed to be on guard for whatever might happen in the next hour. When it wasn’t about the need to be prepared, I was driven by my ‘hope’ that the next headline would signal Trump’s imminent downfall. It was magical, wishful thinking in the space of an increasing sense of hopelessness and powerlessness. My stress level steadily crept up, impacting sleep, patience, my relationships. My capacity to be present and accountable as a mother, partner – to be a functioning person in the world – was slowly slipping away.
And of course, here, I was far from alone. The American Psychological Association revealed that 63 percent of the respondents to their 2016 “Stress in America” survey (3400, published) regarded the future of the country as “a significant source of stress.” In the same survey, fifty-six percent said: “they [were] stressed by the current political climate” (by the 2018 edition the results rose by 5%). Clinical psychologist Jennifer Panning (The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump) characterized the phenomenon as “Trump Anxiety Disorder,” a type of anxiety in which symptoms “were specific to the election of Trump and the resultant unpredictable sociopolitical climate.”
The Untold Stories of The Trump Presidency
While these statistics tell us something, however, about America’s nervous system during the Trump presidency, they don’t tell us much about how the people who made up these numbers handle this level of stress. The numbers don’t tell us whether and where it has caused deeper collapse and or where it has pushed people to the “third floor of a country house” and a certain kind of generative “madness.” That story is harder to measure with statistics.
As Gilman’s character teaches us, difficult experiences become digestible, the isolation we feel in them broken down when we take the time to be with them. While many Americans may be tightening up against the rise in anxiety and distress, others, with the courage of Gilman’s character, are turning towards it. While many of the stories recounting this inward turn appear to still be ‘in the closet’ behind the doors of therapist’s offices, many women, especially, are facing painful histories of sexual assault triggered by Trump’s behavior. And herein lies the silver lining: the past two years have witnessed a fair share of waking up. #MeToo points to the Trump presidency as a powerful, catalytic force, providing so many women with the opportunity to engage a deeper level of personal growth, empowerment, and transformation. While personal, these changes are also cultural and political. They are the place where the personal is political reaches a whole new octave – and the site of the growing pains of a new citizenship.
In this second essay, I write about what happened when I took the time to unravel the untold story of my experience in the first two years of Trump’s presidency. What I recount may seem self-absorbed at times, maybe, also, far-out, trippy, packed with weird spiritual stuff, but each individuals’ story has particularities that can only be uncovered through a deep commitment to their unique twists and turns. This is mine, and yet while I, Karin, am the narrator, the protagonist of the story is my relationship to feelings: fear, heartache, rage, hatred, grief. …The stuff of being human.
Nonetheless, what we discover from personal experience can vary widely depending on the different lenses of a narrator and how experience can be informed by intersections of race, gender/sexuality, class, nationality, kinds of abuse, political ideology and more. I am a white, (cis)gendered female; a mother, formerly in relationships with women but now married to a man with whom I am raising twin boys. My story is rife with the privilege that comes with this background, including access to therapy and years of work in a spiritual school. Also the privilege of time – not much of it, but enough to steal away to be with my experience. It is a privilege that should be a right. Given the givens, what I share here is not offered as prescriptive, but as illustrative of what can get born when outer, political pressures forge deep, inner transformation. Somewhere at the intersection of my privilege, my fear about our future and my commitment to the truth, a narrative has unfurled that will hopefully take its place beside many others.
My story begins, like Gilman’s did, in fact, with the experience of a woman talking to herself. The conversation started, however, not in an attic room in an old country house symbolizing entrapment, but is set in the ‘room’ of my daily life, a landscape where the ‘walls’ were hung with a 1,000 screens flashing news chyrons. In the digital and cable foment of that first year of Trump’s presidency, the way it lived in my mind and my restless, agitated, isolated, sleep-deprived body, you could say I began to go mad.
Or did I?