Call me paranoid (go ahead, this is going to be a column on psychiatry anyway), but when I hear a group of doctors talking about women's menstrual cycles, my eyes still begin to narrow.
I'm a member of ''the curse'' generation, you see. I remember when girls were excused from gym and women were kept out of public life because of that ''time of the month.'' I remember when Hubert Humphrey's doctor said that no woman should be president because of ''raging, hormonal imbalance.''
So I was not entirely comfortable when the topic reappeared a few years ago, under the trendy title, Pre-Menstrual Syndrome. The good news was that male television anchors learned to say the word ''menstruation'' without stammering. The bad news was that some of the PMS talk sounded a lot like Humphrey's doc.
In three separate murder trials in England, Dr. Katherine Dalton testified that PMS had turned the defendant into "a raging animal each month." In TV land's "St. Elsewhere" a woman hospitalized with PMS attacked a nurse and screamed into millions of living rooms: "I'm a danger to everybody!" PMS clinics sprang up around the country nearly as quickly as diet clinics, and there are some that give out vitamins and even progesterone as blithely as they once gave out diet pills.
Now the curse, or the pre-curse, has struck again. Last week at the American Psychiatric Association's convention, the psychiatrists got into a controversy about whether to add ''premenstrual dysphoric disorder,'' an extreme version of PMS, to the official list of mental disorders.
The psychiatrists divided loosely into two camps. Some insisted that labeling this as a mental disorder would do women more harm than good. Over the years, psychiatrists have diagnosed and treated more loony (as in lunar) women than men. This could be read as another message that women go crazy ''that time of the month.''
Others insisted that if there's a real problem out there, if there are patients in need of help, then you treat them without worrying about the political fallout. A disorder has to be listed in the profession's bible to get research funding, medical insurance, the money to study, treat and cure it.
Dr. Carol Nadelson, the outgoing president of the APA, put the problem succinctly: ''On the one hand, you don't want to label anyone or say that all women have raging hormonal symptoms. On the other hand, if you see people who are in trouble, you want to help them.''
Despite my own PSS (Psychiatric Suspicion Syndrome), PMS is not a right-wing conspiracy or a fantasy of doctors in search of diseases. It exists, as a little understood, highly individual combination of physical and psychological symptoms that varies enormously from one woman to another. Among some 5 percent of women, it deserves the capital "S" of Syndrome. Many fewer women are troubled enough emotionally to seek psychiatric help.
In the best of all possible worlds, a problem that affects such a small number of women shouldn't threaten such a large number. In the best of all possible worlds, we wouldn't attach a special stigma to any emotional problem, especially to one associated with the female anatomy. As Dr. Nadelson says, ''I wish that having a mental disorder were like having asthma.'' But it isn't.
The APA controversy may end in a compromise position, in a special appendix on ''premenstrual dysphoric disorder'' added to the manual. But if PMS has a physical origin, I'd rather see it listed under gynecology, not psychiatry.
We just aren't all that far away from the raging hormonal-imbalance days. Even today, women and the female cycle are often regarded as "abnormal." It is still by and large men who define normal, even while committing 90 percent of the crimes and waging nearly all the wars.
There are, unhappily, political statements that can come gift-wrapped in medical diagnoses. The real world does not yet regard mental illness as asthma. The real world is all too happy to apply the newest "crazy lady" label.
Have you read the latest about Lizzie Borden, Sylvia Plath and Queen Victoria? Some researchers say they all suffered from PMS.