Brigid Schulte is a Washington Post staff writer and the author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play When No One Has the Time.”
By Julie Holland
Penguin Press. 420 pp. $27.95
For more than 4,000 years, the medical literature has been rife with what mostly male doctors considered an entirely female problem: hysteria. The ancient Egyptian Kahun Papyrus, which dates to about 1900 B.C. and is the oldest known medical text, advised that women who were cranky, weepy, depressed or anxious were suffering because their uteruses were in an unnatural position. Thus, the best treatment was to expose these moody women to foul-smelling substances near their noses or their vaginas, to get their uteruses to move back into their proper places.
The Greeks, Romans, physicians of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and even the famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud were little better. Moody, emotional, “hysterical” women were diagnosed as weak, easily influenced, guilty of sinning or neurotic because they hadn’t yet procreated. Suggested treatments varied from herbs, trances, orgasms — to treat their “uterine melancholy” — abstinence and even fire to cleanse them of their sorcery. Hysterical neurosis, a particularly feminine affliction, wasn’t removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1980.
Hysteria has given way in recent years to an explosion of diagnoses of depression and anxiety. Today, women are twice as likely as men to experience what doctors consider depression and two to four times as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Women are more apt to report emotional stress and insomnia. One in four women in the United States is now taking some kind of psychiatric medication to even out her emotional volatility.
And that, psychiatrist Julie Holland argues, is a mistake. In her new book, “Moody Bitches,” Holland contends that moodiness, “being sensitive, caring deeply, and occasionally being acutely dissatisfied,” is a natural source of power for women. And her book — a breezy and fast-paced girlfriend’s guide to hormonal fluctuations, monthly cycles, sex, breast-feeding, radically different life stages and the drugs that dull the edges of this often wild emotional ride — argues that going all-natural, from women’s brains to their fertility to their boobs, is a desperately needed “course correction.” “The problem with taking our happy pills and puttering along as before is that it’s no better than sweeping dirt under the carpet,” she writes. “I want you to take that rug out back and beat the hell out of it.”
One telling anecdote is about a patient who wanted to up her antidepressant dosage because she couldn’t stop crying at work. Holland discovered that the woman’s boss had publicly humiliated her. “We decided that what was needed was calm confrontation, not more medication,” Holland writes. And the same calm confrontation is needed, she asserts, for women who feel overwhelmed, resentful and overly busy trying to carry heavy loads at work while still, decades after the women’s movement, shouldering most of the burden at home.
Women who express their emotions pay a price. Calling a woman emotional is a classic strategy for cutting her off at the knees, as George W. Bush-era National Security Agency and CIA director Michael Hayden attempted to do not long ago when he called Sen. Dianne Feinstein “emotional” rather than “objective” for insisting on making public a report on U.S. interrogation techniques.
But Holland argues there is an even greater cost to dulling emotion. Mood-regulating antidepressants “may well help women get along, and even get ahead, in the workplace,” she notes, “but at what cost?” Medicated women, she argues, won’t feel life in all its complexity. The drugs can dull the obsession and compulsion often associated with romance, may impede the ability to climax in bed, and may even prevent women from falling in love. And though some of the severely depressed patients she treats have benefited from the calm induced by psychiatric medications, others may find that the drugs blunt “an ability to cry, irritation, care about others’ feelings, sadness, erotic dreaming, creativity, surprise, anger, expression of their feelings, and worry.”
She also warns that the pill, which tricks women’s bodies into thinking they’re already pregnant, will also make them less responsive to the pheromone scents that would repel them from mates more like them genetically and draw them to mates of a different genetic makeup, the better to give their offspring genetic diversity and increase their odds for survival. Holland cites one study that found “a woman on the Pill might go off it only to realize she is with someone who is more like a brother than a lover.” That astounding assertion led me not just to Holland’s end notes but also to the Web and a series of published studies that have indeed found that, as one online survey disclosed, women who fell in love while on the pill expressed more sexual dissatisfaction with their mates — while at the same time approving their performances as providers and fathers — than did women who fell in love without the pill.
(In her private practice, Holland tells her patients to stop taking the pill for a few months just to reenergize their pheromone sensitivity and make sure the men they met while on the pill are still the ones they want to be with, in bed and otherwise, year after year. She recommends the armpit test. If you like the smell of your potential mate’s pit — though perhaps not after a vigorous workout — you’re golden.)
Although she gives a thorough tour of women’s cycles and the hormones that can make them crazy, Holland, also the author of the best-selling memoir “Weekends at Bellevue,” slants her argument toward gender essentialism: the notion that women are biologically set up to feel emotion and that men are just lunks. She relies heavily on research showing that men’s and women’s brains are wired differently, as argued by neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine in her popular book “The Female Brain.” But that work has been called into question by, among others, neuroscientist Cordelia Fine, who wrote in “Delusions of Gender” that most large studies find more brain variation within gender than across it.
Holland also draws on evolutionary biology and the theory that women are biologically driven to seek out cad-like alpha males to mate with, only to prefer nesting with less-testosterone-fueled dads. Yet, while there are indeed distinct biological differences between men and women, much of what drives human attraction, mating, survival, love and even emotion remains a mystery. And while Holland makes a strong case that women are, indeed, moody bitches, new research shows that men may be moody bastards. In one recent study measuring physiological responses with electrodes, men experienced even stronger emotional reactions than women to images provoking bliss, humor and excitement — and showed twice as strong a reaction to heartwarming pictures — but were better at masking them.
In the final section of the book, “The Moody Bitches Survival Guide,” Holland takes readers on a quick and familiar tour of good living that can elevate one’s mood, from good eating, good sex, good exercise and mindfulness to the wonders of cannabis.
Holland is clearly at her best when making her central point: that although women have been a lucrative market for psychiatric medication even as the vast majority of drugs were tested on men, women’s oscillating moods are an “asset, not a hindrance.” “Our lives are not straight lines, and our moods aren’t either,” she writes “Being locked into one way of thinking, or having constantly artificially elevated levels of serotonin or estrogen, may be stable, but it is not natural or flexible. We need a course correction so that we can live lives that truly honor how we feel. But in order to do that, we must be able to feel. We must be able to be our moody selves. Acknowledging our bodies in all of their complexity is the first step to wellness, and to wholeness.”
The point is, perhaps, that men really aren’t from Mars, nor women from Venus. We are all emotional and logical beings. And by finally acknowledging and embracing both sides of our varied natures, rather than masking, discounting or medicating them away, we have a better shot at learning how to live together more fully, right here on Earth.