September 2020

The Nation Reviewed

Hysteria as metaphor

By Jenny Valentish
What chronic illness can teach us about the limits of the healthcare system during a global crisis

Ginnie – part-greyhound, full name Virginia Woof – has a long stride. Once she’d bolted out the front door, she was away with the wind. Without thought, Katerina Bryant sprinted after her. The house is on a main road and, losing sight of Ginnie, Bryant started to feel the familiar pressure of a panic attack in her chest. Moments later, Ginnie reappeared, rounding the corner. Bryant grabbed the dog’s collar and crumpled to the footpath. She started to see the little white lights that indicated a seizure was imminent. Vaguely, she was aware of people in passing cars watching her curiously, and Ginnie lolling and quivering above her.

Bryant is an Adelaide-based writer who, at the age of 24, started experiencing psychogenic non-epileptic seizures – which, she has learnt, is the modern, polite way of saying “hysterical seizures”. The depersonalisation that overcomes her slows her world down to a crawl and makes familiar objects and faces seem strange and new. She wrote her first book, Hysteria: A Memoir of Illness, Strength and Women’s Stories Throughout History, “in a heady rush when the illness came”. 

Because of her low immunity, Bryant’s been isolating since the advent of COVID-19, and she’s found that the reduction in external triggers – such as the sensory overload of a supermarket or car headlights flashing through the dark – means she’s experiencing fewer seizures. Even the early-warning signals that appeared when chasing Ginnie subsided without an episode.

As she wrote in her book, pre-pandemic: “I’ve learned that illness interrupts life, but also that life interrupts illness.”

Having had to endure months of scans, tests and psychiatry appointments to secure her diagnosis, Bryant is used to living with the kind of uncertainty that the coronavirus has wrought.

In Hysteria, she quotes Susan Sontag’s 1978 book Illness as Metaphor

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.

I ask her if it’s wrong to keep enjoying the kingdom of the well, in wilful ignorance of the alternative. 

“Ignorance is nice, but ignorance means that we continue to believe that our healthcare system treats everyone equally,” she says. “And while we remain ignorant, others are suffering because of that. But I think we’re collectively, at this moment, understanding the limits of the healthcare system and also the limits of how it treats people working within it.”

In Hysteria, Bryant’s quest to solve the riddle of her condition is interwoven with stories of women throughout history who suffered or studied depersonalisation. There’s Polish psychoanalyst Edith Jacobson, who, as a member of the resistance organisation Neu Beginnen, was arrested in Berlin in 1935 and imprisoned for several years. In prison she started writing papers on the impact of incarceration on the ego, which included depersonalisation. And Mary Glover in 17th-century London, who was assumed to be possessed by demons and given an exorcism. And Katharina, one of Sigmund Freud’s patients, a “sulky-looking girl” whom the psychoanalyst triumphantly concluded was suffering a buzzing in her head because of molestation by her uncle. And Blanche Wittmann, the “Queen of Hysterics”, made famous and fetishised by the hypnosis work of French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot.

Bryant’s research also unearths nosologist Armin Steyerthal, who, in 1908, predicted that: 

Within a few years the concept of hysteria will belong to history … there is no such disease and there never has been. What Charcot called hysteria is a tissue woven of a thousand threads, a cohort of the most varied diseases, with nothing in common but the so-called stigmata, which in fact may accompany any disease.

Steyerthal was right, eventually. “Hysteria” was omitted from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980, though other diagnoses remain that are largely assigned to troublesome females, such as borderline personality disorder. Bryant thinks it’s plausible that the label of psychogenic non-epileptic seizures will change in years to come – even now there are other labels she can use to describe her illness, such as functional neurological disorder. 

“But it doesn’t really matter,” she says, “because even though the book was about finding out what was happening, now my focus is on finding out how to live.”

It seems visibility has become a collective concern. Bryant says she’s found a kinship in Facebook groups dedicated to chronic illness of all stripes. And two other Australian books about invisible illness are published this month: Kylie Maslen’s Show Me Where it Hurts, and Unseen, by ABC radio presenter Jacinta Parsons. 

“Chronic illness gives people a skill set of navigating the world in really interesting ways, and gave me a capacity to empathise with all types of folks experiencing their bodies in different ways,” Bryant says. 

As we speak, I keep thinking of a couple of high-profile cases of inexplicable things happening to men’s brains, which resulted in what sounds like depersonalisation. Eckhart Tolle wrote about the life-changing moment he experienced when he was 29, in which he had the feeling of being sucked into a vortex of energy: “I let myself fall into that void. I have no recollection of what happened after that.” David Icke has described the sensation of being drilled into the ground, with energy causing his body to shake: “I kept going in and out of, if you like, awareness, consciousness, like driving a car. And you go, Crikey – where did the last two miles go?

Both reframed their experiences as a profound spiritual awakening. In Icke’s case, he began calling himself the Son of Godhead and launched a speaking career as probably the world’s most prolific conspiracy theorist; in Tolle’s, he wrote the multimillion-selling book The Power of Now and found a disciple in Oprah Winfrey. 

When I ask Bryant if there is sublimation and beauty to be found in her seizures, she says: “There’s no beauty, but it’s very human to reframe a difficult experience. Otherwise, it feels very meaningless to live through that pain. I have learnt a lot during this process, and I love what I was able to write as a result of it. But if you presented me with a button to press to not have that experience, I’d be pressing that button.”

Jenny Valentish

Jenny Valentish is a journalist and novelist, and the author of the nonfiction book Woman of Substances.

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