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Women in Madness

There is a long history of women who were told they were hysterical for openly expressing intense emotions.

Guest blogger, Laura Brownstone, LCSW has been a therapist for over 15 years. In this post, she shares her thoughts on the shame and stigma that fuels the impulse of self injury.

I think madness starts when we feel unworthy. Throughout history, women labeled hysterical were forced to stifle their emotions through institutions, torture and death. In my own history, I had a great aunt Haicha that died in an asylum. As a young woman in the Ukraine, she had witnessed the horror of her parents’ death and was left to care for her three little siblings. She had a “nervous breakdown” and was institutionalized. She submitted her body and mind to doctors’ who executed experimental insulin treatments and anguishing hot or cold baths

Most women are not hospitalized now, like my aunt was a century ago. Sometimes it is necessary to hospitalize people to protect them from themselves; to protect them from death. As a therapist I have had people thank me for helping them go to the hospital. It gave them another chance. They felt more grounded and hopeful. That is the punch line of hospitals. Giving people hope.

I have worked with many hopeless people and many hanging on the edge of madness. I had a client who had cut herself with razor blades since she was 12. She swore it was not to kill herself. It was a release for her. She seemed to feel some pleasure when she talked about using a kitchen knife for the first time. She said it slid across her arm like a wave through water. She described being in a trance like state. When we are disembodied and still, it is harder to be hurt.

I have asked what would the knife say if it could talk? I would ask if there were alternative coping mechanisms. I have seen many people slow down the impulse of self harm, when they start loving themselves.

I had a client who had been fondled by her pastor for years. The statute of limitations had run out and she was still cutting. We would walk and talk. She would tell me how cutting was like an addiction. She ended up yelling at me and then fired me for not advocating enough for her with her doctor. I was happy for her to have the realization that she could do better. She could stop punishing herself and learn to externalize her anger.

As a middle aged woman who has dealt with depression and anxiety for most of her life, I continue to hold hope for the future, even if it is only by a few threads some days. I remember another teenager who felt trapped in her mind. She had kissed a cute boy the previous summer, but still felt depressed. She didn’t understand depression and how it kept her imprisoned. She was lost without words or connection. The razor blade sat on her sisters’ bathroom sink. It was something she thought she could control. She stared at the razor’s shine as she gently guided it across her arm. She could see the white track of a scratch. She had held in the pain for too long. She wanted relief. Luckily on that day, she lacked the impulse and had the courage not do it.

We all want to feel less pain. Sometimes we have to greet pain with open arms. We need to dance with it, give it colors and a voice. It needs to be moved, expressed, discharged. We can write, yell at the sky, dance and draw. Other people believe they don’t have a choice. I am glad that I feel that I do.

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Laura Brownstone is a psychotherapist who practices in Chicago. She likes to write about empathy and relationships. She is curious of about life. She is certified in EMDR Therapy and is Trauma Informed.  She helps clients become more self compassionate and aware of how they operate in the world.

Women in Madness

Aaron Karmin

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APA Reference
Karmin, A. (2019). Women in Madness. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 9, 2020, from


Last updated: 1 May 2019
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