Hysteria, the Wandering Womb and Me

One of my favorite podcasts, Sawbones, hosted by Sydnee and Justin McElroy, is a “marital tour of misguided medicine.” On Sawbones, Sydnee, a medical doctor, discusses the history of certain ailments–or at least, what were historically considered ailments–and medical cures for these ailments.

Justin, for his part, makes topics like hemorrhoids, birth control and leprosy more approachable by standing in for us, who know nothing but are nonetheless darkly curious. It is always enlightening, often laugh-out-loud funny, and sometimes, absolutely terrifying.

What frightened me was an episode about an ailment that was once called, “Hysteria”, that is, any inexplicable malady a woman might experience. Ranging from lack of libido to too much libido, mood swings, depression, fatigue, forgetfulness, ambition…anything that was “ailing” a woman was lumped into this category of diagnosis.

The treatments are laughable by today’s standards, but one in particular did eventually give rise to the modern sex toy industry. So maybe it’s not all bad.

But how about, for the unlucky ones, a Lobotomy? Don’t mind if I do… Here’s a link to the show’s transcript, in case your interest is piqued but you aren’t into listening, although hearing Justin McElroy apologize to women across time for the ways we have been misdiagnosed is definitely worth listening to. It is deeply, deeply satisfying. You really should listen.

While we can laugh and cringe at the fact that there was a time in history, even not that long ago, when women, particularly women of a certain age, were considered to have a “wandering womb” and that was what made them act outside of societal norms, the episode freaked me out anyway.

Is this hysteria?

It happened again at lunch time. I want someone to be able to laugh about this anecdote, which is why I am telling it to you. I’m hoping that somewhere along in the process, I will be able to laugh about it, too.

I mentioned the other day that given my peri-menopausally induced, abnormally uncool chill factor these days, I needed to start being markedly more intentional about the very simple things. Things like putting away the bread knife when I am done using it, or putting my phone always on the counter in the same place when I get home. Failure to do these things causes me–no exaggeration whatsoever–to experience rage unlike anything I’ve every known.

Obviously, it’s not the fact the I didn’t put it away that drives me crazy. It’s the fact that I can’t find it when I am looking for it that enrages me.

Prior to my hormonal roller coaster, I could simply step back, and with absolute chill, say, “okay, where was the last place I used it,” and typically find it within a minute or two. Except that, as previously established, I have zero chill anymore. None.

Nowadays, my mind plays tricks on me. So when I don’t put the knife away immediately, my brain fills in the hole and tells me, “but you were just using it. And I remember you putting it away.” But my brain can’t tell that it was three days ago that I intentionally put it away, not that two hours ago I left it in the sink and put a bunch of dishes on top of it. My brain doesn’t care about the details. It just remembers that I did once in my life put away the knife with intention.

And without fail, I will start to freak out. “But I was just using the knife. I just saw it.” And then, brandishing the ultimate tool in my tool box of misery, I will whisper “I’m losing my mind.”

Well, yes, kinda. Or maybe it’s just my “wandering womb.”

This same thing happened the other day with a document I needed to give my husband. I checked everywhere for this document which, if it is not in my wallet, is kept in a very specific place. Naturally, it was in neither, and I was walking out the door to catch a train. Being late would set me back for the whole day, and I could not find that stupid document. I left without giving it to him.

I ended up finding it, much later in the day, in my purse, where I had already spent ten minutes searching for it. It had gotten squished up under some facemasks.

So it’s not just selective memory. It is selective vision as well.

I’m losing my mind.

Well, yes, kinda. It’s that wandering womb again.

So, enter Monday lunchtime. I gave the keys of the apartment to the eldest scalawag, who likes to take the elevator by himself and unlock the door like a big guy. I usually come up a few minutes later.

I saw where he had put the keys upon entering. They were on a little piece of furniture in the hall by the front door. My keys have a bright green Berlin ampelmann keychain on it. (It’s ancient and supercute.) I didn’t touch it or anything, I just saw the ampelmann and said to myself, “okay, my keys are right there,” instead of picking them up and putting them where I always go to look for the keys when it is time to leave.

I actually walked past them three or four times, moving the things around them to put them away. There was a grocery bag, a water bottle, a cardigan, a school craft project, some mail. I was putting that stuff away mindlessly, in a concerted effort to make my own life easier later in the day.

In the meantime, my youngest scalawag got himself into a snit about something, and decided that he didn’t want to return to school in the afternoon. I forced his little shoes onto his feet. I got on my own scarf and coat. I sat over him trying to zip up his coat for far longer than I needed to while he flailed and cried about not wanting to go back. So, FYI, my chill factor was negative, as was his.

Once everyone had their coats on, I reached for the keys and they were no longer there.

How is this possible? I thought. They were right here.

I had been moving things around them since we got home. The keys had been right there.

I went to the place where I usually would go look for the keys. They weren’t there either. I checked my coat pockets. I checked my other coat pockets. I checked the pocket in my purse where I carry my keys. I looked around the floor.

I was getting increasingly panicked with every second, because now, not only could I not find the keys, my youngest was wailing and shouting rhythmically, “I’m not going. I’m not going. I’m not going.”

Then I stopped searching for a second and turned quickly to my youngest.

“What did you do with the keys?” I growled at him.

“I don’t have the keys!” he shouted. It was not unheard of that he “misplace something” on that little piece of furniture. He’s done it before, sweeping my sunglasses into one of the drawers by accident.

Now, the eldest scalawag is getting impatient, because he is clearly a genetic descendant of my father, my sister and myself, who cannot stand the thought of being late to anything.

So he’s chanting. “We’re gonna be late.” My youngest is back to “I’m not going. I’m not going.”

And I have lost the keys that were only minutes before sitting right here.

“I’m losing my mind,” I said. And then starting chanting, “Ce n’est pas possible. Ce n’est pas possible. Je perds la boule,” (It’s not possible, I am losing my marbles, speaking in French to benefit my neighbors who are walking past the door hearing us all uttering our mantras) as I took a third and fourth look in the basket where I keep the keys. In my coat pockets again.

Everyone is now chanting and no one is happy. Lobotomies welcome.

For some reason, I reach into the back pocket of my pants, and realize that I had, at some point while mindlessly putting away the cardigan and the grocery bag, thought I was doing myself a favor by mindlessly putting the keys in my back pocket.

I said nothing besides, “Let’s go,” as I stormed out into the hallway, beckoning to the boys.

“But we can’t leave the apartment open!” the eldest said, panicked.

How do I explain to him, gently, that my womb is wandering and I’m kinda losing my mind?

“We won’t,” I replied, holding up the keys. “You are going to lock it for us.”

This kind of thing didn’t used to happen to me. Or at least, if it did, I didn’t freak out about it. But I feel like it is happening more and more often, and I have less and less chill about it.

The Wandering Womb

I need to find strategies to deal with the lack of chill. Like, I need to find a phrase to replace, “I am losing my mind.” I really hate that. It may be what it feels like, but I need to not feed the rage by saying the words out loud. I read something this morning on a completely unrelated subject that reminded us to “just breathe”, and while I hate that kind of pat, pretty advice, I may just have to take it.

But I would also, genuinely like to learn to deal with this with humor. Like, imagining the voice of Justin McElroy saying, “Ah! It’s the wandering womb again!”

I am all the more determined that I must keep my house decluttered, make sure that there is a designated home for everything and that I put the things away immediately when I find them out of their designated home. It also will become more and more important that I get buy-in from my family members about this, because while they may not intentionally be trying to make me crazier than I already am when they don’t put things back where they go, they can help keep me in my right mind by helping put them away when they find them, too.

What frightens me now is that I am stewing in something that feels a metric ton like Hysteria. I can pinpoint exactly the day it started. And I know that it lines up exactly with when my cycles became irregular.

So, while I am, on the face of it, laughing along with Dr. Sydnee and Justin McElroy and the absurdity of the historical lumping together all ageing women’s health issues into a diagnosis of “Hysteria”, I am also secretly fearing that this is real.

My doctor said, “every woman goes through it, Madame.” He’s a man, keep in mind, telling me that my menopausal brain fog is “just a phase.” I would love for him to live with this for just twenty-four hours. If men experienced peri-menopause for just one day in their lives, there would be solutions. Real solutions, not just temporary hormonal solutions that just put off the discomfort for a few years.

In the meantime: “Breathe. It’s just your wandering womb again.”

Published by Lily Fields

I am passionate about contentment. This is a challenge, because I am equally passionate about progress. I get up at 4:00AM to chip away at a solution to this monolithic problem: how to make progress on my contentment. Born and raised in the USA, I married a French philosophy teacher in 1999. We have lived in France since 2007. We stayed young and carefree until life threw us two curveballs in the form of little humans one after another in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Now I am a slightly older, slightly more exhausted version of myself, but with mystery stains on my walls and a never-ending pile of laundry.

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