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Is There A Penalty For Powerful Women Admitting Mental Illness?

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Is there a penalty for a woman who breaks through the glass ceiling and, then, from her position of power, admits that she struggled with mental illness in her past?

Yesterday New York City’s Speaker of the City Council and the Democratic candidate for mayor Christine Quinn revealed in the New York Times that she had suffered from bulimia and alcoholism for a good portion of her life. Quinn explained how her mom suffered through breast cancer throughout Quinn’s childhood and after her mom died, binge eating and purging gave her a brief feeling of relief. It was also in college that Quinn binge drank to the point of developing alcoholism. She checked into a rehab center at age 26 and got control of her eating disorder and her problematic drinking; it wasn’t until three years ago that Quinn, who is also the first mayoral candidate to be openly gay, went entirely dry.

Christine Quinn’s admission echoed another powerful woman’s recent decision to go public about a private struggle: “Morning Joe” cohost Mika Brzezinski revealed in MORE magazine that she has suffered from exercise bulimia for many years, meaning that she binges on food and then over-exercises to burn off the calories.

Brzezinski and Quinn aren’t the only two well-known women to admit to mental illness: Carrie Fisher and Catherine Zeta-Jones have both been public about their struggles with bipolar disorder, Lena Dunham talks about her OCD, and plenty of other celebs have been open about their mental health struggles, too. But I suppose that Christine Quinn and Mika Brzezinski fascinate me in particular because they both work in fairly male-dominated fields — the mainstream media and politics — that aren’t known for being warm and fuzzy.  

The very fact this question occurs to me is a sign of just how skewed the thinking is on mental illness in this country: my mind is framing it, even if unintentionally, as a personal weakness. Even though an eating disorder, drug addiction, or other mental illness like depression is not something the patient can control, the first way many people conceptualize it is as a sign of weakness. In the Times piece, Christine Quinn admits that until she checked into rehab, “I think up until that point in my life I associated asking for help with defeat.” That’s a common feeling for people suffering with mental illness — the most common feeling, probably. It’s something I went through myself when I was really sick with depression. I told myself I just wasn’t trying hard enough to not be depressed, even though I tried and tried and tried for eight months. My brother has struggled with drug addiction and alcoholism for most of his life and I’ve found myself being annoyed at him for “not trying hard enough” to not be an addict, even though I know better, even know I know it’s an illness. If there is one thing I know for sure in life it is that people are weird about mental illnesses. We wouldn’t think twice about telling someone with strep throat or diabetes to go to a doctor and take their meds. But anorexia? Depression? Alcohol addiction? Those illnesses are treated like personal failings.

Loving, sensitive people know better, though, and will not act like dicks. (Unlike New York State Republican Senator Al D’Amato, who publicly mocked Quinn last night on TV.) Being able to get help in my case was precipitated on hearing my mother tell me it was okay to be sick and that I shouldn’t be ashamed. By that point I’d been trapped in the shame spiral for a long time: the sense of isolation you feel about your problems breeds shame, which breeds criticism, which breeds a toughness against yourself for not “having it all together.” People who are otherwise very successful in their education or careers or communities can feel like they’re living a double life: the one other people see that’s filled with accolades and the private pain filled with emptiness and/or self-destructive behavior.

Obviously, these feelings still exist even if you host a show on MSNBC or run the New York City Council. Personally, I find it reassuring these strong, successful women have struggled with personal demons, too, and are humble enough to admit them publicly. It takes bravery to air your private shame. (Though, admittedly, the fact that both of these women are white and fairly well-to-do means they’re both privileged in the sense that their admissions won’t be seen as characteristic of all women of their race.) I wonder if, as women in a sexist society, it takes an extra boost of bravery when these admissions of perceived weakness — the greatest taboo in capitalist America — could be used against them. We already live in a society where powerful women are seen as bitches, our hormones supposedly constantly run wild, and men actually believe and say things like “She must have been on her period when she fired you!” Add all the things people say and believe about eating disorders and alcoholism to that and then consider how Christine Quinn has an election coming up.

Of course, I think Quinn, at least, admitted her past eating disorder and alcoholism so she could control the narrative. Better she tell it the way she wants to tell it in the New York Times instead of it ending up on the front page of the tabloid-y New York Post, half true from “anonymous sources” and with a scandalous headline like “CRAZY DRUNK LESBIAN!”  Also, both Quinn and Brzeznski are promoting memoirs, so, as cynical as it may be, it’s also in their best interest to sell books that promise juicy stories.  On the less cynical side of things, both ladies probably also realize that by admitting their private struggles, they could be empowering lots of other people with the same problems. It’s not as if it’s a lose-lose scenario for either woman.

Still I wonder whether they’ll enjoy the same privileges as men do for revealing they’re not “perfect” — although in men’s cases, it’s more often for extramarital affairs (and a well-timed “come to Jesus” moment seems to fix everything!).  It’s not exactly a secret, though, that women are expected to work twice as hard to get there and be twice as perfect when they’re there — think of our columnist Dan Solomon’s metaphor about how being a man is like riding your bike down a hill and believing that you’re really great at pedaling. Maybe after seeing these women have worked twice as hard, the public will let that be that and just shrug. I can only hope that the apathy directed at men gets redirected at the women, too — and with a heap of compassion.

[New York Times]

Follow me on Twitter. Email me at Jessica@TheFrisky.com.

[Image of sad woman via Shutterstock]

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