The following is a modified excerpt from Collegeville Institute alumna Kaya Oakes’ book, The Defiant Middle: How Women Claim Life’s In-Betweens to Remake the World. This excerpt is from a chapter titled “Crazy,” which explores how women’s mental health, holiness, and genius are often marginalized in the church.
Reprinted with permission from The Defiant Middle by Kaya Oakes copyright © 2021 Broadleaf Books.
The alarm on my phone buzzes daily at eight a.m. It just says “P,” but I know what this means. It’s time to take Prozac. At night, I often need half an Ativan if it’s been a panic-attack day, but I try not to take it unless I “feel like I am actually going to die,” as my psychiatrist advises, because benzos have killed lots of writers. My sleep is infrequent and erratic, and my moods zip around unpredictably but mostly settle either in a zone of constant agitated worry or a lead blanket of a mood that presses me into inertia. I have wished, hoped, and many times prayed to simply turn my mind off, as much as I have been driven creatively and professionally by its wild expanses.
Unofficially, however, I’m just another crazy woman who writes.
The Catholic writer, poet, and civil rights activist Fanny Howe says that what being religious gives her is “an opportunity to examine one more completely insane vision of the universe.” She adds that the church, for all its obvious flaws, “has managed to accept the maddest among us,” and “has a huge margin for visions.” Whether a person believes in God or not, what all seekers have in common, according to Howe, is that sense that “to be saved only means to matter. You matter. Your life has meaning.”
After abandoning religion in my teens when my father died and life felt gray and flat and devoid of meaning, I rediscovered Catholicism in my late thirties—yet another period when I did not feel like my life mattered. This cycle is familiar to people with major depressive disorder. Depression appears on the horizon in small ways, small personal stings that pile up, a few bad days at work, the news cycle, the pounds that pile on without you noticing them because your body is just a sack to be dragged around. And then, all of a sudden, there’s a day when the full mass of depression presses down, an anvil of emotional pain, and the cycle begins again. Social withdrawal. A self-hatred so deeply rooted it can’t be extricated from who you have become. Days that drag and nights that never end.
What religion offered was less a message of personal salvation and more a message that none of us, no matter how sick, angry, filthy, or unwanted, is truly alone. What faith gave me was a reminder that the ordinary world, even the world of depression, is still charged with grace. Gerard Manley Hopkins, the tubercular, closeted gay Victorian Jesuit who also suffered from depression himself, wrote that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God,” full of “the dearest freshness deep down things.” That’s what I found in Catholicism, as ill of a fit as it often was: it handed me an explanation for being in awe, a liturgical framework, a love for the poor, a link to my family history, and a community of saints, living and dead. But it could not take away my depression.
Centuries before Simone Weil died from anorexia, Saint Catherine of Siena had a vision of her mystical marriage to Christ, during which he gave her a wedding ring made from his foreskin. Yes, that’s correct. Many medieval saints received mystical rings in mystical weddings to Christ, and some of those saints were male (told you gender transgression is nothing new in religion), but only Catherine got a foreskin ring. She was that kind of special.
Catherine was one of those holy, mad women the church wasn’t sure what to do with. When she fasted, she fasted to the point that she would only drink pus from the wounds of sick people (yes, it’s gross; and yet another reason I wound up returning to Catholicism is probably because I’m fascinated by the grotesqueries of the human body, but also, Catholicism is very goth). When she spoke up to the men who led the church, she did so with a righteous anger that still resonates in her writing six centuries later. When her parents tried to stop her from becoming a nun, she shaved her head. God, according to Catherine, was the sea, and human beings were the fish. Her submission to God was extreme, even by the standards of her era. But was she mentally ill? By today’s standards, absolutely. But this is more complicated when we look at the intersections of women, religious experience, and mental health.
In the times when they lived, mystics like Simone Weil, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard von Bingen, and Margery Kempe were understood to be vessels of God. Their visions came from God, the ability to translate those visions into prose or poetry or song came from God, and their deaths were things they fervently prayed for so that they would be united with God. If they suffered from madness, they understood this as God’s will.
What faith gave me was a reminder that the ordinary world, even the world of depression, is still charged with grace.
The hatred, suspicion, and fear of visionary women is real, too, including in the Catholic church, which has transformed its wild and untamable female saints into squeaky-clean, obedient, silent enigmas bereft of personality and representative of not much more than purity and piety. It is easier for religious or political institutions to point the finger and dismiss a woman as “crazy” than it is to unpack the overlapping social, cultural, and religious forces that exacerbate so many women’s mental health issues in the first place. If those saints were just more crazy women littered throughout history, they’re also easily erased.
Today, when many women who present with symptoms of heart attacks and other life-threatening issues are brushed off by doctors as suffering from anxiety, the story of the woman with the hemorrhages might seem far too familiar. It’s not unlikely that she, too, would be considered mentally ill by the same doctors. And if perhaps she is, that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be listened to by medical professionals. For women, menopause, puberty, cancer treatments, and thyroid issues can throw off our biological chemistry so much that anxiety and depression are listed as side effects during treatment for any of those things. Take away the language we now have, the medications, the therapy, and the too-slow erasure of social stigmas around mental illness, and what you have left are suffering women no one listens to or believes. No wonder we were stigmatized as demonic, uncontrollable, possessed.
But in a Venn diagram between the holy madness of the saints and the ordinary madness of women, perhaps there is some overlap that’s still relevant today, even with our sheaves of knowledge that former centuries lacked. Part of it is that we have not shaken off the stubborn yoke of patriarchy, which seeks to control women by labeling us as “crazy,” whether that means we have something like bipolar disorder or are just having a bad day. What “crazy” means in a patriarchy is a woman who cannot be controlled, and a woman who cannot be controlled is ultimately a threat. That was true in the medieval era, and it remains so today.