Bias With Mental Health: Is Anxiety Feminine?
By: Kate Leffner
My mother gave me my first journal in fourth grade. It had a glitter purple front cover and black paper. My mother was a poet and I liked stories, so I believed she wanted to connect with me. But it was also because I was chronically anxious as all the women in my family are and needed an outlet. I wrote stories about trolls and girls whose reflections in lakes trapped them in other worlds, and this was an important escape from overthinking. As a writer, it is interesting that I’ve found a way to make my living from what I thought was my greatest weakness. In my early years, my anxiety was often out of control for a variety of reasons, but mainly because of a complicated home life and generational mental illness. I was so anxious that I would throw up most mornings before school and peed myself at recess on the top of slides. I hid under desks when I was asked to do a presentation and had to be dragged out by my elbows. I would sob when I got into a fight with a friend and obsessively ask them if they still liked me, following them from room to room.
I learned quickly people found this distasteful and embarrassing. The male students in my classes never seemed to do the same things, instead, they got mad, threw things, and screamed. There was a sense of pride in their explosiveness, though I had no idea what they felt and their motivations. I only know that they were popular for throwing their lunches out the window when they were mad and I was a pariah for sobbing at my desk. I became extremely regimented by the time I was eleven. I was in ballet and would make sure to drink eight cups of water a day. I was very concerned about people seeing me in an emotional state so I conjured a stoic expression. I worked hard to seem unsurprised and other kids would try to provoke me by doing wild things: flashing me, licking the ground, and even eating dirt. Although other kids thought I was weird, I noticed a shift in the way adults treated me. I became trustworthy and reliable. I felt a lot of pride in being seen this way and received comments in complimentary tones, that I was a little “masculine.” By the time I was fifteen, I was relatively depressed. I mainly read Chekhov, Dostoevsky, and other Russian writers. My journaling had descended into rambling and I was relatively obsessive about how I appeared. However, I felt that my depression had a certain righteousness to it and I noticed it was easier for me to relate to my male teachers who told me I was “profound” and “asking the tough questions.” In my specific experience, anxiety and depression never appeared at the same time, popping up like an endless game of wack-a-mole. When I was in college and growing into my identity, I began to wonder why anxiety seems to be perceived as feminine. When we think of anxiety we think of high-pitched women calling their boyfriends to ask if they love them or teenage girls stressing over what they would wear the next day. We don’t think of cishet men frantically knuckle-bumping their friends until they bump them back. As a femme lesbian, I noticed when I dated someone more “masculine” or recognized as a “top,” people in public would look to my partner for decisions. It is easy for society to see something or someone feminine and think it’s less. For me to be anxious is to be vulnerable and the feeling seems out-of-control, “hysterical,” emotional, and intimate. When I finally let down my guard in romantic relationships, I notice my anxiety flares up significantly. Through therapy, I learned that romantic relationships could be incredibly triggering, even if they are stable. For me, my anxiety is deeply linked to my hope, and my depression to a lack of. When I feel anxious, it is the incredible awareness that losing
something, a relationship, a friendship, or a job becomes a precious baby in my shaking hands. Worrying about being late for dinner or panicking over a poorly-worded text, is really have I failed? Have I let someone I love down? But when I strip it back, I know this feeling is a genderless one. It is the feeling of loss when you imagine someone in your life passing away and can’t change it, or the feeling of not knowing what to say when your friend is heartbroken. To give into this and surrender to the inevitability of change, growth, and pain can feel impossible. For me, I understand that underneath anxiety is love and that holding onto shame about it, or fear of my “feminine” traits prevents me from loving others and myself the way that I want and ultimately, need to. Finding a way to not worry about this stigma has been one of the most beneficial steps in my healing and a life-long process.
My name is Kate Leffner and I am a writer and marketing specialist in Boston, MA. My previous publications include short stories and personal essays on LGBQTIA+ issues, generational trauma, and interpersonal relationships you can find here and here.