In every generation there are quite firm rules about how to behave when you are crazy
What does he mean? Well, it’s interesting how a society’s disorders often mirror the concerns of the time – its fears, hopes and taboos. Depression for example, is a sickness prevalent in times of peace and prosperity, rather than war. Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) has become a huge concern in a culture that is drowning in information. In the UK at least, our standards of living are the highest they have ever been – and yet we’re more miserable.
Such ‘culture-bound’ disorders aren’t confined to the UK. In Trinidad there’s a disorder known as ‘Studiation Madness’ or ‘Brain fag’. The fag is primarily experienced by stressed-out students in Nigeria and other parts of Africa – a reaction to the alien pressures of Western-style book learning. Symptoms include difficulties in concentrating, remembering, and thinking, as well as burning or crawling sensations under the skin and visual disturbances.
Let’s return to an example closer to home – anorexia. This tends to be an illness of plenty rather than famine. But why are eating disorders so prevalent in the midst of abundance? Are they in fact a reaction to it? In a culture of excess, can these be seen as hunger strikes – a way of sticking a finger up to a culture that is fixated on our physical needs, but often spiritually and emotionally bankrupt?
Another, related theory is that EDs are a way of retreating before the endless options of modern life. This covers a whole spectrum of choices, from what we eat to what it means to be a man or a woman. As Lisa Appignanesi argues,
a particular period’s definitions of appropriate femininity or masculinity (are) closely linked to definitions of madness.
In the nineteenth century, this might have looked like keeping your emotions under wraps or being quarantined at home or in an asylum due to ‘women’s nerves’. Today we’re obsessed with looking younger, where the ideal body type is either a male model who could pass as a woman, or a pre-pubescent posing as an adult. We’re told that we have more freedom and opportunity than ever before – but the reality looks more like a proliferation of competing claims. What starts as a promise – from great skin and career success to an enviable personal and family life – can end up as a demand, against which no-one can measure up.
So-called opportunities can in fact become constraints, against which we feel powerless and anxious. In the 19thc, many talented, middle-class women sought to shake off the chains of gender expectations by choosing invalidism as a preferable option. But has this strategy changed? Or are eating disorders in part an unconscious way of doing the same thing?