I’d rather be labelled “another crazy lesbian” than treat my mental health as taboo

While dealing with the beak-faced bastard of her own depression, Eleanor Margolis worries she's a traitor for perpetuating the “crazy lesbian” stereotype.

 

The “crazy lesbian” is everywhere. From the dreary melodrama dragged out again and again by programmes like The L Word and Lip Service, to Natalie Portman sprouting feathers of the mind and having unhinged girl-on-girl sex in Black Swan; popular culture seems to have diagnosed all gay women with non-specific mental illness.

I’ve suffered from depression since I was a teenager and after a thankfully short and unsuccessful career as a tortured adolescent poet, I’m just beginning to get used to my status as “another crazy lesbian”. Girls I’ve dated have even rolled their eyes at me when I’ve opened up to them about head stuff (FYI, I try not to do this on first dates, but lesbian emotional over-sharing is a definite thing). For lesbians, the stereotypical deranged dyke has become an in-joke . But how much of my own depression and anxiety (which is far from derangement, incidentally) is actually rooted in being gay?

A number of studies have shown that LGBT people are more likely to have poor mental health than heterosexuals. According to the NUS, we are ten times more likely to commit suicide than straight people. With the huge pressure that often surrounds coming out and the prevalence of homophobic bullying, this is hardly surprising. As illustrated by the recent tragic case of Lucy Meadows , the country’s most widely-read newspapers are about as kind to the LGBT community as The Meat Trades Journal is to the cow community. There are even charities like MindOut (an offshoot of Mind) and PACE that focus entirely on the mental health of non-straight people.

I was diagnosed with clinical depression around the same time as I came out. I was nineteen and I’d been spending entire weeks in bed, wondering if I was ever going to stop feeling like one of those bird-masked plague doctors was trying to push my brain through a sieve. Depression is like a physical presence. A lot of people subscribe to Winston Churchill’s description of it as a black dog; for me, it’s more a beak-faced bastard watching indifferently through a pair of eyeholes. As a teenager, the trouble I was having accepting my sexuality was a major contributor to my fragile mental health. I was prescribed antidepressants (which I still take), I was given some counselling and things slowly started to level out.

But I’m certain that my depression wasn’t and isn’t entirely a by-product of lesbianism. I remember having my first major panic attack when I was about nine and I tried to comprehend infinity. I was a quiet, pensive kid. The word “daydreamer” always cropped up in my school reports and I had my first therapy session when I was eleven. When my older brother went through a Satanist phase, his goth friends liked me because I was “spooky”. To this day, Wednesday Addams is a style icon of mine.

So I was prone to rumination and depressive episodes long before my sexuality became a major worry. What’s more, when my family and friends were fully supportive of my coming out, and even when I started getting comfortable with my sexuality, the depression lingered on like a squatter in the attic bedroom. The problem I now have is that I feel like a traitor for perpetuating the “crazy lesbian” stereotype. Every time I bring up my mental health, I can’t help feeling that I’m letting the team down.

But I’ve come to realise that I can’t allow other people’s misconceptions about mental illness to silence me. I’d rather be labelled “another crazy lesbian” than treat my mental health as taboo. “Crazy” is only how the eye-rollers choose to see me when they hear buzzwords like “depression”. In reality, I use antidepressants in the same way that diabetics use insulin. They don’t alter my personality; they stabilise my mood and prevent panic attacks. In fact, an unexpected side-effect of my depression is that I’m never surprised by anything that goes on in my head. I just know it all so well. When you spend so much time locked inside your own mind, you learn to find your way around. You get to know every dark corner and the spectres that lurk there become less and less horrifying. Craziness is a lazy, superficial and ultimately meaningless concept that hints at being out of control. That’s exactly what I’m not.    

 

Natalie Portman as "yet another crazy lesbian" in Black Swan.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.