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.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue