Sexism, Stigma and Mental Health: A Study of One

Our anonymous blogger talks openly about the stigma she faced after experiencing sexual assault and the impact it has had on her mental health.

23rd May 2024, 1.00pm | Written by: Anonymous Blogger

*Trigger warning: this blog does reference themes of sexual assault*

I don’t think it’s possible for me to look at my mental health and my deeply held self-stigma about it, without recognising the impact that sexism and misogyny have had on me in my lifetime.

I mean, I think I was probably a sensitive child and always destined to feel deeply, but I don’t believe that my feelings of anxiety and periods of depression are ‘just’ a biological malfunction. But it has taken years of therapy and, finally, in my late 30s, an astute trauma-informed therapist has helped me to recognise and accept this.

As an eight-year-old girl, I witnessed the effect on my mum, of my dad’s long affair with our family friend. Her self-esteem disintegrated with the betrayal, and I watched as she sought men to validate her, ultimately ending up in a coercive and controlling relationship with my stepdad. The lesson I had learnt from that as a child was that all things are second to the admiration of a man and that men have power. This felt frightening, but with no way to express it, those feelings were internalised, and the foundations of my mental health issues were laid.

A few years later, puberty sets in. I’m appalled now when I think back at the sexism I had to deal with as a young teenager. Men catcalled me and my friends in the street often; my parents’ friends would comment on how I’d ‘filled out’ or compliment me on parts of my body that ‘men would like’. All a big laugh and a joke at a family BBQ or day at the beach while I politely laughed along, my stomach turning. I can clearly remember being groped in the shopping centre, at a gig, on a bus, in science class but I am sure there were many other times. Then came the rape at 15 by a man I looked up to, like an older brother, whom I told nobody about. I internalised my feelings again, and this is when my anxiety really started to develop. Overwhelming emotion that came out of nowhere but that I felt I had to hide. 

Looking back now, I see that feeling afraid is a very sensible emotion to have been experiencing, but at the time, I just suppressed my feelings as much as possible and started smoking and drinking to help. I think it was at this age that I really damaged my ability to trust my instincts. So common was sexism and misogyny in British culture at that time; I thought I was the one who was overreacting and being a 'silly girl'.

So, when I turned up at my GP’s surgery aged 18 in floods of tears, the diagnosis in that 10-minute appointment was depression, and I was given a prescription for Prozac. More shame piled on more shame. For the next 20 years, I carried the shame of those early experiences and the shame of not being able to deal with them. I have felt like an island my whole life and cried rivers at not being ‘normal’. Confident and open people mystified me. I’ve had times where things have been manageable, and times where they haven’t. 

Being a woman means dealing with casual sexism regularly, which I think feels more visceral when you’ve experienced a sexual assault. Also, moments of vulnerability can be particularly hard, for example, the level of intimacy with strangers that are involved in childbirth and the physical and emotional risks involved. Therapy with a small group of close friends and medication has kept me functioning and moving forward. But it was three years ago when things started to really change for me.

I was at the lowest I had ever been, with my intrusive thoughts (flashing images of violence) haunting me at every opportunity. I was desperate for something to change and to feel better. I reached out to a new therapist who, in our first session asked me if I’d ever experienced anything that could be described as a sexual assault. I said, ‘sort of’, explaining what had happened, and at that moment, she managed to validate me in a way nobody had been able to before, which was recognising the rape as trauma and identifying the impact that experience can have on a person. She had put me on a path to recovery.

Three years later, I do still struggle, but not nearly as much, and I have started to open up, which is completely new for me. Once I discovered the role of shame in my mental health problems, I realised how much I had been stigmatising myself for things that other people had done to me. The sad reality is that women are still vulnerable to men in society now, and even everyday sexism can lead to poorer mental health for women. Understanding this has given me a different perspective on my mental health problems and the confidence to be open about how I’m feeling. 

Now, I don’t blame myself; it’s freeing to just deal with the symptoms. I’ve found ways to help manage my anxiety when it’s difficult and to be kind to myself when the depression creeps in. I’ve come to realise that I may be flawed, but so are the ways in which many girls and women are treated on a daily basis, and until this is resolved, many other girls will grow into women with an unimaginable fear ingrained into them too.

So, now I'm in my early 40s and I'm finally feeling at home in my own body. I still get moments of overwhelm, but I've got different tools I can rely on to help me, like journaling, mantras or burning off excess anxiety with exercise. I'm much more aware of where the fear is coming from, so I'm able to recognise in the moment that I'm no longer at risk, even if my nervous system hasn't worked that one out yet. And now, instead of feeling ashamed of what happened to me, I feel proud of what I've gone through. It was hard to process my early trauma, but in doing so, I have developed empathy and forgiveness for my younger self, and that is making life better for me now in the everyday.

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