One morning a couple weeks ago, I opened the Chicago Sun-Times to see photos of two accomplished young women who’d been beaten unconscious by a man with an aluminum baseball bat. They’d both been admitted to an intensive care unit. The perps were tracked down when they used one of the victim’s credit cards to buy gas.
I imagined comments from people reading the story included something like, “Well, they shouldn’t have been out walking the streets at 3 AM.”
Given our medical practice is about 95% female, I thought again how rough life is for women and couldn’t come up with one aspect of my own life that isn’t easier simply because I’m a guy.
• I’ve never been unfairly underpaid or sexually harassed, or had my career blocked by an old boys’ club.
• I can go into a bar alone for a martini and nobody ever hits on me.
• I don’t have to look over my shoulder walking home from a movie at night.
I’m also not driven by cultural imperatives to obsess about my weight. “In fact,” I thought, “if I had to put up with what women had to put up with, day in and day out, I’d go bonkers.”
As you must know if you read my health tips regularly, stress-buffering serotonin levels are much lower in women than in men, rendering women far more vulnerable to stress. As a direct result, women suffer disproportionately from low-serotonin disorders like depression and anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue.
Every one of these conditions is actually a series of chronic symptoms caused by physiologic manifestations of the fight-or-flight response, which should be a quick “on-off” response, but which for many women is an “on” button pressed down and held in place with duct tape.
It’s been conjectured that male serotonin is high due to an evolutionary phenomenon. My Neanderthal male forebears couldn’t have a panic attack when they were out in the woods hunting, so they evolved a nice high serotonin stress buffer. Now, in the 21st century, this high serotonin serves my gender like this: We men seem to have been desensitized to the chaos we create–wars, genocides, and economic disasters. We can invade Iraq or Afghanistan in the morning and forget all about it in the afternoon while clearing sagebrush or shooting basketball with friends.
I’m convinced that had a women president been informed such an invasion would mean the deaths of thousands of innocent families, she would open a vein rather than announcing (fist-in-air gesture), “Let’s do it!”
The problem isn’t women’s serotonin being too low. It’s men having too much. Could this explain the bat attack? That men are overly buffered against stress and have been rendered numb, insensitive, and clueless? (“Numb,” by the way, is a word I frequently hear when a woman’s dose of a serotonin-booster like Prozac or Lexapro is too high. She’s become one of us.)
And because women lack men’s muscles, you’re unable to give men a well-deserved punch while screaming “Stop your nonsense! Stop destroying the world, invading countries, killing people, stealing pension funds, and beating up women for gas money. Rather than invent new medications to raise our serotonin, find something to lower yours!”
The result of all this? Throttled by all this male-created stress, women become ill, as any sane person would. You go to your physician (usually male), are told you’re depressed, and are handed one of the many (male-created) pharmaceuticals to raise your serotonin, so you can be more resilient, “tougher,” and able to endure the hostile, violent world you’re forced to inhabit. Since you can’t lick us, take some Prozac and join us!
Along the way, your totally appropriate response to our insane world will earn you the label of being “mentally ill,” this from a (male-written) psychiatric diagnostic guide (DSM-IV). But don’t be upset–it used to be worse. Up until about 1950 or so, before the mind-controlling chemicals were invented, if you were a women who was irritated over your thankless life in a sweatshop or as unpaid labor in your home, your (male) doctor simply certified you as insane and you joined tens of thousands of your sisters in residential mega-psychiatric hospitals for the rest of your life. (I’m not kidding about this.)
The secret’s out. With a new study showing that 70% of antidepressants were inappropriately prescribed, it seems that a large portion of “mental illness” among women just might be a male-created myth, now profitably exploited by male-dominated medical, insurance, and pharmaceutical industries. Numbing out women with drugs makes a whole lot more financial sense than long-term hospitalization.
Had the Neanderthal not been a hunter–but rather a farmer who never needed this perversely high stress-buffer–and everyone’s serotonin was low (in other words, normal) today’s men might be more intuitive, sensitive, and gentle.
Perhaps they’d even be ashamed to use baseball bats when they went out at night hunting for credit cards.