The ancient Greeks believed in a concept known as the “wandering womb.” It sounds like the title of a horror B-movie, but it’s actually the (disturbing?) notion that a woman’s uterus could travel throughout the body, and depending on where it decided to hang out, it could cause all sorts of different “female” issues. Because of this, women were prone to bouts of “hysteria,” which is kind of a catch-all phrase for any mental or emotional problem that the medical community declared to be “uterus-induced.” Fun fact, the Greek word for “uterus” is “hystera.”
Also, I’m just going to throw this in for kicks, this is an actual passage from a document written by a 2nd-century Greek physician named Aretaeus:
“In the middle of the flanks of women lies the womb, a female viscus, closely resembling an animal; for it is moved of itself hither and thither in the flanks, also upwards in a direct line to below the cartilage of the thorax, and also obliquely to the right or to the left, either to the liver or the spleen, and it likewise is subject to prolapsus downwards, and in a word, it is altogether erratic. It delights also in fragrant smells, and advances towards them; and it has an aversion to fetid smells, and flees from them; and, on the whole, the womb is like an animal within an animal.”
Now I’m not going to say that physicians have believed in the “wandering womb” concept in recent times (because that’s insane), but the concept of “hysteria” as a legitimate medical diagnosis existed until 1980. That’s crazy to me.
So why am I bringing this up? Oh, boy. Pull up a chair, and I’ll tell you the story.
When I was pregnant with my first child, Emmett, I had several bouts of what I’ve self-diagnosed as “hysteria.” The first time was truly terrifying, and after that moment I lived in fear that it would happen again at work, or in front of someone who wasn’t my husband. So what happened? I laughed until I cried. Except not like that. I laughed until I CRIED. But not like that. Like, I CRIED while laughing. But that’s not it either.
There’s no good way to explain it without seeing it, but just imagine a sobbing woman. Her dog just died and she’s heartbroken, holding his limp body. She’s devastated. Except her dog didn’t die, she’s actually laughing. But no, she’s sobbing. Clearly someone died to justify this level of emotional anguish. But she’s insisting that she’s actually laughing. But she can’t stop. A pool of tears are soaking through her shirt, and the tissues aren’t helping. She’s laughing? No, she can’t be…. but she’s insisting that she can’t stop laughing… but… the heartbreaking sobs are making everyone uncomfortable… it’s not stopping.
What could cause this level of emotional outburst? Aaron showed me a video on YouTube of a pony that was picking its feet up a little higher than normal when it walked. It was the kind of video that a normal person sees and says “Hehe, that’s cute.” Not this pregnant lady. I started to laugh, and then I felt something happen… like an emotional dam broke… and I started… crying? I didn’t know what was happening, I think Aaron thought I had gone insane, and I just kept repeating “No, I’m laughing, I don’t know why I’m crying,” but I literally couldn’t stop. I think it honestly went on for a good 10 minutes before I was able to turn off the faucets of insanity (aka my eyes) and stop laugh-crying. It was intense. It was frightening. It was, I assumed, pregnancy-induced momentary madness. It was hysteria.
There were a few other times it happened when I was pregnant with Emmett. Once time, Aaron was filling his cup from the freezer door ice-dispenser, and an ice cube fell on the floor. It was an “oops” moment. Maybe worthy of an under-your-breath brief chuckle. It became a 15 minute melt down of hysterical crying that I insisted was actual laughing that I couldn’t stop. The fact that I couldn’t stop actually made it more funny to me. And the fact that it was so funny that I couldn’t stop made the sobbing sound even more insane.
It got to the point where I could actually feel the moment a laugh “snapped” inside me, and I would just cry “OH NO” as I dissolved in a fit of sobbing (I swear I was laughing). My worst nightmare came true when it happened in front of my family. We were playing some sort of game. Catch Phrase, I think. And one of my brothers said something silly about one of the former presidents having a brother with a weird name (it wasn’t funny, I swear – Like, Jimmy Carter and his brother, James Carter), and I giggled and then cried “OH NO! AARON, PLEASE TELL THEM WHAT’S HAPPENING!!” because I knew I was no longer in control of my body. Of course, he didn’t say anything for a while, because he thinks it’s funny (it is), but my poor family probably thought I had finally snapped (I had).
The worst instance happened when I was in the hospital. I was still pregnant with Emmett, in my 7th month, and it had been determined that Emmett wasn’t growing anymore. It wasn’t dangerous for him YET, but blood-flow in the umbilical cord was sporadic at best. It was a terrifying 2 weeks as I worried that my baby could die at any moment while my husband was slowly dying next to me (it was a bad year, but all 3 of us thankfully pulled through). So I was hooked up to 2 fetal monitors, along with machines measuring my own pulse, oxygen, heart rate, and all that good stuff, for a solid 2 weeks while on hospitalized bed rest. And then something was said (I don’t remember what), and I had “an episode” and the nurses lost their shit. My heart rate was insane, my oxygen dipped, the baby’s monitors got weird… but I couldn’t stop! I finally calmed down, baby was fine, but it was scary for all parties involved.
After Emmett was born, I didn’t have any more episodes. I was so thankful that nothing ever happened at work. I told coworkers about it, just in case it ever happened and they thought they needed to call 911 or something, but thankfully nothing came of it.
When I got pregnant with Madeline, I thought “Maybe it was a one time thing,” but I was wrong. It happened again! And again! I can’t actually remember any of the reasons, but it was really something. After she was born, I thought I was good. There was no longer reason to fear public places. Everything was fine. The uterine curse was over.
Except… it’s not. It still happens. Not as much as it did, but it still happens. I can still feel the moment a normal laugh is about to turn into an episode, and Aaron quietly says “YES!!” whenever I laugh and cry “OH NO!” and let the insanity take me. Thankfully it’s still rare, but it always makes me ask “Am I pregnant?!” I’m not, this is just my life now. It’s okay to laugh about it. I am.
So why am I telling you all this? Apart from the fact that I don’t want to be ashamed of my momentary lapses in sanity, it happened again recently. This time was the first time it happened in front of the children, and it was… tense.
We were eating dinner, and I bit my cheek. Like, really bit it. I could feel the “crunch,” and I was worried that I actually bit a part of my mouth off (it’s fine, it healed up quickly). But as I was telling Aaron why I had suddenly frozen and had a weird look on my face, a tear formed in my eye. It hurt, okay! And Madeline, angel that she is, said “Mom? Why is there water coming out of your eye?” and I laughed and felt myself spiraling and cried “OH NO!” and Madeline’s face made it so much worse – she was looking at me with a combination of horror, confusion, and despair. She was witnessing her mom’s decent into madness, and I couldn’t stop laughing. I wailed “GET HER OUT OF HERE! PLEASE!!!” because Aaron was just laughing at me and looking at her face, and it was too hilarious for me to be a part of. No child should witness that. As he ushered her away from the table to let mommy have some “crazy time,” I heard Madeline ask why I was crying, and Aaron tried to explain that mommy’s not crying, she’s laughing, but sometimes she goes a little crazy. And that was so, so funny to me. The sobbing intensified. And then he said something like “You’ve never seen mom cry, have you?” because she was so terrified of what was happening, and she said “Yes, I have, she cried on Emmett’s birthday.” This didn’t make sense to Aaron, but … …
You guys, I did cry on Emmett’s birthday. Back in November. They found his presents, and opened all of them before I even woke up that morning. I came downstairs to wrapping paper and ripped up packaging everywhere. They were so happy, but I felt a small piece of me shrivel up and die because I missed the look on his face when he opened his birthday presents. It seems silly, but I don’t care. I didn’t say anything. I just sat down on the living room floor and let the tears fall down my face as they stared at me, not understanding why I was so sad. I’m crying now just thinking about it.
But, you guys, it’s July now. I don’t think I actually told Aaron I cried about it back in November, because it seemed like a silly thing to be so sad about, but now I had to explain, while sob-laughing, what she was talking about. And reliving that moment somehow made me laugh and cry even harder. The sadness of the memory, combined with the horrified look on my daughter’s face was somehow so hilarious to me in that moment that I had a moment of hysteria like none I had experienced before. It didn’t want to stop. And as I finally started to calm down and remembered how to breathe, Emmett (who stayed at the table this whole time) whispered, “Mom, are you okay?” and that started it right back up again, because no, mommy is not okay, this isn’t normal, but I can’t stop laughing about it. And I swear to you, baby boy, that this is truly laughter, despite all sights and sounds to the contrary.
So that’s my secret. My name is Casey, and I’m a walking time-bomb of emotion. Thank you for letting me share with the group.