Elena Delle Donne & the History of Hysteria

So, I learned something fascinating today; the origins of the term “hysteria,” which stems from the ancient Greek “hysterika,” means uterus. We even see the ruins of this linguistic origin story in the medical field, with the removal of the uterus as a means of treatment or cancer prevention referred to as a “hysterectomy.” Today, we understand the word hysteria, in its most casual and depoliticized form, as a term to describe an all-encompassing, individualized pandemonium. One can be overwhelmed by a quip and laugh hysterically or even cause mass hysteria by yelling “fire” in a crowded hall. Hysteria, as we know it, is characterized as an excess or exaggeration of emotion that cannot be contained by a person or crowd, and thus manifests itself in ways that don’t adhere to our accepted social norms. 
It’d be tough to find someone who hasn’t read about the historic, widespread malpractice of diagnosing hysteria to any ailing woman as a catch all to categorize and comprehend the collection of conditions and symptoms that those with a uterus uniquely face. Symptoms of chronic exhaustion, aches and fainting; to nervousness, agoraphobia and mischief, were lumped into this umbrella diagnosis. Primitive assumptions made by Greek physician Hippocrates and his ilk remained medical doctrine for thousands of years in society; and while we no longer see 100% the disturbing treatment methods employed to treat the suffering women, we certainly see the laissez faire attitude and general carelessness regarding pain felt by femme people. 

“The Greek physician provides a good description of hysteria, which is clearly distinguished from epilepsy. He emphasizes the difference between the compulsive movements of epilepsy, caused by a disorder of the brain, and those of hysteria due to the abnormal movements of the uterus in the body…”  
I was reminded of this history when I came across a story about the rejection of WNBA league MVP and champion, Elena Delle Donne’s request for exclusion, due to medical vulnerability, of the WNBA season. In summary of the debacle, Donne was made to make a decision that many women during this global pandemic are being forced to make; sit out with no pay, or send your immunocompromised body out into a poorly equipped workplace setting and risk serious illness. Donne went into detail in a personal essay for the Players’ Tribune, detailing her battle with post-treatment Lyme disease- a version of the condition that leaves patients with lingering symptoms well after their course of treatment. Her decade long experience with the illness includes a high risk immune system as well a daily regimen of 64 pills and supplements, though the lack of research and literature regarding her illness has left both league medical practitioners and certain fans alike doubtful about her request to sit.  

“The doctor who treats my Lyme disease wrote up a full report, detailing my medical history and confirming my high-risk status. The Mystics team doctor (who is awesome, but who’s never treated my Lyme disease) wrote a report essentially deferring to my Lyme disease doctor, and agreeing about my high-risk profile. I filed both reports to the league, as required, along with a signed form waiving my right to an appeal. 

A few days later, the league’s panel of doctors — without ever once speaking to me or to either of my doctors — informed me that they were denying my request for a health exemption. 

I’m now left with two choices: I can either risk my life… or forfeit my paycheck.”  

Unsurprisingly, the majority of post-treatment Lyme disease patients are women, and the explanations as to why are polarizing. Some medical researchers see it as a misdiagnosis of fibromyalgia, whereas other consider female biology as especially susceptible to a severe immune response to Lyme disease’s further evolution, resulting in a host of post-treatment issues that often follow them for years. Whatever the school of thought you believe, there is no denying that there is a slow signal in the medical field’s response to sicknesses that specifically tend to harm those with uterine systems. There was a time in our world where “hysteria” was the diagnosis in place of fibromyalgia, chronic exhaustion syndrome, postpartum depression, severe anxiety, iron deficiencies etc., and with the rejection of Donne’s bid for exclusion (whether she is eventually compensated or not), the WNBA’s associated doctors are irresponsibly jotting this down as an expression of hysteria, further upholding institutionalized medical misogyny. Simply put, this is especially disappointing coming from a league meant to cater to and display femme talent.  

It’s very interesting that thousands of years later, the study of female biology is still so grossly inadequate. This inadequacy leaves millions both under and, in Elena’s case, overly medicated; feeling as though they are being perceived as liars. Their pain is theatre. It’s not enough to be a professional athlete, usually upheld as the pinnacle of health and bodily care. It’s not enough to brave through a broken nose and multiple herniated discs in an WNBA finals matchup. You are just being hysterical. 

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