Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir by Sarah Fawn Montgomery
Ohio State University Press, September 2018
296 pages / Amazon
Lost in the woods. This is what it felt like after being diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. As I wandered, trying to figure out how to live this new life, Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir became the glow from a firepit, a beacon in the dark because she not only explores her own mental health journey, but the history of mental health treatment, the stigma of mental illness, and in particular how women have been most negatively impacted by the prejudice of mental health care providers. By examining all these aspects, Montgomery shows us a path forward to not only destigmatizing mental illness but living with it.
Montgomery, in the prologue, immediately lets us in on the terror in her brain as well as the physical and emotional impact her anxiety has on her. She’s having a panic attack, throwing up in the third stall of the bathroom on the third floor of the English building between classes. She’s in a Ph.D program. She quiets herself when she hears someone enter the bathroom. She doesn’t want “…the esteemed professor of this, distinguished writer of that…” to hear her, to know “I have generalized anxiety disorder, which means I live a socially stigmatized existence ruled by chronic fear and worry…”. We are there with her. Not as spectacle, but as reality. It’s an intimate moment. It’s a terrifying moment. A necessary moment for readers to understand what is at stake.
This is where Montgomery begins to weave in larger, historical concerns over mental health treatment, saying…“I am not in chains…I am not lobotomized or Valium-comatose like a 1950s housewife…”. She cites the statistics for the number of Americans who live with anxiety disorders (42 million). This section of the book also sets forth the purpose of the book, “…we are still waiting…waiting for proof that we in America have come a long way in our understanding mental illness and our ability to control and cure the unstable.” It’s important that she begins to explore this so early in the book because we live in a society that still wants to largely hide mental health issues behind closed doors, in whispers.
This is especially true when comes to women’s mental health issues. Montgomery opens chapter nine, “The World We’ve Made for Women,” with “We seem to have made a world for women where it is easier to blame their sanity than their circumstance.” This type of biased attitude discounts a woman’s mental health. It devalues her experiences. One that carries through to violence against women. Montgomery cites statistics that one in four women “experience sexual assault on college campuses.” As a professor Montgomery sees these statistics in her classes, “A few years ago I started keeping track of how many of my students disclosed their rape, either in office hours or in their writing.” She sees the direct impact of that violence on their mental health as some have panic attacks in class, others miss class, one drops out of college. But she is not just an observer. She knows how they feel as she was raped and tried to discount the impact that had on her mental health.
Sexual violence haunts. I know this personally from recently recovered memories of being sexually abused by my father. I tried to discount how this affected my mental health until I couldn’t anymore. A series of stresses led my brain to be unable to hold back the negative impact of what happened to me in childhood and this is when I woke up in the woods, unsure how to navigate anxiety, depression, and PTSD. These events do impact our lives whether we want them to or not. Montgomery taught me that by writing about her story.
Quite Mad is a light through the woods for those of us struggling. It most certainly was and continues to be for me. Therapy sessions or a medication prescription do not guarantee automatic good mental health. As Montgomery shows throughout her memoir, it is a struggle and has been for centuries. However, that is not to say the situation is hopeless. Quite Mad is a big step in showing us where we fit into the larger world of mental illness and mental health treatment as well as in a world that still struggles to understand mental health. It shows us we don’t have to be ashamed of our struggles. Montgomery is welcoming us to be part of her coven, to join her around the warmth of the fire to share her experiences so that we know we are not alone.
Bruce Owens Grimm writes haunted queer essays and memoir. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, Kenyon Review Online, Ninth Letter, AWP’s Writer’s Notebook, Iron Horse Literary Review, Older Queer Voices, and elsewhere. He is co-editing Fat & Queer, an anthology inspired by his Fat and Queer series for Queen Mob’s Tea House. More can be found at www.bruceowensgrimm.com.