Compelling 22 year old evidence that the iconic poet had severe PMS/PMDD. Why is this not better known?
‘If I didn’t have sex organs, I wouldn’t waver on the brink of nervous emotion and tears all the time’
Sylvia Plath, journal entry, 1950
This article by author Kate Moses on the legendary poet Sylvia Plath sent shivers up my spine! Using the evidence in Plath’s letters, poems, biographies, journals and calendars, a graduate student named Catherine Thompson proposed way back in 1990 that Plath suffered from severe premenstrual syndrome. Thompson traced numerous negative events in Plath’s life to the luteal phase of her menstrual cycle, including suicide attempts and antisocial behaviour.
I had long known that Plath is generally assumed to have had bipolar (or bipolar II) disorder, but this was the first time I had heard of this fascinating hypothesis, I wonder why it’s not better known outside of academia? As a reader of this blog commented, perhaps it’s another case of ‘women’s issues’ being over looked by a patriarchal medical establishment. “It is quite a shock to digest..after thinking for so long that Sylvia’s subconscious mind was her prison, and to suddenly realise it may well have been in part, or wholly, her body”, wrote Olwyn Hughes, Plath’s sister-in-law, to Thompson.
Tragically, just weeks before her final successful suicide attempt at her London home in 1963, aged 30, Plath was referred by her doctor to THE only PMS specialist practising in the world at the time, London-based pioneering PMS researcher Dr Katharina Dalton*. Plath killed herself before she had a chance to be treated by the ‘prophet of PMS’, who coined the name ‘Premenstrual Syndrome’ in 1953. Dalton later said that she believed Plath did have PMS.
As unmistakable as were Plath’s volatile emotions in the (heavily abridged) 1982 journals, the heavy editing of the text necessarily made it hard to discern the patterns to her moods. Even so, there did seem to be a detectable pattern, and it did not seem then, nor had it seemed to the people closest to her during the last years of her life, to be merely a function of temperament.
Plath’s “unexplained” fevers, which would recur and become immortalized in the “Ariel” period, are recorded exclusively in the luteal phase of her cycles, as are a vast majority of her chronic sinus troubles. Using both the unabridged journals to assess cyclical patterning and Plath’s calendars from 1952 and 1953, in which Plath recorded her periods through July 1953, it seems overwhelmingly likely that Plath was, as Thompson contended, in either the luteal or the perimenstrual phase of her menses at the time of her 1953 suicide attempt.
It’s interesting that Plath had ‘unexplained fevers’ and ‘chronic sinus troubles’, as cyclical flu-like symptoms in the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle suggest an intolerance/sensitivity to the sex hormone progesterone, which PMS/PMDD sufferers have.
Catherine Thompson, 1990:
Like many women with PMS, Plath seems to have experienced relief from cyclical symptoms during the last two trimesters of pregnancy and to have suffered from lengthy postpartum depressions.
Accurate medical knowledge of PMS has become available in the United States only in the last ten years, and Plath herself could not have known that her psychological experience was a result of a hormonal condition. Yet the concerns of her work and the imagery of her poems suggest that she did have at least an intuitive understanding of the relationship between her fertility and her suffering.
PMS often runs in the family. “Sylvia’s daughter..suffers quite badly from PMS but is, in these enlightened times, aware of it and treats it”, wrote Olwyn Hughes of her niece, Frieda Hughes. Hughes, a painter and poet, who has been divorced three times and has no children, is known to have suffered from depression, an eating disorder and chronic fatigue – it’s pure speculation on my part, but I wonder if these were PMS related? Hughes told the Guardian in 1997 that she’d had a hysterectomy in her 30’s after ‘the collapse of her health’. I do not know the details surrounding Hughes’ hysterectomy, but she would have needed to have had her ovaries removed (not just her uterus) to be cured of PMS. PMS symptoms can continue in hysterectomised women who keep their ovaries.
In 2002, aged 42, Hughes wrote, “My fury at the inability to read, or think, or make a choice between two of the simplest things – such as tea or coffee, orange or apple juice – incapacitated me. And the angrier I got, the shorter the period of time I was able to remain awake. After various tests, doctors diagnosed me with myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue syndrome. It was, my specialist told me, what you had when there was nothing else they could pin the blame on… I might be unable to read a book or a newspaper article…struggling through the mud that clogged my head”. If Hughes still had her ovaries, perhaps the ‘muddy head’ and fatigue could have been due to declining estrogen levels with the approach of the menopause? Or, if her ovaries were removed, perhaps Hughes needed HRT (or for an HRT regime to be tweaked)?
*Dr Katharina Dalton’s studies on PMS are now widely thought to be flawed – my understanding of this is that Dalton believed in progestogen therapy for PMS – but most severe PMS sufferers are now thought to be progestogen intolerant, and to be estrogen deficient. However she played a pivotal role in establishing PMS as an area of inquiry.
MOSES, Kate, 2000, The Real Sylvia Plath, salon.com
THOMPSON, Catherine, 1990, Dawn Poems in Blood: Sylvia Plath and PMS, TriQuarterly Magazine
SLATER, Lauren, 2004, Prophet of PMS, New York Times
HUGHES, Frieda, 2002, Father Dear Father, Telegraph