February 19, 2015


Moody Bitches: The Truth about the Drugs You’re Taking, the Sleep You’re Missing, the Sex You’re Not Having, and What’s Really Making You Crazy. By Julie Holland, M.D. Penguin. $27.95.

     From its deliberately provocative main title through its over-extended and over-involved subtitle, and thence through more than 400 pages of advice that lurches (sometimes uneasily) from the witty to the with-it and back, Moody Bitches seeks to communicate, in essence, one single thought (ellipsis in the original): “Loving your body, trusting its signals, and inhabiting it fully… This is the way back to health.”

     The rest of Moody Bitches is just exegesis, some of it fervent, some of it entertaining, most of it plain-spoken, and all of it drawing on New York City psychiatrist Julie Holland’s experience as a therapist – delivered with the kind of slam-bang intensity on which New Yorkers pride themselves. Beware of full immersion if you are someone for whom a little of this style goes a long way.

     Holland argues that women’s moodiness, often considered a defect or problem, is in fact entirely natural and a good thing, being a sign of women’s sensitivity and adaptability. Moods, she says, are the body’s feedback system and can be managed in such a way as to let women lead healthier lives. Therefore, the use of mood-altering medications, which by design reduce mood swings even if they do not eliminate them, is in general a bad thing, damping not only extremes of emotional instability but also empathy, passion and sensitivity. Even in a bad situation, says Holland, medicine can make matters worse – by making matters seem more tolerable than a woman ought to deem them to be, and deflecting or undermining her natural understanding of the need to change the circumstances.

     To say that Holland is no fan of medication is to understate her antipathy toward it. As a medical doctor, she acknowledges, rather half-heartedly, its importance, but when it comes to specific medicines that women take, she has little positive to say. Birth-control pills, for example, are “destabilizing” for many women and “can really cut into your sexual desire. I tell my patients this is the ‘dirty little secret’ of the Pill. For some women, being liberated from the fear of unwanted pregnancy may allow them to relax and experience sexual pleasure more, but a slew of other women are unhappy to discover that their desire for sex and their ability to achieve orgasm are muted by being on the Pill.”  This is stylistically typical of Holland, as she minimizes positive matters (“some” women “may” benefit) while emphasizing negatives (a “slew” are “unhappy”).

     To be sure, Holland’s plain-spokenness is welcome, and there are flashes of humor in what is essentially a humorless narrative here, such as a parenthetical remark in the midst of her discussion of the Pill: “(FYI, when you’re perimenopausal, your belly starts to store fat because your estrogen levels are waning. Beware the menopot.)”  Holland uses personal experience as a teaching tool when she feels it will help: “I can’t get rid of my menopot and it’s driving me crazy. …After two kids and waning hormones, I am now the not-so-proud owner of a ‘muffin top.’”  By and large, though, she attacks topics – and “attacks” is the right word – with ravenous enthusiasm, either devouring them or (to mix metaphors) beating them into submission. She calls food “a drug we can’t resist” and explains the mismatch between our modern world, in which “high-calorie foods are abundant,” and our genetic makeup: “our bodies were designed to hoard calories now for hard times later” and “the dopamine circuitry would light up like a pinball machine” at the sight of an available food source. In a chapter called “Your Body: Love It or Leave It,” which is neither more nor less than a pro-exercise argument, Holland includes subheads called “Brain Fertilizer,” “This Is Your Brain on Obesity,” “Pretty Ugly” and “Love That Body: Hips, Boobs, and Pubes.” All this is there just to urge women to move more and understand that “the hips and thighs of swimsuit models and celebrities are unattainable for the average woman on the average American diet, without a personal trainer, personal chef, plastic surgeon, and, most crucial, Photoshop.” Holland writes about “Inflammation, the Key to Everything” (yes, that is the chapter title) in discussing stress, depression and emotional resilience. But, as in many of her chapters, stripping away the cleverness and flood of verbiage leads readers to some very familiar and not-always-helpful places: “Don’t Stress about Stress and It Will All Be Okay,” says a subhead, within which Holland urges, “Reappraise a stressor as a challenge, not a threat, and see how you feel. …[F]ollow your joy to enhance resilience and reduce stress.” Nothing new there – and no suggestions on how to “reappraise a stressor as a challenge.”

     This is where Moody Bitches ultimately disappoints. Pretty much everything Holland says, bar some fairly extreme positions regarding modern life and medicine, is sensible, intelligent and often very well put – reading her book is like listening to an especially well-educated friend hold forth on a variety of topics germane to modern everyday living in the developed world. But getting from what Holland correctly identifies as women’s (and men’s!) stressed, overworked, exhausted, anxiety-ridden everyday existence to a better, calmer, happier, drug-free, reduced-stress and far more idyllic life is extremely difficult, and the way to do so is by no means clear. Eat better, exercise more, sleep better, enjoy the delights of the everyday, have good sex, feel less stress, and your life will be better. Yes, it will. But how do you get to such a utopian state from where you are now? There is little guidance on that to be found in Holland’s book, which turns simplistic far too often in addressing the difficult realities of getting from where you are to where you want to be: “Accepting yourself, your natural self, in all its splendor, is key to being happy and healthy.” Why, yes. And to gain that acceptance, you – what? Become one of Holland’s psychiatric patients? Hmmm…that’s a thought…

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