I’m (Not) Crazy: How to Talk About Mental Illness with Crazy People
A discussion of the language around mental illness.
For anyone who has read through my early work here, you will know that this whole thing started because I began a project to answer questions about my bipolar. It led to about six weeks of frenzied writing and a book manuscript.
Early on, I was incredibly excited about the prospect of it taking off and becoming something big. As a result, I didn’t sleep very well for a few days and got a little unhinged. I was already having a bit of a manic episode, and this fed into it quite a bit.
At one point, I commented on social media about how everyone got to watch me have a slow-motion breakdown in real-time over an ill-advised passion project. One of my new friends, who wasn’t aware that I tend to be a bit snarky and self-deprecating when I’m tired (or just in general), asked if I was okay and how we could get it right again. I responded that I was being a bit self-deprecating and snarky, and “what’s the fun of being crazy if you can’t be crazy?”
My new friend happened to be a person who works on a suicide crisis hotline and objected strenuously to this phrasing. They gave me a bit of trouble for using negative-sounding language to describe myself and for making my issue the whole of me instead of just a feature.
Ultimately, this person is incredibly kind and meant very well, but it kicked off a discussion of the use of language in describing people with mental health diagnoses. Or, more accurately, how we describe ourselves.
Deep down, I know that I have value and worth. My self-deprecating humor comes from a deep well of insecurity I’ve had since forever. I am (or at least consider myself) not very charismatic, and I’m not a good public speaker, but I write articulately and I research my ideas.
I am also aware that my illness is not the only feature of my personality. It does define my perspective and informs my views, but it is not my only defining feature. My job defines my perspective and informs my views too, but it’s not the whole of my existence either.
Unfortunately, this didn’t come across in my post, and my new friend didn’t know me well enough yet to know how serious or not serious I was being.
I bring this up because the language we use to describe mental illness is very loaded. People use the term “crazy” very loosely, and it can mean anything from a seriously disturbed person to an odd coincidence. The word “insane” has similar issues.
You often hear phrases like “Aw man, you got tickets to see Katy Perry? That’s crazy!” or “Oh my god, traffic is insane today!” or “You only got five chicken nuggets when you should’ve gotten six? That’s crazy.” or “Has Bob gone insane? He’s wearing bright orange socks with a navy suit.”
For people on the front lines of the mental health field, these words are negative and bad, spreading stigma and stereotypes. Instead, they suggest that people use “people-first” language that emphasizes that a person with mental illness is a person, not an illness.
People like me are not “suffering” from an illness, they are not “afflicted” with an illness, they are simply a person who has a mental illness. Similarly, one does not “commit suicide,” as that implies that they committed a crime (as suicide used to be a criminal act). Rather, they “die by suicide.”
Different people respond to this in different ways. Some people champion this language in the same way society moved to strike the word “retarded” from the language with some level of success. They see it as informing the public that people with mental illness are still people, not some lunatic rampaging around in their underwear talking to someone who isn’t there.
Others see it as being too “politically correct,” which is itself a charged term lately. They think that using this language is long and unnecessary and don’t see the harm in calling someone “crazy” when they do something, well, crazy.
The thing is, society is dumb and slow to change. In my business life, I am largely professional, but in my personal life, I lean into the “crazy” thing. For me, it sort of a way of owning the slur. It can help diffuse things if the crazy person you’re talking to is actually relatively normal.
It’s not the most constructive approach, sure, but I’ve found that the “people first” language that social service workers promote is more for the workers than for the subjects of the language. As a social service worker, I would never dream of referring to someone like me as “crazy.” Among friends, heck yeah I’m crazy!
Using people-first language is productive for shifting society, but there is always a layer (or several layers) of complexity that lies below the surface.
Something that floats around my friend group is a meme that amounts to “there’s nothing wrong with being broken. Broken crayons still color just fine.” It is a sort of recognition that we don’t operate the same way that most people do.
We use words like “neurodivergent” to describe ourselves and “neurotypical” to describe people who don’t have to take meds for the chemical imbalance in their brain. We recognize that we are different, and we own that difference as something that enhances us as people rather than something that keeps us down.
Our mental illness is not all of what we are, but it is a part, and for many, it’s a large part. The fact is, I would be a very different person if I were not bipolar. I may not be completely defined by my illness, but at the same time, it has an oversized influence on my life and my choices.
And yet, while we are dealing with our illnesses, we struggle to get people to understand. The brain, like your liver or heart, is an organ, and sometimes organs don’t work right. People put pacemakers in to regulate their hearts and take insulin to help support a malfunctioning pancreas, but for whatever reason, it’s weird that I take a pill to help fix a malfunctioning brain?
We get a lot of advice along the lines of “just be happy” and “don’t think about it too much” and “have you tried not being depressed?” But you would never dream of saying “just stop bleeding from that stab wound” or “don’t think about your terminal cancer” or “have you tried not having a broken leg?”
It is important to shift the public narrative around mental illness, but we as people with mental illness are shifting too. While the public learns to not call me broken, I am learning that it’s okay to be broken. Eventually, we meet somewhere in the middle.