Growing up, my family used the word “crazy” a lot. It was our way of acknowledging some of what we dealt with while avoiding having to talk about it.
The word stuck with me for years — an overused adjective for describing anything that felt indescribable or beyond explanation. Because of my family history and my own mental health challenges, I felt I had a right to use the word as I pleased. When I finally began feeling uncomfortable hearing other people with public platforms use it, I realized that I was not just contributing to the stigma that harms people with mental illness — I was being lazy and inaccurate. Now, I #ReplaceCrazyWith the word I actually mean.
Isn’t it time we finally all agreed to do the same?
My dad’s side of the family is complicated — like most families are. There’s a history of substance abuse, poverty, and undiagnosed mental illness. My dad and his two older brothers never talked much about their childhood; they used dark humor to cover pain and memories they couldn’t change.
The cousins likely wouldn’t have known much about any of it had our grandma not been in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease when we were young, causing some odd behaviors that we as kids didn’t know we shouldn’t ask about. Questions led to awkward answers and, since kids are basically human lie detectors, we realized there was more going on than just “grandma’s getting older.” By patching together stories we’d overheard our parents discuss, we realized it’s likely she’d had schizophrenia, or something similar. As for our grandfather, he died before any of us were born, so we didn’t have to know him. And by all accounts, we’re better off as a result.
I mention this to highlight that by the time my own panic disorder started at age 8 and clinical depression set in at age 13, I’d been around enough abnormal behavior to be comfortable calling myself “crazy.” Based on my experience getting to know others who have dealt with chronic mental conditions, I know this impulse is common.
“Crazy” is used to describe mental illness so pervasively that to many people, it’s come to sound like slang rather than a slight. Because of this societal conditioning, when the word is newly applicable to you personally, it can take time to strike you as offensive. Some people even purposely “reclaim crazy” — and my quarrel isn’t with other neuroatypical folks who aim it boldly at themselves. We all have to do what we feel to fight stigma and raise awareness.
I have, however, found that even when I was using it to describe my internal struggle, the word “crazy” was causing me harm.
As easily as it rolled off my tongue, “crazy” came with some baggage — most notably, that I was broken and unfixable and had to find a way to suck it up. No one in my family who struggled with any kind of above-the-neck illness or condition had treatment, so I had no reason to think that help was available for me. And besides, nightly panic attacks and daily sobbing fits were hardly the worst thing I’d seen or heard of; I was miserable, but I wasn’t seeing things that weren’t there or dealing with violent outbursts.
It took multiple misdiagnoses — most notably bipolar disorder — in my early 20s, followed by a long period of thinking that I was just a miserable failure at life, to understand the power of the word “crazy.” I’d internalized it so much that the stigma seeds sown during my childhood had grown into a self-blame garden. Sure, the word had helped me own what I felt and thought, but it had also practically immobilized me. I was stuck, completely unable to change my circumstances or the way I felt — even despite my best efforts to seek proper care for my actual conditions: extreme attention deficit disorder (ADHD), dysthymia, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
I was miserable every day for a string of days that lasted a decade.
At age 35, I moved to southern California — a part of the country where therapy is normalized enough that you can actually find multiple doctors in your area who specialize in your disorders. A good friend who is a doctor and also ADHD had encouraged me to seek an on-the-record diagnosis for ADHD as well as find a therapy/medication protocol that would help with my attention and my anxiety. As I began that frustratingly long process, I suddenly found myself cringing when I heard people use the word “crazy” in social and political commentary.
I was slowly coming to terms with the label “mentally ill” — an identification I still struggle applying to myself because it sounds so permanent. “The mentally ill” is a phrase used routinely, like we’re a monolith, the lot of us stumbling around hearing voices, terrifying our neighbors, threatening our coworkers, and generally making life unlivable for our loved ones. My discomfort with such a label stems from it being interchangeable with the word “crazy”; one sounds colloquial, the other clinical. As though I’d gone from quirky to sick. Now “mentally ill” just sounds accurate, if a bit incongruous.
When I began seeing “crazy” applied frequently to a devolving Republican party, I became especially aware of its negative and hurtful connotations. I spent a lot of time covering reproductive rights and the slate of laws being passed to eliminate access to abortion care. I was well-acquainted with the tactics and the motivations of the legislators — and they weren’t crazy. They were mean, misogynistic, out-of-touch, condescending, and controlling. The food stamp-shaming members of the GOP comparing those of us receiving assistance to animals and bragging about a smaller SNAP budget were called crazy and out of touch. Every time the GOP aligns itself with the NRA, you get supposedly progressive outlets posting articles like “10 Crazy Gun Laws Introduced Since Newtown” — like we need more side-by-sides with guns and the word crazy.
I suddenly realized that almost every time I had used the word “crazy” about something/someone besides myself, I had actually meant something else. And every time I said “crazy” when I meant awful, ridiculous, or ignorant, I was contributing to the stigma that had made it so impossible for me to access care most of my life.
The stigma of the word “crazy” keeps many of us hidden. We know from the way those in our lives — compassionate, empathetic people — toss the word around how folks think of us. They’re afraid to hire us, date us, befriend us. They assume we’ll be a burden or worse. And the moment we seek care — if we’re lucky enough to have access — we have a medical record, need time off work for appointments, and often have to disclose to roommates and partners what meds we’re on in case of side effects that run the gamut from sleep walking and driving to seizures and mood swings.
Conflating mental illness with undesirable traits and behaviors has perpetuated a number of myths, including the nonexistent connection to gun violence. People with mental illness are an at-risk population, not a risky population. As reported in the June 2014 Forbes article “The Myth Of Mental Illness And Gun Violence,” by Todd Essig, the media plays a large part in conflating mental illness and violence every time a public shooting occurs.
Jeffrey W. Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine and lead author of the Annals of Epidemiology article, “Mental illness and reduction of gun violence and suicide: bringing epidemiologic research to policy,” was quoted in the UCLA Newsroom saying “but even if schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression were cured, our society’s problem of violence would diminish by only about 4%.”
The media and the public refuse to let the facts convince them because mental illness is scary — even though, according to Health and Human Services, one in five Americans has dealt with a mental health issue and one in 25 lives with a serious, chronic mental illness. People with mental illness have enough uphill battles; we don’t need the inaccurate, lazy overuse of the word “crazy” making our lives unnecessarily harder.
I asked on Twitter for times they’ve learned to #ReplaceCrazyWith less inflammatory — and more accurate — words.
People offered suggestions and admitted that eliminating the off-hand use of the word “crazy” has been hard for them. I acknowledged that it has been hard for me as well. Rather than just yelling at people to stop saying it, we had a conversation about replacements. The list was long and includes multiple suggestions of:
ignorant (see also: willfully ignorant)
And a contribution from across the pond in Ireland: “acting the maggot” and “gombeen.”
The conversation quickly turned to whether euphemisms that always mean crazy (e.g. “bananas”) were actually better than using the word itself. I realized using crazy when you mean something else is what really bothers me most while understanding why people found the direct substitutes to be equally problematic.
Using the word crazy as an insult is more harmful to the millions of us who deal with the stigma of mental illness than it is to the person you’re attempting to insult. It also lets the person/people you’re trying to insult off the hook by giving them an explanation for their erratic behavior or words rather than making them own what they said and did.
For editors and writers, the inaccuracy of the word as it is commonly used should be bothersome enough to discontinue publishing it; for those without a public platform, the pain it causes should be motivation enough to #ReplaceCrazyWith a less stigmatized, more accurate adjective.