When was the last time you used the word “crazy,” “nuts,” “insane,” or “demented” in a conversation?
I can tell you that it is very devastating to be out to dinner only to have someone say: “The character in that movie is so bipolar! She is such an idiot.” Basically, they are saying those of us with bipolar are bad and not good enough.
I do not want to overly police people’s language. Even I use terms in certain contexts that some other people with mental illness might feel should never be used in any context. Even I mess up and use these terms inappropriatly because it is a common form of speech that takes a long time to change.
My criteria for if what someone is saying is offensive or not is if they are using the term in a way that basically implies that people with mental illness are bad or worthless.
This article found in the Huffington Post was supposed to be funny, but it is a great example of when words matter, even if it is “just a joke.”
“4. Cray (Or Cray-Cray ). Crazy just sounds better. Or one of the ten million synonyms for crazy. I like a good “crazier than a shithouse rat” but I can’t say that when I’m surrounded by preschoolers. So I oftentimes use “whackadoo.” When I hear you say “cray” I think you were going to talk about Crayola crayons and had a brain freeze or else Robert Cray, who happens to be a pretty badass blues guitarist.”
If you are going to address the phrase of “cray” or “cray-cray,” why on Earth would you suggest using the word at all? Basically, she says, “don’t use a work I think sounds stupid, instead, when you want to make fun of people, use phrases I think are cooler such as ‘wackadoo’ or ‘crazier than a shithouse rat.’”
Even in pointless articles like this, these “little jokes” make the world less safe for those of us with mental illness. I do not like my illness to be associated with a “shithouse rat.” It is degrading, embarrassing, and just gross.
The truth is, people do this all the time! I doubt I go a week without hearing someone use the word “crazy,” “nuts,” “insane,” or “demented” in a way that implies people with mental illness are bad.
For instance, I was on a makeup swap and sale site the other day and in her listing of items for sale the woman made known what type of person she was willing to sell to by saying: “US only. Serious offers. No crazies.” Well, I guess that means I can’t buy from her.
I do not mind using the term “crazy” in a different context. (Not all people with mental illness will agree with me on this.) In some ways, many of us with mental illness have been taking back some of these terms that are used in a hurtful way and reclaiming them. The same is going on in the fat acceptance movement and people taking back the word “fat” so that “fat” no longer automatically equals “bad” or “less than.” It should be noted that the people who get to decide if a word will be reclaimed is the person directly affected by it’s use. At the same time, just because I feel comfortable reclaiming the word “crazy,” that does not mean I speak for all people with mental illness. If you are in the office with someone and you use the word "crazy" and a coworker says it was hurtful to them, just try not to use it again.
To me, “crazy” equals fun, energetic, and creative. Like when our dog runs around the house back and forth throwing her toy in the air and catching it. Sometimes I will say: “Rosie, you are so crazy!” I love to watch her have fun and be just a happy, beautiful dog. However, I have also accidentally still used the phrase in the wrong way. We were just watching a movie about artificial intelligence, and I asked "Is this one of those movies where the computer goes crazy?" Meaning when the AI operates on it's own and starts trapping people in houses and hurting people. That was an accident, but it was also completly inappropriate because I was saying, in that moment, that "crazy" equals someone or something that hurts other people. Right away, I talked to my son about how I had used the term incorrectly and that even for me, changing the way I speak is a process.
I do believe context matters. I think it is pretty clear when we are using words as a way to make fun of people or a group of people. It breaks my heart to see kids in our community playing with my son and they point to another kid whom they want to make fun of and twirl their index finger near their head and say “crazy” while pointing at the other kid. Adults have taught kids that this is ok. Sadly what this means for my son is that he is seeing another child reiterate the idea that people who are different at worthless, it’s ok to make fun of other people, and especially one of the worst things you can be is “crazy” like his mother.
Words matter. Your voice matters. The words we use can either increase or decrease someone’s radical self love. What we say can either make our world more unapologetic or more judgemental. May we all choose our words with respect and care.