“We’re never gonna survive, unless, we get a little crazy”
I used to love listening to Seal sing “Crazy” on my VW Jetta’s stereo while driving up and down San Francisco’s steep hills, a fitting backdrop for such a song. One must drive differently in San Francisco – it’s such a treacherous maze of streets, especially when driving a stick shift car like mine. I was twenty-one years old at the time, a thrill seeker, and a bon vivant in the making.
I had no inkling I would one day be diagnosed with postpartum bipolar disorder. “Crazy” was a totally innocuous word in my (relatively sane) mind. I didn’t think twice of Seal using “crazy” in his hit song back then, nor did I ponder what the word truly represented. “Crazy” simply didn’t apply to me. Not yet.
I grew up in a home “touched with fire”, a phrase Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison used for her book’s title to describe the artistic temperament often associated with bipolar disorder. My Dad had what was then called manic depression. Although he functioned highly in his work as a violinist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, sometimes he’d fall apart.
I visited him at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute, which to me seemed like a scary, sterile kennel. I hated seeing my Dad, a brilliant Renaissance man who I didn’t consider to be “crazy” one bit, housed with people who milled around him and who did seem to fit that derogatory label.
I looked down on my Dad for being “sick” and “damaged”, but not “crazy” or “psycho”. “Sick” was a bad-enough label for a parent, but “crazy” would have been far worse for me to stomach. The word “crazy” had now become personal – a word that was demeaning, and it also meant something amorphous and terrifying.
In my late twenties, I met my husband, and we started a family. Life turned upside down for me after my second child was born. I’ll never forget the day I left my newborn in my husband’s arms. Then I admitted myself into our mental health unit, with engorged breasts and no baby. I was told that I had postpartum bipolar disorder.
From that point on, my opinions about using correct terminology regarding mood disorders changed. As a freelance writer and an English literature graduate, words and expressions were very important to me. It was inevitable that I would figure out how to describe my mood disorder to others, both verbally and through writing, in a way I felt comfortable with. “Crazy” wasn’t going to cut it.
I started writing letters to the editors of our local newspapers. I also commented on websites about how to depict and address those with mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder respectfully. It felt good to be proactive.
One of my letters to the Editor was published in the Scotts Valley/San Lorenzo Valley Press Banner, my local paper. My letter addressed the use of the word “crazy” in response to another resident’s letter to the Editor. I was very gung-ho when I wrote my two cents; I’ve softened my stance a little bit since then, but I stand by what I wrote:
Letter: Avoid stigmatizing mental illness
May 10, 2012 By Dyane Leshin-Harwood
I agreed with every word of Claudio Sebastian Nobile’s letter to the editor (“Reading stunt sets bad example,” Letters, May 4) until the last sentence, in which Nobile stated “…be more like an adult, not like a crazy person.” I take issue with the word “crazy,” as it perpetuates the stigma of mental illness. A better way to express himself might have been “not like a person with poor judgment.” As the mother of two young girls myself, I am teaching them that it is not OK to use the word “crazy,” as it is derogatory. I hope Mr. Nobile, as a parent himself, will act as a good role model to his girls when it comes to using appropriate language and helping our world break the stigma of mood disorders.
I was happy that the Press Banner chose to publish my letter. I received two comments on their website in response to my opinions. One comment was positive, and the other one, submitted by “Crazy Guy” was ignorant and rude. He wrote:
“So now were not supposed to use the word “crazy” too? Add that to the list of forbidden words along with midget, colored, negro, fat,..and all the rest. I’m telling you, the politically correct need to publish a book on the correct words to use every year and which ones we’re not supposed to use.”
Crazy Guy indicates that he doesn’t have enough brain power to make simple substitutions in his choice of language; moreover, he demonstrates that he may be passive/aggressive by selecting his name to be Crazy Guy in the first place! I wrote one final response:
“I know we can’t micromanage all our words – that would be ridiculous. But once mental illness affects you or your family, your life is different. Your viewpoints change. If you have kids – that makes a difference too. I understand where you are coming from, but your anger ruins the effectiveness of your message.”
Crazy Guy never responded to me.
I realize that the word “crazy” is deeply embedded in our vernacular, and each of us has only so much energy to devote to changing our language habits as well as others’ speech. But if we all chip away a little here, and a little there, a sea change can occur.
I’ve taught my daughters that it’s not acceptable for them to use the word “crazy”. I know I’m many things in this life, but crazy is not one of them. It’s just the name of a catchy Seal song (and the classic Patsy Cline song) nothing more, nothing less.