Talkin’ Crazy

The Republican Party’s current presidential nominee has given us a number of unique gifts, but as a lifelong sufferer of mental illness (depression, anxiety), I’m especially drawn to the discourse he’s generated around mental illness.  Not a day—or even an hour—passes that some clever wag on Twitter or in the mainstream media questions the nominee’s mental health. Various diagnoses fly. I imagine people hunched over desks, flipping rapidly through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (edition 5, I hope; we need to stay current), searching through lists of symptoms, trying to nail down his specific malady.

But most folks are pretty imprecise. They fall back on the usual generic terms: “unhinged,” “insane,” or, my favorite, “crazy.” And because, as a mentally ill person, I have something of a rooting interest in this discussion, I’ve tried to identify the various meanings of “crazy” that people to exploit (almost always implicitly) as they go about their denigration of mental illness.

The list that follows is not, of course, comprehensive:

Crazy means abnormal.

Crazy means unqualified.

Crazy means entertaining—from a comfortable distance.

Crazy means beneath us.

Crazy means unable to function.

Crazy means you can dismissable because the mentally ill are unmoored from the truth.

Crazy means “liar,” which means we can ignore their claims of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, though also, ironically,

Crazy means “victim.”

Crazy means untrustworthy.

Crazy means unreliable.

Crazy means, at best, someone should be put away because she’s helpless and can’t protect herself.

Crazy means, at worst, someone should be put away because he’s dangerous and we have to protect ourselves.

Crazy lets up pretend that mental illness is always—and only—an internal “problem,” a flaw in the wiring of a given individual, never a sign of our social dysfunction.

Crazy lets us ignore that our culture daily visits mental and emotional trauma on millions of people: the trauma of poverty on individuals, families, especially children; the trauma of sexism and sexual violence on women (straight, lesbian, bisexual, trans, white, and of color), on gay and trans men (white and of color); the trauma of racism on people of color, male and female; the trauma of toxic masculinity; the trauma of ableism.

Crazy excuses Old Aunt Harriet for using the N-word at Christmas get-togethers, even though we all know she’s been talking that way all of her adult life.

Crazy means we don’t have to do anything.

Crazy means we never have to alter our own perspective, our comfort with the world.

Crazy means broken.

Crazy means useless.

Crazy sometimes means uniquely gifted, but with the gift paid for in the form of some sad, irreparable damage. (See the detective series Monk, or numerous depictions of artists.)

Crazy means erratic, unpredictable.

Crazy means sociopathic, psychopathic, psychotic, and therefore evil.

Crazy means immoral.

Crazy means undisciplined.

Crazy means less than human.

Crazy means physically superhuman and therefore frightening.

Crazy means deeply, fundamentally, irredeemably wrong.


Given this list above, let me suggest something.

Let me ask you to imagine an average, ordinary person with mental illness, someone who is a parent, partner, citizen, taxpayer, professional or worker in the trades. Imagine such a person who labors each day to balance all of these elements with medication and/or therapy. Or imagine such a person who struggles alone with mental illness, afraid to reveal himself to family, friends, employer, even life partner as “crazy.”

Imagine the impact on such people when their condition, their mental illness, gets treated as a punchline, a joke, an insult to be hurled at bigots and the morally reprehensible, randomly associated with criminals.

Imagine moving through the world, working as hard as you can to be the best person you can, to function as well as you can, and having your face rubbed in the stigma you know people have toward people like yourself.

Imagine the fear of being known as someone who is “crazy.” Imagine the burden of living with the definitions above.

In short, I’m asking you to engage in a simple experiment of empathy. Not that I’d know anything about that personally, of course. After all, I’m crazy.