We need to talk about “crazy”

It all started with an eight-year-old kid. I was a eighteen-year-old camp counselor at an outdoor center and he was one of my campers. Let’s call him Evan.

Evan had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, something my co-counselor and I knew because one of us took him to the infirmary for his medication every morning. Evan was very aware of his own diagnosis. He used to say, “if I don’t get my meds, I’m gonna go crazy!”

It broke my heart. I don’t know where he learned that idea, whether it came from his parents or other kids at school. But somewhere along the way, he learned that “crazy” referred to mental illnesses like bipolar disorder.

One afternoon, we were playing a simple game, probably killing a few minutes between activities. We were working our away around the group, talking about things that made us unique, any fun detail that set us apart. A junior counselor talked about how her ears stuck out and it made her look a little like a chipmunk. I talked about how I never crawled as a baby, but scooted around instead.

Evan said, “I’m bipolar!” That’s the detail he thought made him unique, that defined him. That without his meds, he’d go “crazy.”

This eight-year-old thought “crazy” was lingering just around the corner.

I didn’t realize it until later, but that’s the moment I started to have a problem with that word: crazy. As a society, we’ve known for a couple decades now that using the term to describe people with mental illness is disrespectful, even harmful.

But we still use that word in other forms.

We say “life has been crazy lately” or “such crazy weather we’re having” or “don’t do anything crazy.” It’s easy to throw it around without thinking. I know I’ve done it in the past. It’s such a common part of our lexicon, it comes without a thought.

On one hand, there can be power in reclaiming a word and diminishing its stigma. But that would require severing it from its original roots. If you dig deeper, we’re still using it in the same way, to refer to aberrant behavior. Life has been out of control, is what we mean when we say it’s been “crazy.” We’re saying the weather has been abnormal. We’re telling our friends not to do anything wild or risky.

Even today, the word is hinting at the behavior it described decades and centuries ago, back when it was a label slapped on anyone who didn’t fit the norms of society. Back when it was used as an excuse to imprison and abuse people who needed help.

If you dig into the etymology of the word, it originated around 1580 and meant  “full of cracks.” This was around the same time asylums were being established to hold such “cracked” people. The word then expanded to mean “diseased, sickly, of unsound mind.” And once it was attached to a human being, it was impossible to escape the label.

I will alway believe words are powerful. I’m a writer. Of course I think that. I know it’s impractical to research the etymology and history of every word we use. But some words cut more deeply than others. Some words carry a well-known history with them. And when a word with such a negative past lands on the shoulders of an eight-year-old child, it’s beyond time to bury that word.

Some words don’t deserve to exist in modern society. For me, this is one of them. I’m done with “crazy.”

(For more reading, check out this great article from Rooted in Rights.)

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