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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Goodbye, Cheese

I’m not someone who backs down from a challenge. Truth is, sometimes I even go after it, smack it in the face and go “whatcha gonna do??” So when my husband came home from the doctor a few months ago and told me he had to avoid the most common food allergens for the next five to six months . . . well, I’ll be honest, first I thought about cheese.

I’m Southern, okay? There is no main dish that cannot be improved by the addition of cheese. I knew that would be the hardest thing for him to give up. And for me to cook without. I mean, when you remove dairy, eggs, gluten, shellfish, soy, and nuts, you’ve basically just got . . . meat.

But fine. Okay. I’m smart and resourceful. I’m an awesome wife who does my best to make life easier for both of us. (I’m also unbelievably humble, can you tell?) Once I stopped thinking about cheese, I began brainstorming foods, doing research to augment my list. Thank goodness for the internet. There’s basically no subject I can’t research for hours. I never get bored or tired of the monotony.

So I dug deep and compiled lists of meals. Main dishes weren’t so hard—steak and potatoes with green beans, chicken soup with white beans and veggies. But snacks? Breakfasts? We wandered the aisles of our fanciest local grocery store, checking ingredients to see what options we had.

“Hey this is gluten-free, no soy, no nuts, no milk . . . oh. Eggs. Dang it.” Repeat every possible variation of that and you’ll have a good idea of our experience.

And then I discovered the Enjoy Life brand. (Cue the heavenly, hallelujah music.) Surprisingly, their stuff also tastes good. I could eat their lentil chips alllll day. And they have an all-purpose flour blend that has basically saved me from spiraling into frustration and despair.

So now I keep my husband supplied with a steady supply of muffins or banana bread for breakfast. (Told you I’m an awesome wife.) And after reading the allergen guides for nearly every restaurant in a twenty-mile radius, I found a few places we can eat at. I have a list of favorite websites where I can find recipes. We’re making it work. Because that’s what you do when life throws a curveball: you swerve. And I can swerve with the best of them.

The truth is, having to avoid specific ingredients is pretty minor when you consider the struggles of so many other people. But I have tons of respect for people dealing with severe allergies. It’s not a simple thing to be on guard with every bite, constantly assessing potential meals for something that could make you sick. And multiply that stress by a million if you’re a parent of someone with allergies.

The great thing is, there are so many resources available, ones that have made my life so much easier. In case it’s helpful to anyone else, I’m sharing my favorite allergy-friendly resources:

Sarah Bakes Gluten Free This may be one of the best recipe sites out there. The muffins! The breads! And I make them using the Enjoy Life all-purpose flour blend that I think is pretty similar to the blend she uses.

Cinnamon Roll Muffins by Vegetarian Mamma A simple and tasty recipe!

The Neat Egg Substitute It’s a bit pricy, but worth it. I used this for the first time a few days ago and while it’s a weird consistency at first, it definitely improved the structure of the muffins I made.

Enjoy Life Like I said, this stuff is awesome. Snack bars, flour mixes, lentil chips. You can probably find some of their products at your local grocery store. But if not, Amazon’s got you covered. I can personally vouch for the quality of their snickerdoodles. And those garlic parmesan lentil chips . . . it’s hard to believe they’re dairy-free.

If you’re no stranger to food allergies, feel free to share your favorite resources too!

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Revenge Is a Man’s Work

Confession: I like a good revenge story.

I mean, who doesn’t love a twisty tale of personal justice? In fact, my current work-in-progress has a significant revenge theme. And as with any manuscript I write, I tried to think of revenge stories (books or movies) that had a similar thread for comparison.

As I pondered the options, I began to notice a concerning trend. Most of the stories I could think of featured male main characters, some of whom are avenging female family members (Taken, e.g.). The ones with female main characters are centered on how they’ve been wronged by a man (First Wives’ Club, The Lauras), and more often than not, they’re humorous in nature (Fried Green Tomatoes). Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies comes close, but I’d consider that more self-defense than calculated revenge.

With a little research, I found more woman-led stories, but most of the women are teen girls (True Grit, Carrie) or highly-trained professionals (a detective or assassin, like Kill Bill). The average-Joe-gets-revenge narrative seems limited to men, for the most part. You know the theme I’m talking about, the one where the totally normal guy is wronged in some way and starts doing his research, creating a murder board with pictures and strings connecting them, gathering evidence as he plans his hit list.

I couldn’t find anything like that with a woman in the lead, so I asked my husband what he could think of. He mentioned Orphan Black and Killjoys, which are closer, but they’re sci-fi tales. They’re already squarely beyond reality, set within the realm of imagination. Is that the only place to find female revenge-seekers? Does a woman have to have special powers or live in an alternate universe to enact revenge?

I’m sure there are stories out there of average women getting revenge for an injustice not involving infidelity. I don’t claim to have read every book or seen every movie with a revenge theme. The problem is, those stories are harder to find. They don’t represent the revenge themes you find in popular tv shows and movies. In those, serious revenge is best left to the men.

And that bothers me. Of course it does.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a “I’m gonna take out his cheating self” narrative, and I love a good sense of humor. But is that all women get? When it comes to mystery/suspense fiction, women are already more likely to be victims than heroes, more likely to need rescuing than to be the rescuer. The suspense world is full of books with that same old trope of the the pretty dead girl who needs a man to get justice for her. Yes, women tend to be more physically vulnerable, but statistically, men are more likely to be victims in every crime except rape. (Check out these stats, especially page 9.)

Maybe that’s why I feel compelled to create strong, intelligent female characters. I want women like me to be able to embrace a narrative in which women aren’t simply the victims but are the heroes of their own story. They say write what you know, and an intelligent woman at the helm of her own ship, that’s a reality I know.

The truth is, I’m lucky enough to have some incredible, strong women in my life. If I ever needed justice, my money’s on them to get it for me. Sure, there are some awesome men in my life too. But when it comes to taking care of business, there’s one thing I know for sure: don’t ever underestimate a woman.

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Those bad heart days

Today, my heart hurts.

I don’t mean in a metaphorical sense. I mean literally. Because I have a heart condition (not life-threatening) and today is one of those days.

I’m betting anyone with a chronic illness understands what I mean. I can go months with only minor symptoms—palpitations, the occasional twinge—but then boom, I have a day or two when I’m practically doubled-over, clutching my chest like a dad who just got his teen daughter’s cell phone bill.

I have yet to find a pattern for these bad heart days. They tend to strike at will and there’s not much I can do about them except breathe my way through them. But it makes me appreciate all the good days. Because when it comes down to it, I’m so very lucky. My symptoms are generally mild and easily managed, unlike a lot of other people who deal with SVT (supraventricular tachycardia). I’ve never had to go to the ER because my heart rate wouldn’t slow. I don’t have to take medication to keep it under control.

Days like these make me think of the many people who walk around with invisible illnesses, struggling to make it through the day although you’d never know it. They’re a special kind of warrior, people who deal with chronic pain and invisible symptoms. They don’t get the same kind of respect and understanding people offer someone with a cast on their arm, but their struggles are no less real.

And it’s not just the average person who misjudges people with chronic illnesses—medical professionals can misjudge and misdiagnose them too. I got a small taste of that when, as a fifteen-year-old claiming chest pains, the doctors kept asking me if I was stressed and then implied that SVT was a diagnosis they landed on only because they could find no physical evidence and had ruled out everything else. I was only a teen, but I wasn’t stupid. I could see the doubt. (If you want to learn more about when I finally learned the truth, you can read about that here.)

I take that experience and multiple it by about a hundred to imagine what so many people with chronic illnesses go through, running the gauntlet of skeptical specialists and doubting friends. As if handling an illness isn’t enough, they also have to battle to be heard and fight to be supported.

So yeah, days like these are frustrating, but days like these are also beautiful. They remind me how lucky I am. My bad heart days are infrequent. I have an official diagnosis I can point to as an explanation. I have a husband who picks up the slack when I’m struggling and never shames me for asking for help.

My bad heart days remind me of all the good things. So I really can’t be too mad about it. And the reality is, my wonky, imperfect heart keeps beating, keeps powering through. How could I ever be upset about that?

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