One of my strongest memories from the mental hospital, explained in a scene in my upcoming book, Committed, is what happened when I used a poor choice of words in front a group of the other patients. I commented on the awful food at the hospital, saying, “Doesn’t that just drive you nuts?”
All of them flinched. The effect of my words was immediately apparent: I had wounded them. I apologized profusely, and then my roommate said something I’ll never forget: “Don’t worry, we’re used to it.”
It took me a few moments to realize what, exactly, they were used to: the prevalence of “nuts,” or, rather, the misuse of words that could apply to them. “Nut” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a foolish, eccentric, or crazy person.” Words like crazy, nuts, and psycho are often misused, and stigmatize people who actually suffer from mental illnesses. I admit that, now, every time I hear the word crazy in public, I, too, flinch. There are so many more precise words to be used rather than just defaulting to the standard “nuts.”
Just like people don’t use the word “retard” to describe mental handicaps anymore, I contend that “nuts” is equally harming and ablest. “Crazy” and other terms usually don’t refer to actual psychotic people, but are used to dismiss the way people–mostly girls and women–feel. When “crazy” is used to describe irrational, frightening behaviors, it wounds people who suffer from mental illnesses by making them feel as if their disorder is out of control. These words have power, and that power is used to isolate people by making them feel abnormal–in a bad way. Mental illness is not the reason behind all bad behaviors. Plenty of neurotypical people can be jerks.
Here is a great list of words to use instead of insane or psycho, such as “naive, mistaken, confused, misled, misinformed, uninformed, [and] ignorant.” The author, Jennifer Kesler, also points out that a job or weather cannot be “schizo” or “bipolar.” Only a person can be those things, and saying they have bipolar is more correct than “is” bipolar, because you don’t want to define them by their illness.
Many people who suffer from mental illnesses don’t feel hurt when this language is misused, and even call themselves crazy. But others do feel attacked by it. I don’t mean to police language, but if one can avoid harming people who feel this way, then why not?
Have you been called crazy before?