Recently, an anonymous person disagreed with an earlier post on my use of the words "mad" and "madness" and the fact that I do not like psychiatric diagnoses or labeling. And I don't.
Disorder: what a scary word that has become these days. Anyway, more on that later.
These diagnoses haven't done me any good, especially because they were schizophrenia, which was a misdiagnosis that stuck for 13 years, from the time I was 12 to 25. Then, manic depression — even though I have never been clinically depressed. Then bipolar disorder — though I am no in any way "bi," but "uni."
Diagnoses can and often are wrong. They were with me and they did me a great deal of harm.
A few years ago, researching another story, I remember reading in a comprehensive Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health May 2007 report titled Mental Health Literacy in Canada: Phase One Report, Mental Health Literacy Project that according to its findings the words and conditions "anxiety" and "depression" are considered among the general populous to be within the realm of "normal" – a loaded word with many meanings.
This is a question of the history of language and usage. Etymology. Everyone experiences normal levels of "anxiety" and "depression." Those words are part of our lexicon. Some people cannot imagine what "clinical" anxiety or depression look or feel like.
Not true for the words, "schizophrenia" or "mania." These are not "everyday" words. "Maniac is an everyday word, but it's not pretty." It's "mania" as a noun. That's one reason why psychiatrists changed the term "manic depression," to bipolar, thinking it would "de-stigmatize" the implications of the term. It didn't work.
To quote Anonymous: "I have called myself 'mad' and 'mental' on plenty of occasions, to break the tension or make myself feel better, but I would never want to define myself by my mental illness. I've always been anxious, but my anxiety got much worse in my first year of university; I've partially recovered though. I don't consider my 'madness' to be a part of me; I consider that there is a difference between my natural tendencies towards worrying and shyness, and my anxiety disorder. I don't understand why some people are so opposed to diagnoses. I found that getting an official diagnosis of social phobia actually helped me, because then I realized that I wasn't just 'stupid' or 'socially retarded' as people used to call me, I actually did have a problem, one that had been untreated for 15 years."
It's all a question of degree. And your inner vision. How you "see" and "perceive" yourself. We often conceptualize our feelings, verbally. That's why language is so powerful. Words define our feelings outwardly, to others, and inwardly, in our self conscious, to ourselves. That's why I've always said, "It's not seeing is believing, but believing is seeing."
This is delicate stuff and I don't want to force you into a dictionary, especially as dictionaries are not bibles, but social documents that reflect the times in which they were written.
Words also resonate with one's personal experience.
Let me give you an example, and maybe you'll see what I mean.
On November 12, in the print edition of The Globe and Mail, John Doyle, my all time favourite TV writer, was writing about political humour.
Let me quote you the first two paragraphs of his story:
"'Now the real story begins.' That's the slogan Fox News is using to promote its coverage of the Barack Obama presidency. It's going to be "fair and balanced," of course. "No spin," that kind of stuff," Doyle wrote.
"People, fear not. There are four glorious years of U.S. all-news coverage and TV comedy shows coming. It is going to be mental."
I stopped reading and saw red.
He was not writing about mental illnesses. He was writing about something entirely different, completely unrelated. No remote connection to mental health issues. Nothing. Nada.
He could have said, "It's going to be crazy."
He could have said, "It's going to be nuts."
He could have said, "It's going to be madness."
I wouldn't have blinked an eye.
But he said, "It's going to be mental."
I wanted to write him a letter to tell him how offensive his use of the word "mental" was for me, but I got busy and it slipped my mind. I was so upset I didn't finish reading his column, though. And I haven't read him all week.
I am very comfortable with who I am. I like myself with all my idiosyncrasies, my faults and foibles, my quirks and crazinesses. But, when I was a kid, I was called "mental," among other things because I never dreamed that going to a psychiatrist was any big deal, any different than going to an allergist. No one in my family ever gave me any sense whatsoever that going to a psychiatrist was different than going to any other kind of medical specialist.
Wow, what an innocent, was I.
But so much is language.
Once, years ago, I remember interviewing a UCLA English professor who explained a 16th Century condition in women known as "Lovesickness," which sounded a lot like me. Their mania was caused by falling in love with men who were in no way available to them. Men who were married to other women. People sometimes treated these mentally vulnerable, volatile women with compassion. More often, people treated them as witches, stuffing their pockets with stones and tossing them in ponds.
They were considered mad. They were probably delusional. They had lost touch with reality.
Today, they may be considered to have a psychiatric or psychological condition of sorts.
But when the word "mental" is used as a noun, as far as I'm concerned, it's ethically wrong because it colours the whole person or whole situation as having some form of psychiatric condition. No one and no situation are totally "mentally ill." You are not born with a mental illness. Or conceived with a mental illness.
We're all "mental." We all think. No one and no situation is monolithic. I am many things other than my so-called mental illness. A woman, a writer, a teacher, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a stepmother, a dog owner. You want labels? I've got lots of 'em.
But one I will not accept as me, is "mental." You will never hear me say, "I'm mental."
I'm mad! Sure. It's a word that diffuses the whole notion of having a mental illness in our society. A society, I'm might add, that is still ignorant, fearful, prejudiced and discriminates against people diagnosed with mental illnesses or perceived to behave in ways that are a little too different.
It's so subjective.
Like psychiatric diagnoses.
But as a noun, the word "mental" turns my stomach.
I've often said here before, "we all can be crazy, sometimes... we're human, after all." We think. We have minds. We have brains and souls and experiences upon which we base our thinking.
This harkens back to the dark ages of my youth when I was diagnosed with schizophrenia and you never saw stories about "psychiatry" and "mental illnesses" in the newspapers, or any of the media. It was a dark age for the medical specialty of psychiatry.
Mental illnesses were completely misunderstood.
When the word "mental" is used as a noun, it is really insidious. It's a dirty word, a slur. "You're mental." It hurts.
We're all mental beings and as an adjective, "mental" is fine.
But not as a noun. It stinks of centuries of abuse, misuse, ignorance, stereotyping, brutality, prejudice, torture and isolation.
We've come a long way.
We have a long way to go.
Thanks, Anonymous, for sharing your story so honestly and openly. Not all psychiatry is bad and I am in no way anti-psychiatry. I go to a wonderful psychiatrist and I take medication for my mania twice a day. It helps me and I'm glad it helps you, too.
But, I am not bipolar. I have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, from which I am in recovery.
I am many people. We all are. As for mad? Sure, I'm mad. Also capable of being angry. That's me and anyone who knows me, knows it.
And it's a fine madness!