The vocabulary of mental illness. (Guest post)

mailbox on the lawn

When I looked at my peers, I knew that many of them had sick brains. I knew people with severe OCD, anxiety, depression, bipolar, addiction. I saw that although many of us struggled, we were not allowed to call it mental illness.

Listen to me read this piece here:

 
atmospheric disturbances bookMy first encounter with the words “mentally ill” came from my own mother, discussing my grandfather. At some point she sat my sister and me down and explained that he was schizophrenic. The word sounds crazy, bouncing around in your mouth. I didn’t really understand what my mom was telling me, but I did understand the words “sick” and “brain” — I could easily grasp how a person’s brain could become ill, just like their kidney, heart or lungs. I thought it was good to know why my grandfather was paranoid and struggled to connect.

Through middle school and high school, I understood that crazy was an insult, the worst insult you could throw in the world of teenagers, unless it was said with admiration: “That guy jumped out of a plane, he’s fucking crazy!” Otherwise, this word — and cuckoo, nuts — were and are used to put an impenetrable barrier around a person. No one can touch them; they can touch no one. No one can love them; they can love no one. Crazy people can’t be loved. Crazy people aren’t really human.

When I looked at my peers, I knew that many of them had sick brains. I knew people with severe OCD, anxiety, depression, bipolar, addiction. I saw that although many of us struggled, we were not allowed to call it mental illness. These two words put together were the ultimate shaming, worse than being called fat or stupid. I knew that something was wrong with my brain, and there was no way in hell I was going to tell anyone. As a child, I compulsively checked to see if my stuffed animals “could breathe,” and often woke in the middle of the night in a sweat-soaked panic, jumped out of bed, and checked each one of the stuffed toys’ noses in the huge bag swinging from the corner of my room. I picked the same scab for two years. In high school, I began hiding my alarm clock at night, just in case it was actually a bomb that would explode my entire family. After I saw Nightmare on Elm Street, I had such a traumatic response that I didn’t sleep for more than a few hours at a time during the next seven days. I cried all the time.

In my senior year, I was hospitalized for depression and anxiety. For one week, I lived with mental illness as a reality like a chair, a cup of coffee, a hand in your hand. It was given dimensions, shape, clarity, and faces. I was given a small oblong blue pill and, the next day, woke up and noticed the color of the leaves on the trees outside, the ones that lined the outdoor space we were given to play — the space which had actual swings, since most of us really were still children. Every single twenty-minute outside time, I swung, only this time — the time after the oblong blue pill — I noticed the leaves. I felt the wind bracing and cold against my chest, in my eyes, stinging until tears rolled down my cheeks. I am very sick, I realized. I could not feel my own body, and now I can. I ran my fingers over the tears. I am mentally ill, I whispered to myself. I am crazy.

Back home, I started an experiment. Every time a person would start joking about how someone was “mental,” I’d say, “I have severe anxiety and depression. It sucks, but I’m still a person.” It doesn’t seem like you’d need to explain that you are still a human being.

When I wrote this memoir about my husband’s bipolar [disorder], I kept thinking about the words mentally ill, and how my editor might want it to be used. I worried they would be splashed across the cover to draw attention. I still don’t know what the words mentally ill really mean, despite the fact that my family is rife with it, I myself have a helping, and my husband has Bipolar 1 disorder. The word mental is associated with our very being — I myself have the idea that people are comprised of something undefinable — the soul, we call it — and the brain. If our brains are ill, we can’t deny that this is a more destructive force to relationships than say, diabetes. Diabetes can affect your cognitive ability, but it doesn’t make your brain repeat the same words over and over so that your entire being is wrapped up in repressing yourself from blurting them out, it doesn’t compel you to self-harm or shut your door against other human beings for days on end. And yet —

— if a person has cancer, and they are ravaged by the disease, they are dying, lying in bed unable to move or speak, we still would not say: “Maggie is cancer.” Most essays I read by the loved ones of a person with cancer furiously dictate that we are not to think of this person as their disease, no matter how incapacitated this person is. Remember that she is not this disease, they say, or the disease truly does win.

What is worse than death to many human beings is the idea of the death of their identity and the meaning of their life to those who love them. People with mental illness face this deconstruction every day.

It’s easy to scoff at the meticulous cultivation of labeling in our society now; I have scoffed. Being on the receiving end of a label can be like having your eyes blacked out in a photo — you are still there, but not really. The most important part of you has a door shut in front of it. The way other people perceive us is already out of our control to such a large degree that labels can feel like a death knoll — the ringing out that you will never be truly seen as you are. When I wrote my memoir, I cringed every time I wrote out “bipolar”; not because I have any issue with the word — I am a writer, I love words and definitions — but that I felt I might be fighting against my own purposes. In illuminating the story of our marriage and my husband’s diagnosis, I was attempting to put faces on the disorder; but in using the correct vocabulary, I hoped I was not erasing the words as I wrote them.

If we write, “He is crazy,” do we understand the power of that “is,” that defining, annihilating, dehumanizing, period end of sentence end-all-be-all everythingness of that “is”? I picture those hilarious cat memes, where the English is terrible. “I iz nawt crazee,” mine would read. “I haz some crazee.”

maggie may ethridgeBio: Maggie May Ethridge is a writer and poet living in San Diego, CA. Her first published book, Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From A Marriage, released this month with Shebooks and can be bought for $2.99 at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. She is completing her novel, Agitate My Heart, and has been published in magazines such as Diagram, The Nervous Breakdown, Opium, The Huffington Post, and Equals Record. She blogs at Flux Capacitor.

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  • I think about that “is” a lot, about the power of labels, when applying them to ourselves or when applying them to others. Thank you for sharing your story. There is so much love + wisdom in it and it reminds me to look past the labels, to the heart, when I forget.

    (There was schizophrenia in my family and your story made me realize that we never said, “He was schizophrenic” but “He had ..” and it made sense to me that a brain could become sick too.)

  • As someone with bipolar, anxiety and depression I relate to this so much. I’ve bought the book and look forward to reading it 🙂