October 08


Crazy is a Four-Letter Word

Mood: cracked.

WE’VE ALL HEARD THE WORD “crazy” used as an insult (mostly toward women—men tend to get labeled “creepy,” but that’s another issue). Usually when people are called crazy, it doesn’t have anything to do with their mental health, but rather a discomfort with emotional reactions that others don’t understand or that don’t suit their needs. “Man, that bitch is crazy; she cries all the time.”


Maybe she cries all the time because you’re an asshole. Telling people they’re over-reacting or are over-sensitive serves the same purpose as calling someone crazy—it derides emotional reactions as irrational. Being logical and level-headed is considered to be the “correct” way to deal with problems, but I can tell you that life without emotions can be pretty meaningless and boring.


It is essential for your mental health to be able to feel whatever kind of emotion you need to feel. There is no right or wrong way to feel about something, and nobody has the right to control how you feel. But when you’re constantly being labelled as crazy any time you’re sad or disappointed or excited, you start to rely on other people to tell you how you’re supposed to feel. If a woman is upset because her boyfriend doesn’t come home until 3AM without calling, he may call her clingy and crazy. This is a way of controlling her emotions until she learns that she’s not supposed to be upset about that behavior, and that is abusive. We need to stop using the word “crazy” to dismiss other people’s emotions.


This is not to say that some reactions aren’t actually irrational (I’m afraid of anything sticky getting on my skin) or that you can’t over-react to something (I recently threw a three-year-old-style tantrum because Mandy wouldn’t let me eat an entire pan of brownies at one time). But we all survived these emotional breakdowns, had a few laughs, and nobody needed to call me crazy.


“The true opposite of depression is not gaiety or absence of pain, but vitality: the freedom to experience spontaneous feelings.” –Alice Miller (The Drama of the Gifted Child)


The other side of this crazy coin is when people with mental illnesses are dismissed as being “crazy” instead of offered help. Using crazy in this context not only stigmatizes mental health issues, but it invalidates them. I just recently told my wife—who was experiencing a depressive episode and was feeling very alone—that she needed to “stop acting so crazy. You’re not alone!” As soon as those words came out of my mouth, I knew how damaging they were. I know what depression is. I know that re-wirings and mis-firings in the brain can lead to all kinds of emotional turmoil, but I also know that there isn’t a whole lot I can do in a moment of acute psychological distress. It was easier for me to dismiss her behavior as irrational and crazy—as if she could just get over it—instead of acknowledging our helplessness at that time.


In my own struggles with mental illness, I’ve been told that I’m being dramatic, looking for attention, that I can just get over it. This is probably partially a form of denial because it’s so painful to really face what mental illness can do to a person, but mostly I think it’s just lack of awareness of what mental illness really is. Even us neuroscientists don’t really understand the brain that well, and when we don’t understand something, we just make shit up (e.g Aristotle thought the heart was the organ of emotion and intellect, and the brain was just there to cool it off). I hope someday we’ll recognize the physical role the brain plays in regulating emotion and behavior, and instead of dismissing someone’s emotions as crazy, let’s try to understand one another and ask why we might be feeling this way.