The same goes with "starving." How often do you use those words, Readers?
The thing is, if I had said that sitting through some law school thing or other was "rape," there is an entire community that would come out to condemn me. They would call me insensitive, they would call me out for continuing the rape culture, and they would be right. But where are those who demand we stop using "torture" flippantly? Where are those who cry against the devaluing and diminishment of the power of that word? Is it because torture survivors have not yet been able to unite and form political and social movements? Is it because we aren't afraid that a torture survivor might hear us and thus be triggered by the word? These last two are pretty morally repugnant reasons to continue using a word though, don't you think?
I try to be as mindful as I can be about the words I use, and respectful as I can be about the way those words are perceived and used. Words are powerful. They matter. Their meanings (which, as a good post-structuralist, I know are not all the same to everyone) matter. I've read an awful lot of theory, and I once wrote in a poem, "We pick up cups by their verbal handles / And know to drink from them." I would never claim that words can be divorced from their histories, their pasts; if we want to use a word, we must own a sordid past, embrace it, use it for a reason. And a reason that is not "ironic": if anyone claims they are using a hateful word ironically, they have failed at both irony and truly accepting the power and baggage and hurt that a word can bring.
I continue to use the word, "crazy."
I suffer from bipolar disorder. My mother has borderline personality disorder, and I have a written before about what fun THAT was growing up. But the only thing I first understood both of us to be, was "crazy." When I was 13, the only way I could keep myself from going insane was reminding myself over and over that my mother was crazy. Because if she wasn't crazy, then I was. And I couldn't even contemplate that. When I had my first deep depression at 14, the only way I could comprehend it, without medical terms, without therapy, just on my own, a skinny, lonely kid in her room crying and cutting herself to shreds, was "crazy."
It may be hard to remember, but not a long time ago, not everyone was considered to be showing symptoms of "mental illness," we weren't passing out Ritalin like candy, and individuals weren't self-diagnosing with a shocking fluency in mood disorders picked up from just turning on the television. When I was a kid, we didn't know what these things were. We didn't know anyone on meds, we didn't even know what ADD was. Prozac wasn't around, there wasn't the push from the pharmaceutical companies to proclaim that every minor twinge of sadness and setback was a mental illness to be fixed by chemicals. By and large we've accepted this culture now, but there was a time we fought it.
When I first understood there was something every wrong with me, when I understood the chemicals in my brain were really not amenable to being controlled, or a stern talking to, or would listen to my pleading, I embraced the word "crazy." And I embraced it because it DOES have so very many meanings - anyone different, anyone on the margins, is "crazy." The things I do now, like be outspoken about sexuality or sleep around, or god forbid sleep with other women, would have put me in an insane asylum a hundred years ago. Young women who were considered "uncontrollable" and not correctly performing their feminine gender could be locked away. They were "crazy." People who challenged the norms, people who did not fit, all bore the dismissive title of crazy. Being called crazy is the ridicule stage of Gandhi's "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."
I am not belittling mental illnesses. Believe me, from my deepest, darkest depression, or where my mania has reached its anxious fevered state, I would never do that. But the word "crazy" has never been merely confined to those who had brains with wonky chemistry; it was also leveled at people who started revolutions, agitated for change, wanted freedoms that were not yet their own.
And some of us, even with our mental illnesses, understood that the way society was changing to embrace mental illness was one in which the the pharmaceutical companies flourished, and we were all less than perfect and flawed. And how happiness was being defined was more consumer culture, more ascribing to gender roles, more following the fundamentally sick "American dream." Radiohead's Ok Computer came out in 1998, and "Fitter Happier" made me all the gladder I was happily identified as "crazy."
There was an Adbusters magazine, too, that came out in 2004 or 2005, I can't remember, that offered, hey - maybe we're not crazy. Maybe the country, our society, our culture is ill. And because our society is so ill (think what was happening in the country those years, people) the only way to BE is "crazy." And so crazy I have been all these years.
I do not like telling people I have bipolar disorder. I do not explain my mother as having borderline personality disorder. These feel too inorganic to me; they do not explain my experiences, my feelings. I stick with crazy. All the meanings, the baggage, the history of that word - it fits her. It fits me. And while the word has different meanings when I say it for both of us, I am ok with that. Crazy has never only fit one kind of people. And it has come to mean so many things now - risk-takers, spontaneous decision- makers, hilariously funny people, even FORCES OF NATURE. It sits on me comfortably, and I like it's broad scope - it manages to capture an awful lot of Gayle, and there is an awful lot to Gayle.
I understand that there are many people who consider it "ablist" to refer to other people or things or events as "crazy," and I understand the reasoning. I understand the reaction. There is a terrible history of how people with mental illnesses have been treated and dismissed, and I can understand the aversion to the word. But at some point, your needing to be comfortable with the words I use does not trump my ability to define myself and my world. At one point do your feelings end, and my feelings begin? I understand my bipolar disorder as crazy, I understand myself as crazy - and who is anyone to decide that is "ablist"? We have come to the margins of sensitivity and mindfulness in words and usage, and they are a lot squidgier I think then most people are willing to concede.
This obviously doesn't apply to words I will never use, because I cannot own the history, truly understand them, ever take them as mine. I do not say the word "retarded" - I have taught medically-diagnosed-as-"retarded" children, and their lives are unimaginably hard. I do not say "lame," because that isn't something I can own - riffing off of people with physical disabilities seems so unkind, especially as every day I take the metro and see the signs about elevator outages and other metro breakdowns and wonder how the FUCK do those with physical disabilities manage? I actually don't use the word "bitch," anymore, because I do not think I can own the misogyny, and I think it is still carries all that misogyny, used as an epithet against women, or against men who need to be put down because they are acting too much like a woman. And there are words I cannot use as a white person, too, and I try to remember to refer to myself as "broke" instead of "poor," and so on.
But at some point, it begins to grate on me. I feel like I am being treated as if I am overly precious, overly sensitive. Amanda Marcotte has written about feeling condescended to by those who insist she shouldn't have to hear the word, "rape," and sometimes, I feel this way too. Not with "rape," maybe, for me, but certainly with other things. I know we want to be sensitive to listeners around us, but what about when those listeners are justifiably annoyed by your assuming their sensitivity? We don't assume every woman responds to being raped the same way. And so we shouldn't assume every woman will respond to the word "rape," in the same way. And while I don't use it, because I'd rather be sensitive than trigger someone, what about when someone uses that very word to define themselves? What if they cannot explain their lived experience without the very word that is supposed to be oppressing them?
There was a "Dear Imprudence" column written by S.E. Smith over at FWD, and it was about pressuring people to resume family relationships. I wrote a comment to the column, and the comment was this:
The comment never went through. I was confused. I emailed S.E. Smith asking why, which I know it kind of an obnoxious move, but I was genuinely concerned I had maybe done something incredibly offensive. She very kindly emailed me back, saying that, "It wasn't allowed through moderation was because it seemed like you were identifying your mother's BPD as the cause for her behaviour--if you had just said 'as the child of an abusive parent,' that would have been fine. At FWD, we prefer not to ascribe behaviour to disabilities--as an autistic person, for example, I don't blame my behaviours on my autism--and we also prefer not to disclose medical details about other people."'Oh, suuuuch good advice. Thank you, Abby. As a lady with a mother with borderline personality disorder, it makes me so distraught every time someone suggests I need to forgive my mother or just get over it or I will “regret” having cut her out of my life or all I need to do is be more loving and accepting or WHATEVER it is. It is hurtful to someone who has been victimized by a family member over your entire life, even as a child, to be told it is your fault for not making things right.
Also, I am guessing Abby read between the lines, and maybe knew the grandmother was either minimizing or didn’t know about the mother’s treatment of the daughter over a very long period of time leading up to the one incident she recounts. It’s rarely just one incident that makes one cut off a family member; it was just that that one incident was the last straw.'
This made me fucking mad.*
First of all, if we're not going to disclose medical details about my mother, CAN I JUST CALL HER CRAZY? I bet that won't do. But I was being exact - I didn't have an "abusive" parent, I had a "crazy" parent. Who, I mean, was also abusive, but it is a very specific experience, being the child of a borderline parent. Some Readers here know this. But using the word, "abusive," doesn't explain my experience - it is too blunt a word, sounds like I may have merely been beaten, can mean any number of things, EXCEPT what I felt I actually went through.
And second, you don't ascribe people's behaviors to their disabilities? Really? Also, HOW? Because, ok, yeah, I can make choices, but I have a permanently fucked wrist, on which I have had several surgeries. Sometimes, when I can't do things, I blame it on my fucking wrist. Because it isn't a lack of will that made me unable to do whatever it is. Further, you know the only reason I can get through a depression? Because I DO NOT TAKE RESPONSIBILITY OR BLAME MYSELF FOR IT. I blame my disease. I blame the chemicals in my brain. No fucking amount of personal will will get me out of a depression, I can tell you, I have tried. And so walking around and being sad and cranky, I try not to feel bad for, as if it were a personal failing, because feeling bad about feeling bad and beating yourself up for your inability to fix that is not so helpful.
Now, if I'm mean to someone while depressed, do I need to own that? Sure. But there are plenty of times when I am being mean or cranky where I know I am being mean or cranky and I CANNOT STOP IT. It's like watching two trains about to collide. Ask me about my hypoglycemia sometime, or anyone else who has it for that matter, and they will explain what it feels like being one of those trains but unable to hit the breaks in time when their sugar has crashed.
And finally, if I didn't blame my mother's actions and her treatment of me on her mental illness, then I would have to assume she is the meanest person ever, or just plain evil. The only reason I have managed to deal with my mother at all, on any functional level, is because I understand that she operates as she does because of her mental illness. So I have more patience with her, I don't argue with her, I don't try to win with her, because there is no way to win with a person with borderline. I have achieved a not easy, hard-fought truce in my relations with her, and it is because I know how her illness operates. And I know it makes her unable to show love in any rational, acceptable manner, and so I have stopped being hurt all the time, hoping that someday I will get the mother I'd always wanted but never had.
Essentially, at FWD, I couldn't use the words I needed to define myself or my experience. I don't read there anymore. [EDITING to make clearer: I am not accusing FWD of policing people's self-identification. The blog has consistently defended the right for a person to self-identify in whatever manner they feel comfortable. This was only meant to address my feelings about not being able to use language in regards to my experience in some spaces in general, and my comment not being posted at FWD in specific].
What I am saying is: there are things I will not tolerate here at Unnatural Forces. Fat-shaming, racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, the usual suspects, you get the idea. There are words you cannot use. But I also know I walk a fine line between trying to make everyone feel included, and taking away someone's ability to define themselves or their experiences. If you don't feel safe here because I use the word "crazy," I understand that. But I don't want anyone to think I am using the word flippantly. I have thought about it a lot, and I use the word consciously. I am "crazy."
* Editing to add: what made me mad is feeling erased, not the blog policy. FWD and all other blogs can follow whatever comment policy they like - this never bothers me. Delineating "safe spaces" and policing to keep the space safe is fine. I was upset because I felt like the fear that an imaginary person may potentially be offended trumped my ability to define my experience for myself. Having words taken out of your mouth is always a bad feeling. I think FWD is an awesome site; it's just not for me.