“Crazy,” the spiky-haired boy whispered after he’d rubbed his greasy forehead against my blossoming breasts. He and his friends snickered as they ran off. Stunned with fear, I could barely move as my classmates squeezed past me in the bustling hallways of a hellish middle school.
I’d earned this label, and apparently the sexual harassment as a bonus gift, because I’d confided in a friend that I had obsessive-compulsive disorder and was in treatment. An ultra-religious type who was angered that I’d narrowly escaped joining his cult, this “friend” was quick to spread the word far and wide that I was “crazy.”
Ever since then, the label followed me, stuck to me like toilet paper on my shoe. Sometimes, it was completely unfounded, as when I called out a boy for cheating on me in the middle of a crowded bar. While all the women were on my side, I heard the whispers of “crazy bitch” from the men.
Sometimes, it was justifiable but cruel, as when my depression reached critical levels as I mourned a rough breakup and my roommate told me matter-of-factly that she thought I was “difficult to deal with” and “unstable.”
Sometimes, it was torturous, as when my abusive ex-boyfriend manufactured crazy situations then held me responsible for them.
Throughout my twenties, I was repeatedly misdiagnosed and mis-medicated, and my poor mental health not only held me back from achieving things, it also shoved me into situations where I was bound to act “crazy.” As my low self-esteem drew narcissists, my depression worsened. As my mood swings attracted drama queens, my anxiety worsened. As my OCD drew sociopaths, my compulsions worsened. My disease became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In college, I gave a presentation on the words we toss around: “OCD.” “Bipolar.” “PTSD.” Heads nodded in agreement as I passionately argued that we shouldn’t use these terms to describe individual quirks or annoyances because it makes it harder for people with those conditions to be taken seriously. On paper, people agree with that.
And yet, it’s become fashionable to be “crazy.” I regular see memes extolling the power of “owning your crazy.” Even some of my favorite people will half-jokingly muse that they have PTSD or OCD, or laugh that they’re having a “bipolar day.” One time, a friend of a friend became defensive when I advised her that “OCD” doesn’t mean you like to have your closet arranged by color. “People who actually have OCD don’t call it that,” she insisted. “They call it ‘obsessive-compulsive disorder.’”
No. No, OCD doesn’t take away our ability to abbreviate.
As I feared, when people are actually faced with someone with mental illness, they get upset and fearful when the person doesn’t match the cute idea of “crazy” they have in their head. It’s fun to say that we all have sexy bipolar or adorable OCD. It’s not fun to see it in action.
I get it. Seeing someone actually have a panic attack or depressive spell is upsetting. Unfortunately, once that happens in front of someone, it permanently changes their perception of you. You’re forever crazy in their mind.
And, I get it. Owning your crazy seems like a fuck-you to the machine, a reclaiming of our agency from a healthcare system that institutionalizes us first and asks questions later. But I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we normalized mental illness in a different way.
Instead of asserting that everyone’s a little crazy, what if we worked on developing support systems for people whose “OCD” keeps them from leaving the house, rather than describing our KonMari practices that way?
Instead of using OCD and PTSD as punchlines, what if we used our jokes to satirize a corrupt and abusive medical system that disbelieves pain and mismanages symptoms?
Instead of advising everyone to do yoga and eat kale to beat mental illness, what if we acknowledged that some people need medication to resolve their symptoms and encouraged everyone to take the path that’s best for them.
If we did these things, it would no longer be cute to be mentally ill. But it also wouldn’t be the end of the world — and that’s where we need to be.