The famous defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, when admonished by a judge for using profanity replied: “Forgive me, your Honor, but I don’t swear just for the hell of it. But there are so damn few words everybody understands these days.”
Mental illnesses/brain disorders are the most complex diseases known to man. They strike not just the body but the soul. There are often no words to adequately define or measure the pain and despair they bring.
The terms mental illness, or depression, or schizophrenia are too nice, they’re too kind. The only word in the English language that I can think of to define these terrible diseases is the word hell, the absence of God’s grace.
It’s difficult to find a common vocabulary or language about mental illness that everyone can use so that we can try to help ourselves or others through this painful maze, so we need to get on the same page, definition-wise.
One of the first places to start is by learning that words or phrases used by people who have battled mental illness may not have the same meaning for someone who hasn’t personally struggled.
For example, asylum doesn’t always mean “a place of safety or refuge.” To some of us it means “a depository for undesirables.” Commitment isn’t a pledge or promise. To us it means “a forced medical treatment or living situation.” The word belonging to many of us means “the temporary postponement of certain exile.” Evaluation means a personality vivisection with a dull spoon, or in other words, “no turn left unstoned.”
Whole phrases have different meanings, too. “Let’s try and have a good time” really means: “We’re all miserable but no one wants to say it out loud.” “This won’t hurt a bit” actually means: It’s gonna hurt like hell.” Sometimes lies are more reliable than the truth.
Words that are just words to most people, take on a terrible power to us: mental ward, straitjacket, electroshock, Thorazine, sterilization, lobotomy, four-point restraint, isolation room. There is a paranoia that many of us have, and it needs to be understood that there is a perfectly good reason for this caution. It is still within living memory of people reading this article that we were locked away by our legislators, abandoned by our families, buried in the backyard by our state institutions, sterilized, lobotomized, and in some cases euthanized by our doctors and if we took our own lives in despair, denied burial in holy ground by our churches. You are not paranoid if everyone really does hate you. That’s why sometimes we are touchy about certain words or phrases or situations.
We need to find new words. Depression has lost it’s power and meaning by being used as both the name of a terrible disease and as an emotion. It’s like saying, “Gee, Bob, I really feel cancerous today!”
The word consumer also needs to be replaced. How did we ever get saddled with that misnomer? Everyone, please, come up with a new word and send it to Access Press.
We need to use some old words in a new way, and either take away their power or give them back their strength. Some are silly words loony, crazy, psycho, wacko words that we should take all the power from so that no adolescent will ever run home crying because of a name he was teased with.
There are many that believe that we should not use the words mental illness at all that the term biochemical brain disorders is more accurate, and will shift public opinion away from the image of someone who is mentally and morally weak. I have felt this way, too, but see both sides.
Mentally ill has been a name, a description, a weapon used in the past to label and hurt me. What I’m trying to do now is to reclaim those words. To use them, not with anger or pride, but with honesty that this is part of what makes me who I am, what I’ve gone through. To take away it’s shaming power so it can never be used to ever hurt me again.
Talking openly and honestly about the illness, and how it has impacted us personally, is what will make the difference. When we use the words, and tell our stories, and risk social disrepute and financial hardship and all the potential hazards that breaking stigma brings, that’s what will open people’s minds and hearts, and that’s what will change the world.