Reclaiming ‘Crazy’

The word ‘crazy’ has the remarkable power to instantly render invalid whatever person, perspective, or practice it is applied to.

It suggests behavior that is illogical or irrational; that is so unpredictable as to defy the bounds of ‘normal’ human reason. It therefore invalidates through implicit othering — crazy people can not be reasoned with, their behaviors can be neither interpreted nor explained, their beliefs carry little more meaning than noise.

Perhaps this is why ‘crazy’ is typically used as a pejorative.

Yet, the beliefs and behaviors that are deemed to be ‘crazy’ change over time. They are continually interpreted and reinterpreted to fit the narratives of the day. Madness, in other words, is a social construct.

Foucault documents this in detail, pointing to stories of the mad, insane, and crazy that seem absurd to our modern sensibilities. Scientifically-defended theories of hard bile and hot blood, concerns over contagious epidemics of women’s ‘hysteria,’ illness interpreted as a failure of morality.

Again and again in the West, cognition and behavior have been interpreted through a narrow normative lens: anyone who thinks or acts outside this framework is taken to be crazy.

‘Crazy’ then, is perhaps better understood not as a property of a person, but as a property of society. To call something crazy is to place it outside the bounds of standard social norms, to say that it is too far out there to be reasoned with rationally. It is the intellectual equivalent of throwing up your hands and declaring there is nothing to be done — a reasonable person simply cannot engage with crazy.

Yet, its very nature as a social construct raises the question: who determines what is crazy? Creative works are full of stories of in which those deemed mad are perhaps the only reasonable ones. The French film King of Hearts, for example, contrasts the world created by asylum inmates with the brutal and senseless killing of World War I.

I find myself particularly drawn to the word ‘crazy’ because it is inexplicably gendered. It’s not quite as causal as the relationship between old and spry — but women are much more likely to be described as ‘crazy’ and the word has a long history of being used to discredit women and their experiences.

Given my description of ‘crazy’ above, this makes sense — if you can’t reason with someone who is crazy, if you can’t meaningfully interpret their words or actions, then you are free to dismiss their claims. There is simply nothing to be done. In this sense, the epithet intrinsically provides authority to the person using the word while diminishing the power of the person it’s applied to. It’s actually quite a brilliant tactical maneuver.

For this reason, many people prefer to avoid the word ‘crazy.’ There are other good reasons to avoid it, too — as you may have already inferred from the shaky language of this piece, ‘crazy’ has a deeply problematic tendency to casually lump together several different concepts. It dismisses mental health challenges, disparages neurodiversity, and glibly ostracizes any deviance from the supposed norm.

Yet — as someone who is ‘crazy’ along multiple of these dimensions — I find the word can give me power, too.

I wrote above that ‘crazy’ locates a person outside the bounds of the ‘norm.’ I think that’s true, but — I don’t find that the word itself places a normative judgement on that positioning. That is, we interpret ‘crazy’ to be bad because we implicitly assume that being outside the norm is bad. We accept that crazy people cannot be reasoned with because we implicitly assume that people who who are outside the norm cannot be reasoned with. We feel embarrassed or ashamed when labeled as ‘crazy’ because we implicitly assume that falling within the norm is good.

I reject those claims.

For one thing, I don’t really believe in ‘normal.’ We are all crazy. But more deeply — what we generally take to be ‘normal’ only refers to an idealistic conception of a small slice of humanity. Why should any of us fall over ourselves trying to fit into a norm that doesn’t exist?

I refuse to feel shame for who I am.

In that sense, I find being labeled crazy to be quite freeing, actually. Oh, you thought you could diminish me by saying that I exist outside the norm? Oh, no no no, my friend – this is where I thrive.

Being crazy means being free to discover and create yourself, it means not worrying about conforming to the norm, and it means not letting anyone dictate your truth for you.

To be clear, there are still plenty of other things to worry about. I hardly mean to suggest that nothing is true and everything is permitted. Rather, the types of things one ought to worry about — being good, compassionate, respectful — are very different from trying to be ‘normal’ or trying to fit someone else’s mold of who you should be.

And that, perhaps, is the best thing about accepting the mantel of crazy: it gives other people permission to be crazy, too. When we shy away from talking about mental health, when we assume a neurotypical view, when we accept ‘crazy’ as a personal fault, we implicitly reinforce the idea that these are somehow shameful or wrong.

Embracing and even showcasing those pieces of ourselves not only can be personally fulfilling, it implicitly sends the message: None of us should have to hide who we are.

So that is why I frequently choose to refer to myself as ‘crazy,’ why I tend to talk about my thoughts, actions, choices, and diagnoses with such levity. I cannot hide who I am, and more than that — I don’t want anyone else to do so either.

So, though it may defy all norms and reason, I will continue to describe myself with that word. I will continue to think my crazy thoughts, act on my crazy impulses, and aim to be the best person I can be with no regrets for the fact that person will never be ‘normal.’ And I will do my best to create spaces where others feel they can genuinely do the same. I feel no shame or hesitation in this commitment, it is simply who I am: a total crazy person.

Me.

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