The language of Madness

I’ve been conscious for a while now that abelist language is a thing, and that how we talk about various forms of disability, and how we use it as metaphor needs keeping an eye on. As a person with mental health issues, how should I talk about madness?

It is important to me to talk about it. I don’t feel at ease with more clinical language, I want to talk experientially and about feelings. I think if I want to describe myself as having been ‘bat shit crazy’ then that’s ok. There’s issues about reclaiming words and undermining them as insults.

It’s difficult at the moment because cognitive dissonance is everywhere, and there seem to be a lot of people who would rather, for example, contrive complex conspiracy theories about how someone has made a hurricane happen rather than deal with the issue of climate change. What do we call that aside from madness? In psychological terms, the line between sane and not sane is all about functionality. I see so many people who are so in denial about environmental issues, that they are not functional. It might even be technically accurate to refer to this as insanity.

We’re collectively quick in the wake of a mass killing to talk about the killer’s mental health problems (when we’re talking about a white guy). The major problem with this is that it can lead to the impression that mentally ill people are dangerous. In practice, most of us pose no risk to anyone but ourselves. The trouble is that not all forms of madness are created equally.

I’m conscious that there are many Pagan practices which, in their ecstatic and dramatic extremes, take a person out of consensus reality and into something the consensus considers insane – hearing and seeing that which others do not, knowing things from this experience… conversations about shamanism especially, and madness have been going on for some time.

I’m also conscious of the madness of creativity. Again, it’s an ecstatic form, wild, deranged, visionary, extreme, profoundly dysfunctional and potentially life wrecking, but also able to think otherwise unthinkable things and bring beauty into the world. The risk of talking about this in terms of madness is that we romanticise and make attractive the kinds of experiences that can also kill people.

Along the way I’ve known a number of people whose relationship with reality has, by anyone’s standard, broken down dramatically at some point. In some cultures, this would have made them holy, important, their experiences re-framed as something significant to their community. Even in Christian history we see space, historically, for the holy fool, the mad mystic. When did we collectively decide that madness was a shameful thing that should be locked away, hidden from sight and never spoken of? And more recently, medicated out of sight? I know that the vast majority of low level mental health issues – depression and anxiety – are caused by our workplaces and other stressors like poverty and insecurity. We are to tidy it up and hide it away and not deal with the sick systems creating it.

Madness takes many forms. Some of its forms are so hideous and destructive that there’s nothing we can currently do except institutionalise the sufferers. Some years ago I knew someone who worked in that kind of environment. We’re still hiding the worst of it under the social rug, and most of us have no idea what goes on. Changing what we call it can just be a new way of hiding it from ourselves.

I can’t find any easy edges around when and how we should be talking about madness, and when we shouldn’t use that kind of language, because so much of what I see around me is itself insane. I think we need to be more willing to talk about the madness inherent in the system. Madness is not just something that happens to you, it can be the direct consequence of a deliberate choice not to deal with reality. Say and for example, by being in denial about what all the violent weather might possibly mean.


About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

3 responses to “The language of Madness

  • Ryan

    I think with language about mental health, it is important to speak about your own experience, but be careful describing anyone else’s. So, you could describe yourself as “batshit crazy” but not use that to describe someone you don’t know *very* well. It’s kind of like how LGBT culture has reclaimed terms like “queer” within the community but that doesn’t mean it’s OK for anyone else to use it. Does that make sense?

    I’d also be very cautious about describing something like climate change denial as “madness”. It isn’t that these people are mentally ill, it’s that they are either being misled by propaganda, or else that they deliberately and wilfully lying to suit a political agenda. Saying they are mad lets them off the hook too easily.

    I really hope that doesn’t come off as mansplaining (or sane-splaining I guess). I have mental health issues too and struggle with knowing what to say most of the time too.

    • Nimue Brown

      I was wondering in the same lines on the language front. On the madness climate change front, it’s about madness as a process – I ahve explored it a bit before looking at the way politics and some parts of the media are effectively gaslighting people – the deliberate process of driving someone mad by misinformation and distortion of what’s real and true. So in that sense, I think there’s a case to be made, but I skated over what’s a much more complex sort of issue.

  • anderskants

    I’ve often struggled with describing my mental illness, the only words that would come to mind are “crazy” and “fucking mental” it took me a long time to describe it properly but when I did I got the help I needed. Oh and funilly enough I know exactly what you mean when it comes to meds and creativity. Off my meds I constantly draw and write (not very well) but on them my mind is calmer and easier to deal with but I lose my imagination, which is a crappy trade off, but the only way I can function. Awesome post! Really got me thinking.

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