Madness and language

For some years now I’ve been exploring my own language use to try and weed out inadvertent abelism. For example, like a lot of people, I’d been in the habit of using blindness to refer to things people refuse to see, are willfully oblivious to, or are unable to recognise because of cultural and personal biases. This brought up all sorts of interesting things as well for how often I default to writing ‘see’ rather than a more inclusive ‘perceive’ or ‘experience’. I’m keen to tighten up my language use so as to be more precise, and to avoid abelism.

I’m trying to be more alert to the way in which language that criticises people for low intelligence or lack of education is used to attack people who make deliberately bad choices. One of the things this does aside from demeaning people with learning difficulties is to draw attention away from deliberateness.

Madness is proving to be a tricky one to figure out. As a person with ongoing mental health problems, the only time I find madness language offensive is when a white man kills people and the media jump straight in with ‘he must have mental health problems.’ There are certainly issues around using the language of madness to flag up disagreement. It’s much more effective to call out a person’s reasoning if that’s the actual problem. It’s also important to be careful with people whose thinking has been distorted by gaslighting – there’s a lot of that out there right now. People with poor critical thinking skills who have been extensively exposed to lies can end up with a really distorted sense of reality. It’s important to talk about what that is – calling them mad makes it sound like a personal issue, not a deliberate thing that’s been done to them.

The difficulty with madness is that there’s a glorious side to it. It’s been part of our literary traditions for a long time, and overlaps heavily with religious experience. I have been told that the difference between shamanism and madness is that the shaman goes deliberately and comes back at the time of their choosing. Some of us actively seek madness in substances, in extreme activities that bring on different states of consciousness, perhaps even in meditation. I knew someone once who drove himself clinically mad with excessive meditation practices.

Ecstatic experiences and insanity can be hard to tell apart. Inspiration, the fire in the head can feel like madness if it hits hard. To most people, belief in magic is itself madness. I find it problematic when other people use the language of madness to belittle spiritual experiences. The numinous is not rational.

I’m also aware that romanticising madness is really problematic. For many people experiencing mental health problems, the reality is hellish. Misery and the inability to act are more likely outcomes than literally or metaphorically being away with the fairies. The wild upswings of mania can seem fabulous while a person is experiencing them, but can prove life destroying. 

Madness is the state of not being engaged with consensus reality. We don’t really have a separate language for the people who have sought that deliberately. I am reminded of the bit in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell where a person seeking insight into fairy distills madness into the body of a mouse and then makes mouse water from the body, and drinks it. Choosing to drink the mousewater is a very different experience from falling apart organically, even if the look of it is similar.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. 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

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