Earlier this year, in April, I had the good fortune of being interviewed by Dese'Rae for Live Through This. It was amazingly healing to journey through an experience I do not often speak about. During our meeting, we took a detour and talked about language, the ways we claim it, reject it, and shift its meaning. Afterwards, I wanted to think more about the intentional and unintentional ways we choose our words. This blog post attempts to continue the process by narrowing the lens on words in order to revise the stigma of psychiatric disabilities: nouns, verbs, and adjectives, the very small units of sound.
We often use our words without consideration for what they mean. When I say what they mean, I’m talking about connotations: what do words mean beyond their definitions and the letters that craft them? What do words imply? What do they suggest?
What is most toxic about words is the ways they can oppress and unhinge us. They become the things we remember for years. The idiom “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me” got it all wrong. Words are verbs. They kick and cause damage. Depending on what is being said and to whom it is being said, words reinforce power dynamics. Most perversely, in their totalizing and marginalizing ways, words can silence us.
From a young age, I have always loved words, the way they felt on my tongue, the way they sounded when I spoke them aloud. As a professor and poet, I have become more aware of the impact of our words. My identities as a queer woman of color with a psychiatric disability make me especially cognizant of the meaning and impact of these units of sound. Just as feminism teaches us the dangers of using sexist phrases like, “stop acting like a girl,” or “you are such a bitch,” we also need to be mindful of phrases that are informed by ableism.
Ableism, similar to other systems of oppression like racism, sexism, and classism, is a form of oppression that positions people with disabilities as being worth less than a non-disabled individual. According to this framework, a disabled individual is read as being weak, inferior, and passive; they are less than. When we are thinking about psychiatric disabilities, ableism teaches us that saying phrases like, “that’s so insane,” “a crazy thing happened yesterday,” or “are you psycho?” is commonplace. These words are said jokingly, as insults, or without thought.
Full disclosure: I am guilty of this. I too often find myself saying “crazy” or “insane” for emphasis: “That’s so crazy,” has come out of my mouth more times than I care to say. Its definition, according to dominant culture, has entered into my lexicon and it is something I am trying to stop. The fact that I am finding it is a hard habit to break speaks to the subtle persistence of ableism, or the fiction that the non-disabled body and mind are normal while all else is out of the ordinary.
Just as much as I believe in the power of words, I believe that the words we use to name ourselves are just as important as the words we use to name others. I started to think more about this when I began claiming my manic depression as a psychiatric disability. I started to identify myself as disabled because I believe it is powerful to politicize our identities. I use the language “psychiatric disability” as opposed to “mental illness” because “illness” connotes a defect. To me, "mental illness" also suggests that we are constantly and perpetually mad and unstable. It suggests that our depression, our disassociation, our psychosis, whatever our “it” is, never ceases, backs off, or improves. Under this framework we are always in a chronic state of madness.
I know that this myth of consistency is not true for me. Like anyone else, I move through ranges. I have productive, happy, and successful days. I also have days where my depression makes me feel like I am struggling through mud. Because of these diverse experiences, I believe the labels “mental illness” or “mentally ill” are all too encompassing. Manic depression is only one part of my identity; it’s not the whole of me. Claiming psychiatric disability allows for the reality of ebbs and flows, the shifts that everyone experiences. It also refuses to play into dominant culture’s inaccurate belief that we are perpetually ill, damaged, and insane.
I am certain that there are many ways to undo the stigmas of psychiatric disabilities. For me, one tangible way of beginning this process is re-examining the words I use to name experiences and myself. I extend this process of exploration, this return to and unpacking of language, to you.
Shayda Kafai is a lecturer in the Ethnic and Women's Studies department at California Polytechnic University, Pomona. She received her Ph.D. in Cultural Studies from Claremont Graduate University and her dissertation focuses on the work of San Francisco Bay Area-based performance project Sins Invalid, a group that creates space for queer, gender non-conforming, disabled people of color. Shayda is dedicated to dispelling the ableist myths that forcefully craft our lives. She continues to teach and write about disability, sexuality, and gender in California.