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The language of madness
Consider this: madness, when defined as insanity, is used as a synonym for abnormality, absurdity, craziness, derangement, foolishness, hysteria, irrationality, lunacy, mental disorder, mental illness, neurosis, psychosis, stupidity, and unbalance, among others.
When, however, it is synonymous with euphoria, which is defined as extreme happiness, madness takes on the texture of bliss, ecstasy, exaltation, exhilaration, frenzy, glee, high spirits, intoxication, joyousness, jubilation, and rapture.
In the latter context, the opposite of madness becomes depression, despair, misery, sorrow, unhappiness and woe. And that is the shortest lesson one can give on the disposition of language and semantics as they parade in the literature of stigma and political correctness, begging the question, “When is madness derogatory?”
There is no straightforward answer, but I believe intent is a part of the offending element in our determination of the stigmatising use of words like lunacy and madness, madman and mad ’oman. It’d take a robust campaign to sensitise people sufficiently to the feelings and experiences of those affected by mental anguish of any order.
And then, to find that balance in a world where people covet freedom of expression is yet another plane in the challenge. One writer asks, “If we shun terms such as lunatic or madman, what terms should we use?” Some chose person-first language, such as “people with mental illness” avoiding terms such as “the mentally ill.” In my situation, I say that I am living with depression (and I’ve heard that conveyed as “she’s schizophrenic”).
In my community, I think I’m still spoken of as “mad” even though I’m certain I have not given anyone proof to support that supposition. People circumvent me, though, and I have to take readings from the sidebar conversations but I’ve long decided to use “shock treatment” if the assumed foolishness ever confronts me.
So, when a pre-teen felt sufficiently emboldened to question my sanity, my answer was swift and intended to bring her to realise her impudence. Her question, posed through another protégé, no less, elicited the following exchange. “Aunty Caroline, Amari (not her real name) want to know if yuh mad?” “Tell her yes. Me and she mother,” came my quick retort.
“Whaaaat? What she just say?” went Amari.
And I walked away with a grin, having delivered an answer which, if not powerful enough to stop any such effrontery, is guaranteed to take the conversation back home. The shrillness of her voice told me the extent of her alarm at the perceived vulgarity of my suggestion. The silence that followed and the shortened life of the hopscotch game in the road outside my garden also gave me the belief that her impoliteness had been recognised.
My “madness” would return to her breakfast table or, at least, silence the tongue of childishness. I’m good—or bad. Depending on which side of the fence you’re playing hopscotch with my state of mind. And on that matter, unless you’re cognisant of the abuse and stigma associated with mental illness you may well unintentionally find yourself boxed into an uncomfortable corner.
Most ways of designating mental illness and other disabilities are so fraught with negative implications that writers often justify their choices, writes the Rev Michael A Tanner in a theology paper examining the madness of Kings Saul and Nebuchadnezzar, well-known biblical rulers. “Every choice of terminology has shortcomings,” Tanner continues, “and many inevitably reflect the stigma of mental illness.
“In a world that has long stigmatised, excluded, and dehumanised people with mental illness, such sensitivity to terminology is not an exercise in political correctness, but a reflection of the struggle for freedom from stigma and recognition and respect as human beings, each, like all, uniquely limited and uniquely capable.” For that reason, the Mad Pride approach interests me.
As a global movement to embrace madness, Mad Pride Toronto’s Web site says just as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning) communities are reclaiming the word queer, Mad Pride activists seek to reclaim language that has been used against us such as mad, nutter, crazy, lunatic, maniac, and psycho. “Reclaiming language is political and challenges discrimination. Mad Pride participants use and refuse a variety of labels. We choose ‘mad’ as an umbrella term.”
The Web site madprideto.com says its agenda is to:
• celebrate mad identities, communities, and cultures including our individual and collective strengths
• confront the shame we are made to feel about our psychiatric histories and experiences of madness
• resist the oppression we encounter within aspects of psychiatric/mental health systems and society
• remind us and others that as mad people we have rights to be ourselves—just like everyone else
Mad Pride is celebrated annually on July 14, International Mad Pride Day.
But when I excitedly declared my interest in starting Mad Pride T&T, in disbelief my extremely supportive sister-friend blurted out: “You crazy or what? Is now self people would say you’re mad!”
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