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An Open Letter to Zoë Kessler About the Word “Crazy”…

Hi, Zoë ~

I just wanted to weigh-in on the word “crazy,” because for some reason in the lead of your excellent post Go Ahead – Call Me Crazy on your blog ADHD: From A to Zoë, you stated that I’m “down with the word ‘crazy’.”

I am not. Quite the opposite…

In 1998, Rona Maynard, then-editor of Chatelaine magazine asked me to write an autobiographical article about my psychiatric life. That article was published under the headline “Coming Out Crazy.” I absolutely loved it and eventually, I adopted it as my brand.

I’ve had two blogs called Coming Out Crazy ~ other than this one ~ and every time I speak, if it’s applicable, my presentation is called “Coming Out Crazy.”

I’ve “come out” to my classes and shown them this blog…

Because mental health advocacy is my passion, part of my community service, and I teach community service, I feel strongly that my students should know I don’t just “talk the talk.” We discuss the word, “crazy.”

Many of them think it’s a great word. For them it means “freedom” and “liberation.” Many of the words you use to describe the way you use the word “crazy.” No student has ever said a negative word about the word, “crazy” (though they may think differently) and they don’t ever seem terribly uncomfortable with it, either.

Words have different meanings at different times. Language is living, changing, growing, evolving, as you well know. Maybe “crazy” is losing its old potency for some of the reasons you cite. I wouldn’t be surprised.

“Everyone can be ‘crazy’ sometimes…”

Every time I say that in a speech, it gets a laugh. Maybe it’s nervous laughter. I don’t know. It’s part of the human condition.

I am very passionate about what I call “the language of respect” and I find the term “mentally ill,” as in “he is mentally ill,” far more offensive than when someone describes themselves or me as “crazy” ~ especially when it’s with a smile and a sense of humour.

Any name-calling, as you rightly assert, whether it’s food-related, as in “nuts” or “bananas,” or other words like “loony” or “mental” is derisive and hurtful. It’s not so much the word, itself, but the tone with which that word is spoken or hurled ~ and its context.

Tone is everything…

So I just want you to know that I love the word “crazy” and feel perfectly comfortable with it. It’s a wonderful word and I have loved it ever since I started using it for my speeches and as my brand in 1999, when that Chatelaine article first appeared ~ in the October 1999 issue.

Keep up the great work, Zoë. The more we focus on language and the power of words, the more sensitive, caring, empathetic and, I think, healthy a “community” ours will be. By “ours” I mean the whole global community. We think in words. We perceive in words. So to begin to break down negative stereotyping and unnecessary barriers, to end discrimination and prejudice and fear and ignorance, we must watch the words we use. And as you say, “reclaim” them. Make them our own. Diffuse their sting.

And be aware that the way words are spoken can turn them into daggers…

I detest diagnostic labels of all kinds, by the way, and I never say, “I’m manic-depressive” or “I’m bipolar” for several reasons, one of which is I’ve never been clinically depressed and if I were to take an antidepressive drug, it would make me manic. I am actually unipolar but I’m on the bipolar spectrum.

These terms mean many things, depending on the individual. Labels are for jars, not people. We’re all different therefore we cannot and should not be labeled anything by anyone, other than “human.”

In some cases, I suspect even that term is questionable, but that’s another story.

We are far more any any diagnosis…

I don’t know about you, but I am a woman, a sister, a daughter, a stepmother (now there’s a loaded-term), a friend, a writer, a blogger, a college professor, a volunteer, a niece, a dog owner ~ the list goes on and on.

If I had diabetes, I wouldn’t run around labelling myself “diabetic.” I might say I have diabetes. I might say I have cancer. I wouldn’t say I’m cancerous. Psychiatric or mental disorders are not contagious. Though at one time, they were thought to be.

I detest the word “the” as in “the mentally ill” or “the homeless.” People live with mental illnesses and people live on the street or couch surf or have no homes of their own. We’re all “people first” and “people-first” language is really important. I detest the word “disability,” too. You should see what Aimee Mullins has to say about that word.

The word “the” colours a whole group so all those people within that group seem “the same,” when we’re all different, even if we have the same diagnosis. Medicine has its limits, which is why I think it’s time we had a new model. A new way of looking at the whole area of mental and emotional health. As part of health in general. You cannot have physical health without mental health or vice versa. We are the whole package, as is our health.

There’s no succinct way to describe all of us with our personal emotional and/or psychiatric challenges and issues. But “mentally ill” doesn’t work for me. I’m not ill. I may be different. I may be “crazy” and off beat. But I function reasonably well. I’m learning resilience all the time. With every new challenge.

I prefer the terms “madness” or “mad’…

Those words more accurate, historically. In the United Kingdom, they doesn’t have the sting it has here. Words have such cultural baggage.

Those two words pre-date the terms “mentally-ill” and “mental illness.”

I should blog about this more often. I haven’t been feeling very good about myself lately, so I haven’t been able to approach the huge topic of linguistics, etymology and language in this sphere.

Your post really struck a nerve and I wanted to clarify my position on the word “crazy.” If you want to know the truth, this post began as a comment on your blog. But when it got so long, I decided to turn it into a post of my own.

I hope you don’t mind.

All the best, keep up the great work.

Hugs and stay healthy and warm,


Artist’s Credit: This watercolour by Toronto artist Nellie Jacobs is called “Crazy Lady.” I find it very beautiful.

An Open Letter to Zoë Kessler About the Word “Crazy”…

Sandy Naiman

Sandy Naiman is a Toronto freelance journalist.

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APA Reference
Naiman, S. (2019). An Open Letter to Zoë Kessler About the Word “Crazy”…. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 6, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Mar 2019
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