My wife and I have always been open about my bipolar disorder with our daughter. We’ve never hidden it, but we don’t sit around and talk about it much, either.
It’s just noted and accepted that I have a mental illness.
I’m working with a group at church on a project to make church a safer and more open place for people with severe mental illness. Another member of the congregation and I are working on language – words we should use, words we should avoid, ways to describe and explain mental illness.
I decided to ask my daughter about the way we talk about my bipolar disorder.
She’s nine and incredibly street smart. We live in the city and there’s a large group of girls on the block, from toddlers to teenagers. They all hang out together and they all talk. I’m sure our daughter is hearing things that contradict what we say in the house, and I’m sure she’s hearing about other kids’ experience with their parents, and talking about her own.
When I asked her about mental illness she very nonchalantly said it’s a disease and you take medicine. Nothing there to upset anybody or reinforce any stigma. Maybe for kids normailization is possible.
Then I asked her about bipolar disorder. She said, “when you don’t take your medicine you yell a lot and get angry.”
I had a brief moment of self-awareness. I wouldn’t say I get angry very often and I don’t think I yell a lot. But my daughter talks about “the voice,” that particular tone that dads share, and I guess a kid could hear that as yelling.
But the medicine comment hit me. I always take my medicine. Never miss a dose. My wife never says things like, “did you take your meds?” when I act difficult. That was coming from somewhere else. I didn’t ask her where she heard that, because I didn’t want to shut her down. I wanted to keep talking.
So I asked about crazy and insane.
She has a friend that calls her this every time she acts funny or does something unusual. Kids throw words around when they don’t know what they mean, but I have a sense that my daughter had an idea about what crazy and insane mean. I don’t think it’s good.
She didn’t want to talk about it. She dropped the entire conversation. She seemed a little upset, and that was that.
I’m a writer who spends much too much time pining over just the right word. Words have power, and the words we use are the primary tools we have as we form and express our identity. To keep control of words, especially derogatory words, is crucial to groups who want to be free of stereotypes, and it’s crucial to people who want to insult others and perpetuate stereotypes.
Insane has always bothered me. Crazy never did. In fact, I believe that people with mental illness should take back the word crazy the way other marginalized groups have claimed ownership of words meant to insult them. Crazy could be one of those words that we can use about ourselves, but no one else can.
I put both words together when I asked my daughter about them, so I’m not sure if they both, or if just one of them, bothered her. And I wasn’t going to find out.
She was finished. She was done talking. Maybe later I’ll find out if she’s hurt or embarrassed by one or both of those words, but I’m going to give it a little time. I note that I’ve never heard her use either of those words. Never.
So when I ask my daughter about mental illness and bipolar disorder she’s very matter of fact and unaffected. But insane and crazy, they’re troublesome. Maybe a kid is able to deal in specific, narrow categorizations but has trouble when concepts become more general. Or maybe those are charged words to a 9-year-old.
Words matter, and the project with the church has taken on new importance. We must let people define themselves with words that they choose. But as we define ourselves, we must be careful that the listener hears what we mean when we choose those words.
Specific and clinical words seem safe, although sterile. The words tossed around as insults on the playground are more problematic. Especially when a young girl with a dad with bipolar disorder doesn’t even want to talk about them.
George Hofmann’s new book Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis is available now.