Rethinking "Crazy"

A novelist reflects on the stigma of mental illness. 

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"We're aware of your history of mental illness," said the policewoman when I asked what they were planning to do about what happened to me. The policeman with her said nothing, and I said nothing because I was in shock.

What about my mental illness? I thought. But I already knew what about it: in that one sentence, I'd been reduced to Crazy. Which is to say, the police perhaps thought of me as someone not worthy of justice.

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It was a similar story with the detective whom I called afterward: he suggested I make an official complaint but added that it would be better for me to have legal counsel, considering. Considering? "There have been some mental-health issues brought to my attention," he said, sounding as if he had a piece of toffee stuck in his teeth.

I sat with the phone against my ear, frozen, trying to decide if I really, truly was insane. Maybe I imagined what had happened to me, like someone with untreated schizophrenia. I was not credible; the police — normal people — implied so. For a moment, I became completely unsure of my reality. I became Gregor Samsa from Metamorphosis, a man who turned into a cockroach and who for a short while believed he was human until it was proven otherwise.

"What's an official complaint?" I asked and started drawing furiously, the way I tend to when I'm very stressed. I was drawing a monster face on the inside cover of my son's comic book, going over the lines a dozen times till the face became a crater of knitted black ink.

I could make a video statement about the incident, Toffee-teeth said. The way he said it sounded like a warning instead of encouragement. The black mass of my nervous drawing grew larger; beside it some numbers and names — numbers to call if I decide to go ahead, names to ask for if I do.

A video statement.

We hung up.

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I never made the complaint. Better to hide under the bed like a cockroach. And it was no secret that I had a history of mental-health issues, because I've been writing about it, publicly, for years. I kept thinking how I should've just kept my Crazy to myself and act like everybody else, like the normal policewoman or the normal detective. Then maybe I'd get some normal help instead of a swat on my abnormal cockroach rump.

Why treat crazy people seriously? Crazy people make up stories and cause trouble. However many times I've been praised for being outspoken about mental illness, it took that one police incident to see how much better it would be to take it all back.

At the same time, Crazy is excused, too, from behaviors that might not be excusable in non-crazy.My ex-husband, who very much wanted to believe that I was a good person despite the fact that I behaved irrationally — for example, I drank to excess after I gave birth to my son — used to obsess over my medication. He wanted to believe that manipulating milligrams of Prozac could "cure" me; that talking to a social worker could fix my crying in my soup.

At the same time, Crazy is excused, too, from behaviors that might not be excusable in non-crazy.

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I so wanted to prove him right; I so wanted to be the real, normal me who I hoped lived underneath the chaos of thoughts and anxieties. I was a good person, but I was desperate to find the magic pill, the magic therapist. I was desperate to be normal for him. Alas, normal kept not happening, but I ended up making a career out of my Crazy, and for years now I've been cheerfully taking on certain labels that can be discriminated against: bipolar II (doubtful), addiction (for sure), and depression (yes), and writing about it. Most recently, I had a health column for the Canadian newspaper the Toronto Star where I talked about mental-health issues, often introducing the topic via my personal experience with them.

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There was certain defiance and thrill in writing about it so openly. Though, yes, there were many moments when I doubted myself, thinking, It will one day harm me to be so open. But the unwillingness to hide and be mum about my — and others' — problems overtook any reservations I had about being public about Crazy. In my most doubtful moments, I would remind myself that no one would be ashamed of writing about having diabetes, and both diabetes and mental illness are physically determined conditions; mental illness is not a moral failing; it's not evil.

So I continued waving the Crazy flag happily. I never realized so acutely until my run-in with the police what kind of dangerous niche I've inhabited. As Crazy, you are always under the magnifying glass of the non-crazy, who know how to live life better than you do.

As Crazy, you are always under the magnifying glass of the non-crazy, who know how to live life better than you do.

The past few months haven't been the easiest because I'm in the middle of a divorce. I've had people suggest I go and check myself in to the mental hospital to get some rest from all the stress that I'm going through: I've been crying a lot, I haven't been sleeping, eating is a chore — in other words, I'm suffering from "exhaustion" like a celebrity, minus the money and the fun drugs. I'm guessing everyone assumes I'd feel happy shuffling around on linoleum floors and swallowing pills from plastic cups because that's probably my natural environment, the psych ward (I've gone there once, for one night, years ago when I felt particularly low).

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I know a woman who agreed to be sent on that kind of vacation. She was stuffed with pills, given paper slippers, and taught how to make wicker baskets. After leaving the hospital, she had her baby taken away temporarily, and that was the last time she went to seek psychological help. So I would never go to the mental hospital for a respite from my troubles. I'm not dismissing mental-health professionals' trying to help people — I believe my current (and quite wonderful) therapist is hugely responsible for my not giving into my woes, but I still cringe occasionally when I admit to having a therapist because why would a person need one unless there was something really wrong?

I'm now cynical about being able to really reduce the stigma of mental illness. Sure, we will romanticize it when it comes to mad artists and tragic heroines — all the van Goghs, Plaths, Fitzgeralds — and we will make it less scary by talking about it. But it will never be diabetes. You will never hear from the police that they don't want to help you because you need to take insulin to survive. The best thing to do is to be normal. It's a strange call to make: to try to reverse something (Crazy) that I've been identifying with for so long, but I'm making it. Because, hey, if you're just normal, you'll never hear that there's something about you that nullifies your credibility and that makes it impossible for people to treat you with respect.                                              

It's a strange call to make: to try to reverse something (Crazy) that I've been identifying with for so long, but I'm making it.

I continue my therapy trying to deal with all the upheaval in my life, but the longer I sit with my shrink, the more I understand why I'm there. It's not because I am Crazy, but because I'm a person who has been damaged and who has been too weak to handle it, which in turn made me unstable. I'm in that therapy to un-crazy myself. I understand that it's too late to recant how I've been portraying myself publicly; it would be dishonest to say that I didn't mean it, and it would be irresponsible to betray my readers by saying: "I was just kidding, guys!" I wasn't kidding.

My Crazy was a part of me, an authentic part, but I'm evolving instead of sitting in it. Giving in to it and sitting in it does nothing for me, and the situation with the police — as upsetting as it was — showed me that the world is still confused about mental illness. My anger about what happened became my motivation, but it didn't victimize me, though the experience made felt vulnerable. But. Vulnerability is not weakness; it is strength.

Jowita Bydlowska is the author of the best-selling memoir Drunk Mom. Her next book, Guy: Why Women Love Me, comes out in fall 2016.

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