Please Stop Calling Your Relatively Privileged Life “Crazy” and “Messy.”

A few weeks ago, I asked folks on Twitter–and specifically, my colleague Amy Simpson, who has recently published a book on mental illness and the mission of the church:

What do you think about the way people use words like “bipolar,” “crazy,” and “manic” when they really mean “moody,” “energetic,” “quirky” and even “fun”?

It’s part of a pattern I’ve noticed lately–and maybe you’ve noticed it too.

People with beautiful headshots, flawlessly designed websites, and enviable accomplishments insist that they are really just a ‘mess.’ Or that their families are ‘crazy.’ Or that their homes and lives are every bit as complicated and frustrating as everyone else’s…meanwhile, their Instagram feeds show nothing but beauty; if ‘chaos’ is there, it’s only ever of the picturesque kind.

From Flickr User Tanja. CC license.
There’s nothing picturesque about true squalor of the sort that Jeannette Walls endured.                              From Flickr User Tanja. CC license.

There are no birdcages sprouting stalagmites and stalactites of bird droppings. There are no snotty-nosed, unwashed, half-dressed, hungry children who’ve never visited a dentist in their lives. There is food in the fridge and on the table, and it isn’t even growing mold or crawling with roaches or undulating with maggots. In fact, it’s from Trader Joe’s and may even be organic! There is no broken glass or police officers showing up because the neighbors heard screaming. There is electricity and running water and indoor toilets.

Yeah, there’s raised voices and tempers and conflicts. But that makes you human. Not crazy. Not dysfunctional. Not “a mess.”

Screen shot 2013-10-29 at 9.29.23 AM

This weekend, I read and then immediately re-read Jeannette Walls’ instant classic of a memoir, The Glass Castle. It disturbed me deeply, but reminded me very much of one of my favorite books, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It is hard to resist a story of a girl triumphing over seemingly insurmountable adversities.

One of the things that I appreciated deeply about the book is that while it ends, ultimately, on a note of grace, and while there are glimpses of light even in the most dismal of episodes as her truly dysfunctional parents (both probably bipolar, and one a severe alcoholic), Walls never glamorizes the poverty that they endured. She does not romanticize any of it. She makes no attempt to paint her childhood as in any way quirky, cute, or picturesque.

Without lapsing into melodrama, she portrays it as the nearly unmitigated horror that it was.

And while she and two of her siblings managed to endure and make something of their lives, she makes no attempt to hide the fact that one of them–her younger sister, Maureen–didn’t seem to. Nor does she disguise the scars–some of them literal–that they bear because of their parents’ recklessness and refusal–or inability–to care for them properly.

There are two things that I keep thinking of as I reflect on this book.

The first is that while it is easy to celebrate the hard work and grit and good luck that allowed someone like Jeannette Walls to triumph and to tell her story with such grace and elegance, there are millions of children in the US who endure terrible suffering and do not emerge victorious but instead become the victims of their parents’–and society’s–failure to help them while help is still possible.

As I think each time I reflect on Anne Frank, how many stories like hers never got to be told? How many stories of triumph over poverty, ignorance, and mental illness could be told in this land of plenty and opportunity, if resources were directed away from war and toward the kinds of programs that make it possible for all children to succeed?

The second is that I’m really tired of seeing words like “bipolar,” “crazy,” and “messy” thrown around by middle and upper-middle class folks who have beautiful headshots and gorgeous websites and lovely homes and the time and resources to document their “messiness” and “craziness” on Instagram. Not wanting to make your kid a costume for a school play or serving a frozen Trader Joe’s meal for dinner is not a “mom fail.”

Losing your temper with the kids moments after you were laughing uproariously with your girlfriends does not make you “bipolar.” Running from school to music lessons to sports practice to a church event might mean you’re overscheduled–but not that you’re “manic.”

These words describe serious and scary symptoms of serious disease. Millions of children–in the US–would count it a huge step up to be eating Annie’s Organics mac & cheese made from a box or making do with a less-than-Pinterest-ready birthday party.

In her memoir A Good and Perfect Gift, my friend Amy Julia Becker noted the pain she felt when a friend described her Ivy League-educated husband as “retarded” because he couldn’t remember to take out the recycling. The words were like a slap: no, he clearly did not have an intellectual disability. But Amy Julia’s own beloved daughter, born with Down syndrome, did.

Using words in that thoughtless and inaccurate way may seem harmless, but it trivializes the real struggles of real people.

So let’s not make light of real suffering by calling our generally okay, pretty much functional, and actually pretty privileged lives “messy,” “dysfunctional,” and “crazy.”

And as we celebrate people like Jeannette Walls (whose book spent almost 2 years on the New York Times’ bestseller list) let’s remember the people who never lived, much less wrote, stories of triumph.

23 thoughts on “Please Stop Calling Your Relatively Privileged Life “Crazy” and “Messy.”

  1. Well said.

    I’ve worked in middle class churches, and I’ve worked with mentally ill drug addicts, both as a CPS caseworker and as an addictions counselor. Would anyone out there like to hazard a guess as to where I’ve seen the most whining..?

  2. I’m really challenged by your words. While I hesitate to use the words manic, bipolar or crazy when describing every day life, I wholeheartedly endorse messy because that is what most things in my head and heart feel like as they tumble onto the page in written form (and what my kitchen floor and table look like at this very moment). To me, messy (or the occasional “crazy”) is a better descriptor than terrible, dirty, or crap-like. I think humanity is messy; normal IS messy. For myself as well, messy is a healthier word for me to use instead of constantly confessing or referring to the diagnosis that perhaps guides most of my writing, and indeed, the mess I often feel.

    I think it’s a good challenge to find better ways to describe our relatively normal and priveleged existence, in writing and in actual conversation. I want to use words with care, be mindful of the lives lived by those I don’t know or can’t see or haven’t yet heard their stories… but for those of us who do have a bit of crazy behind the white space of our blogs, “messy” is often a better shorthand than “just so you know, here is proof of my chronic depression and anxiety disorder.” Perhaps messy is a word we unintenionally hide behind, for I’d rather default to the former than be pigeonholed by the latter.

  3. I agree with your sentiment. I get frustrated with people that are exausted, but won’t stop signing their kids up for 9 different activities. Who need to go to bed but can’t until the house is picked up. Who obsess about what kindergarden class their child is in (in one of the best schools of a nationally ranked school system.) These are all things I have witnessed or heard complaints about in the last few months.

    But I do wonder if some of these people aren’t a bit ill (although not of the sort they claim.)

  4. When a family member of mine had a psychotic break, lost his mind, and home and everything else, I became acutely aware of the frivolous use of the words ‘crazy’ and ‘bi-polar.’ I was very pained. Mental illness nearly took a life. It did take house, home, and freedom. It left dependents on the street and in poverty. He has never fully recovered and he doesn’t even remember the destruction he wrought.

    Now, whenever I read about the Gerasene maniac, I always wonder about his family and how they too suffered pain, shame, and I am sure, shunning. And whenever I see acts of mass murder or attempted mass murder (gunmen), I often think, “I bet they’re mentally ill.” Thank you for this post. It hits close to home.

    1. I understand your point, Marlena, but it’s a little hard for me to digest. I’m bipolar, and I hesitate to immediately apply the “mentally ill” label on a gunman/perpetrator of violent crimes simply because I don’t want to associate increased violence with the mentally ill (and thus associate myself, too). I’m open about my diagnosis, and sometimes I wonder if new acquaintances are afraid that I’ll become violent in the future. (Those that know me well know that I’m not violent and never have been. I’ve been relatively stable for years, thanks to good health care, meds, and a supportive family.) Most of the time I don’t care what acquaintances think of me . . . well, not too much. But when it comes to job hunting, I am worried. I hope this makes sense! I also hope that your family member eventually finds total healing; it’s heartbreaking to hear about this type of pain.

      1. Laura Droege, your point is well taken. I need to be careful. I do realize that not all mentally-ill people are violent. But, I think we can address much of the violence that occurs by helping those who are mentally ill. It is really hard for someone who is psychotic and talking violence to get help unless he or she actually tries to hurt him/herself or someone else. That really gets me. There’s not preventative help-only help after destruction occurs. That’s where I am coming from and what I have experienced. I should not over-generalize. Laura, you are brave. I am really proud of what you are doing. Perhaps we can talk more elsewhere.

      2. I’d love to talk, Marlena. You’ve made a great point here, and I agree: true preventative care needs to happen long before the person becomes violent. So many tragedies could be averted if only intervention had happened earlier.

  5. Beautiful. Thank you for this truth-wakeup call today. I’m not sure what the antidote is, other than get out of our over-privileged, Pinterest-envy-induced bubbles when we can. And hang around people different than us, right? What do you think the answer is?

  6. I just read a book that left me with a similar feeling. It’s called “Most Un-likely to Succeed” by Nelson Lauver. He endured years of physical and mental abuse at the hands of his teachers that stemmed from a root of being dyslexic. We must stop assuming that every so-called “bad kid” is that way because he’s evil. More often, he/she is a child in terrible need of help. Let’s stop failing the kids in our world and instead help them to succeed.

  7. Thanks for pointing this out, and trust me — I couldn’t agree with you more!!! However, please note that there are many, MANY of us with beautiful headshots, professional websites, and even lots of money, family, love, and faith who truly are suffering from mental illness–even severe mental illness. We hide behind picture-perfect Facebook and Instagram accounts, use very powerful words all too loosely, and whine ourselves silly. That does not mean that the picture of perfection is the true one or that we don’t have real issues to whine about. That does not mean we didn’t grow up in emotional squalor, suffer hardship beyond imagination, or continue to suffer from incurable mental illness. I see that the wording you’ve used here allows for both — your point is that if one is NOT suffering from those things to not call mundane, middle- and upper-class first world problems by inapplicable names that belittle the true problems that are meant to describe — but care must also be taken to not give the impression of disregarding the truth that buying Trader Joe’s organic foods to store in ones stainless steel fridge does not mean there are not real, true problems present for that person. I worry that too many middle- and upper-class people (and especially women) don’t feel they have protected space to disclose their true messiness — not a dirty minivan or missed PTA meeting — but the real, true problems they suffer, and I hope that as women of faith who put our words into the great big void of the internet we continue to provide a safe space for all, not just for those whose messiness and problems could never dream of hiding behind well-perfected social media.

    1. I absolutely agree with this comment. And an earlier one about lumping the word ‘messy’ in with the other terms, which are actually diagnostic ones. “Messy” applies to just about all of us at one time or another. And I’ve spent most of my adult life working with upper middle and upper class folks, plenty of whom face all kinds struggle, including mental illness. I totally understand your desire to cut out frivolous misuse of terminology, especially when it reflects a careless attitude toward whole groups of people. But please leave just a little room for the truth that a glamorous headshot and food from Trader Joe’s do not necessarily mark a perfect life. Suffering is suffering, whether you are a millionaire or a pauper. Yes, money can buy a lot of great things, but it is not a protection from the vicissitudes of life. And there are plenty of monster parents who have tons of money, too. I’ve met a few. The horrors of poverty, exacerbated by mental illness and addiction are real and terrifying. So are the abuses that occur inside some gated mansions. I never heard about any maggots in my work, but I knew at least two sets of wealthier-than most children who discovered a parent who had hanged himself. That’s pretty horrific, too.

      1. Love what Diana said here. Especially “Suffering is suffering, whether you are a millionaire or a pauper.”

        We cannot, any of us, see the whole of someone’s life from a headshot. And even more than that, every individual is remarkably complex and we cannot know the depth of suffering they have experienced OR how circumstances that might not seem traumatic to others might have scarred them personally. Every person has a right to their own perspective and to the telling of their own story.

        And, while there might be times where a firm word like this post could do some good, I think rather than telling people to “stop naming your life by inflammatory adjectives”, perhaps more lasting change often results by hearing those stories, by letting them be told, and by respecting the unique perspectives of those who have lived it.

        Many good words have been written along these lines, not the least of which are the ones attributed to Plato, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

  8. Okay, I grew up the child of a mentally ill parent. It was hard and it left scars… she committed suicide in the end. Now I live in a nice suburb and my husband is relatively successful. I have nice head shots on my blog and I have the time to put thing on Instagram. I try to be realistic about my life, I have a lot of blessings, but life is hard and sometimes I do feel crazy trying to figure out who I am in light of who I grew up as, in fact I do think that although we look great on the outside, I know that I really am struggling with some very real issues on the inside, I come by them honestly. Just because I’m not in poverty doesn’t mean that I’m not fighting demons.

    I agree with what you’re saying. We do have to be careful about throwing around serious words for trivial problems, but we can’t fall to the other side and believe that everyone with money and nice homes is perfectly alright. The ugly demons that thrive in poverty like abuse and mental illness do quite well in families with money as well.

  9. Great post, Rachel. I enjoyed reading all the comments, too; I really wanted to get all the commenters together in one room so we could all talk about it at greater length. Thanks for hosting such a gracious, open, and articulate bunch of people on your site. It makes being on the web much more enjoyable!

  10. Hey, I just noticed the “…no birdcages sprouting stalagmites and stalactites of bird droppings…”

    Now is that from the book you’re referencing here, or is that recollection of one of my old CPS “war stories?”

    For once, in a beautiful old apartment building in Jackson Heights, I saw this very thing. I had accidently backed into the cage and, when I turned to see what I’d bumped into, immediately saw both the guano formations on the cage and floor, and, behind them, cockroaches, marching across the wall like soldiers on parade. They were columns of 3, as I recall.

    It was at point that I gave my partner some lame excuse as to why I needed to step outside for a minute, ran out into the courtyard, and started doing deep breathing to keep from becoming sick. The mangy cat playing with rotten bits of chicken leg on the kitchen floor had been bad, but the corner with that birdcage was just too much for that particular day. We’d been in some nasty homes, but this one took things to a new level.

    Sadder yet was when, weeks later, my colleague told me that she was get daily calls from the woman in question, wanting to know why on earth she had not been approved for kinship foster care. She had absolutely no idea why the authorities would not consider that dump a safe and healthy home for her granddaughter.

    And yet I’d do that job again in a heartbeat, as we were on the front lines, trying to fix the dreadful messes most people just read about. It was frustrating because one can do so little, yet rewarding because it was struggling for a noble cause. After all these years I still think about some of those kids. God bless them, wherever they are.

  11. Reading this post and the follow up comments, I feel a need to respond as well. One in four Americans will have a mental health problem in any given year. That means that the other three will have a friend, family member or co-worker contending with that issue. Mental health issues emerge along a continuum from moderate to severe and not all problems translate into an actual diagnosis but there is a vast need for mental health literacy and stigma reduction. Likewise, mental illness impacts all socio-economic statuses. While Rachel your point is well taken that certain terms are being used in cavalier inappropriate ways, even referring to people as their diagnoses is stigmatizing and yet most people don’t realize this. For instance, we don’t refer to individuals with cancer or a heart condition as their illness but society refers to people with mental illness as their diagnosis (i.e. she’s bi-polar, he’s an alcoholic, etc.). It is more person centered and humanizing to say, “a person living with bipolar” or “a person challenged with alcohol dependence.”

    There a a number of profound myths tied into mental illness, many of which are addressed in the thoughtful comments above. The most damaging one of the moment is that those with mental illness are violent or more prone to violence than those that aren’t. In actuality, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators of crimes yet because of all the media attention around isolated incidents in which an individual with mental illness commits a crime, this belief is running rampant. Wed that with horror films and crime shows that depict people with mental illness as violent and the stereotype perpetuates further. In actuality, four percent of gun homicides are attributed to gun violence. Likewise, the percentage of individuals living with schizophrenia, the diagnosis society is so afraid of is only 1% and many folks I know with that particular illness would never hurt a fly and are generous of spirit. Similarly, psychosis is a state of being that can occur from a number of conditions, including a bad reaction to a drug (legal or illegal), dementia, not enough sleep, etc. So one can experience psychosis and not necessarily have a mental illness, although there are mental illnesses in which psychosis is a feature.

    I am obviously very invested in this topic or I wouldn’t be writing such an extensive response and my heart is coming from a place of passion and a desire to educate. My vocation involves certifying individuals to teach a course entitled “Mental Health First Aid”, a public education seminar that is gaining enormous traction in the US, although the program is an international movement. We have been endorsed by the Obama administration and given status by SAMHSA as an evidenced based program. I encourage anyone who is interested to take this course. You can find information about it by googling “Mental Health First Aid.” It is being taught in churches, universities, hospitals, police precincts, etc.

    My investment in this topic is both professional and personal. My own mother took her life five years ago and lived with alcohol dependence. The latter resulted in numerous DUIs that led to long term incarcerations at different periods in her life. Yet my mother was as gentle as Bambi and struggled terribly. I don’t think anyone when they are five thinks, “When I grow up, I want to have an addiction….” I have been writing about my mother’s drinking since I was eight years old and currently have a book being reviewed for potential publication. The topic deals with transformation and how our wounds can become our gifts. It is also a valentine to my mother and reflects years of my own reflections and experiences in relation to healing.

    Rachel, you mention a few books. Amy’s, which is excellent and important for the church and Jeanette Wells’ “A Glass Castle” which is beautifully written. However, I’d be careful to assume that all life experience associated with loved ones with a mental illness reads as an “unmitigated horror.” There is pain to be sure but also love, for life and individuals are so multi-facted. And I think both Amy and Jeanette’s book reveal this truth.

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful response. I in no way mean to imply that a life associated with a loved one with a mental illness is “unmitigated horror.” I think Jeannette Walls’ book is full of grace as well as horror. I meant only to highlight the careless way in which words are often used, and to emphasize that there is nothing glamorous in a life of poverty and suffering. Peace.

  12. I haven’t had my coffee yet and realize that amongst my typos is this sentence: “In actuality, four percent of gun homicides are attributed to gun violence.” It should read: “In actuality, four percent of gun homicides are attributed to mental illness.” Which means 96% of gun homicides result from some other etiology and group. Now for that coffee!🙂

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