A few nights ago, I was out of line. But I don’t take it back.
I’m sitting in class and we’re discussing Alcoholism. We were assigned Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp. It’s a story not unlike other AA lead speeches you might hear at any typical Wednesday night meeting. Knapp’s brilliance as a writer is matched only in her profound inability to grasp the logic of her addiction for the majority of her life. By the end of the book, she discovers that her real problems stem from a confusion about what role alcohol plays in her daily ritual, what sort of relationship she had with her father, and how to cope with a lack of self security that manifests in close relationships. She realizes that her problems didn’t lead her to drink; it was the drinking that lead to her problems. At the climax of the story, she paints the picture of a scene in her father’s hospital room where he tells her, in a moment of clarity, “Insight…is almost always a rearrangement of fact” (p. 218).
“See, I think that she had fetal alcohol syndrome,” says a class member. The others sitting at the table respond by raising their eyebrows. My mind turns over, revealing the underside of thoughts I’d already pulled out of the oven. I hear the voice in my head try and cope with the half-baked bottom of this idea I thought was cooked through.
“So does that mean she was predisposed to Alcoholism? That means she’s sick, right? A biological connection to the behaviors she exhibits as an adult. Must be something wrong with her. She’s different, so she’s an alcoholic, so she’s prone to non-normal behaviors…Hm…No… That doesn’t seem fair. That kind of labeling would make me wanna drink. That’s a slippery slope…”
I rest there. Seems like something isn’t baking in right. I reject my classmate’s statement. Suddenly, a bubble forms in my thinking, rises and bursts into a question, exploding the smooth, glossy surface that the voice in my head was hoping for.
“So does Alcoholism count as a disease? I mean, is it, really? Because I’m just uncomfortable with framing it like that. Doesn’t that make something ‘wrong’ with her, if she had fetal Alcoholism and we attribute her Alcoholic behavior to it? Doesn’t that let her off the hook and say that she was just born that way?”
I have a serious problem with labels that even inch near the idea of mental illness. “Mental disorder”, “mental problem” and “mental challenges” aren’t much better. To me, the mind is an ecological space that involves a person’s entire perception of the world, not just what happens chemically in the brain. Perception can be a dangerous thing, especially when labels like “sick” and “crazy” are used as a recipe for identity. Saying that a person has a mental problem is really saying that their whole life is fucked up—that their family, friends, and worldview are outside of what counts as normal. True as a claim like that could be, that’s for no one to decide but the person whose living the fucked up life. As far as I’m concerned, we’re all crazy and we’re all normal at the same time. Labels that contextualize someone else’s perceptual ability can’t be anything but naïve because they’re based on assumptions that we can know how another perceives experience.
Thoughts that try to connect the dots between medical diagnosis, behaviors and strong labels should stay thoughts. They should go unsaid. Always.
Gregory Bateson’s seminal work in Steps To an Ecology of Mind approaches both the idea of schizophrenia and alcoholism, giving a detailed account of how both issues stem from communicative maneuvers that reframe the limits of reality for “sick” individuals who struggle with emotional or behavioral incongruities. Other helpful sources that discuss the medicalization of mental illness are Dr. Thomas Szasz’s startling address to the Citizen Commission of Human Rights International, Jane Elliot’s “Brown Eyes vs Blue Eyes” experiment after the death of Martin Luther Kings Jr., and Josh Walters performative speech on bi-polarity and being “just crazy enough” to be innovative.
Another classmate speaks up with absolute assurance, ready to make a big claim.
“Well, she did mention that she rocked back and forth uncontrollably as a child. I mean, we can even look across species and see that if an animal is rocking back and forth, that’s a clear indication of having some sort of mental problem. That definitely means that something’s not right…”
I lose it.
Without realizing it, the oven door of my mind snaps open and 500 degree flames shoot out in her general direction. I lose control of the level of my voice, turn my expression into a dragon and, at the frightened chagrin of the rest of my classmates, fill the air with an offense boom that throws my voice over the chatter.
“WHOA! WAAAAAaaait a minute! I think we should be careful about drawing conclusions that try and make biological distinctions not only between species, but that try to link medical ‘facts’ to normative behavior. That’s a slippery slope and I take offense to it, personally. People have labeled me crazy because I did things as a child; I’ve also been labeled in my adult life, and I just don’t think judgments like that are fair. In fact, they do more harm then good. Can you really say that there is something WRONG with a person because of the way they act? I mean, do you really want to connect those dots between brain function, behavior and what’s “normal”?
She looks at me cross, struggling to defend herself as I shout over her, unwilling to budge or let her respond, not listening to anyone but myself. I get stares of disapproval from others. Backs turn. Misunderstandings and murmurs circle the room. Silence. I’m left sitting with my words echoing in my own head and my foot in my mouth. No one moves. I feel like I’ve flown off the handle and I question my prerogative. Maybe I got just a bit too excited.
“You’ve lost your mind, yet again. When are you gonna learn how to control yourself?..” The voice in my head is unforgiving.
Did I have a slight manic episode? Was I acting a bit crazy and unprofessional?
Was it justified? That depends on your definition of crazy.
Something set me off and I couldn’t seem to hold back. Maybe it was the labels, so easily being tossed around a room full of “enlightened” people; maybe it was the fact that we were reading and talking about addiction, an issue that hits so close to home; maybe it was a form of protest, a “showing” and a “telling” all wrapped up into one, me refusing to allow stigmas to flourish because of poor use of language. Maybe it was all of those things.
Either way, I know this:
When we live in an age where the medical paradigm appropriates the mind as a site of illness, despite there being no hard, conclusive, biological evidence that social and emotional challenges can be tested and cured with medicine, stigmatized people whose personal narrative make them appear different, non-normal, crazy, or even violent will never have a voice. In reality, the “crazy” voice in the room—often times the one that sounds the scariest—isn’t the one to fear. The voice that tries to appear “normal” is most likely the one doing the harm.