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Don’t Call Me Crazy; Support Me and Accept My Gifts

By Karen Austin


Image by Troptikmal via Creative Commons

Over twenty years ago, I attended church in the DC Metro area. There was an older woman who didn’t quite fit in with the young professionals. It was the 1980s, and “yuppies” were the largest demographic of that ward.

This sister also didn’t resemble the established older couples either.  Most mature people who attended regularly were well educated, well heeled, and well traveled. She was unkempt. Her conversations wandered. And she would get up from her spot in the front pew during fast and testimony in order to hand at least one person at the pulpit a tissue.

In the halls of church, some people called her “eccentric.” Less generous people called her a “crazy old lady.”

“Crazy” is a word that I hear applied in a number of ways:

“Trying to install these blinds is making me crazy!”  “If Sister Waters thinks that I’m helping with the creche exhibit again, she’s crazy.” “There was a crazy person on the train, talking to himself.”

Calling someone “crazy” simplifies a complex social situation to some version of “my way of living is the norm; your way of living is wrong.”

I was talking to a sociology professor last week about the democratic debates. She noted that one of the candidates was not crazy; she was primarily mismatched to the setting.  In another setting, she would be called inspirational.

The professor explained that even if a person does have a formal diagnosis of a disorder or syndrome, labeling people “crazy” is a feature of Ableism–a form of stereotyping, a form of prejudice.  It’s reductive.

I had a student who was criticized about being a mechanical engineering major. He finally decided that his gregarious nature was better suited to being a business major. Quite frankly, he was bullied out of the major. There are engineers who are highly social. They often make good managers of other engineers. He wasn’t crazy. But as a matter of survival, he changed majors and relabel himself: he was just in the wrong context for his interests, aptitudes, and growing skill set. I have a t-shirt that applies to him.

“Throw me to the wolves, and I will return leading the pack.”

Failing to conform is just one use of the word “crazy.”  People are sometimes labeled “crazy” when they fail to regulate their emotions or their thought processes.

Is the “crazy” person you encounter overwhelmed with external stressors such as too many responsibilities and not enough resources?

It’s stressful to shop at Walmart during a busy time of the week.  I witnessed this situation about two years ago. While waiting in line for one of the eight self-service registers, I could see several shoppers ask for help from one of the employees overseeing these registers.

She was having trouble responding to people who were impatient, critical, and not following the instructions on the register.  It was probably late in her shift.

She was young, in her early twenties most likely. She dyed her hair black, increased her fair skin with white foundation / powder, darkened her eyes with thick eyeliner, and added several silver facial piercings. I suspect that some of the customers were sharp with her because they focused primarily on her appearance and not on the stressors emerging in that time and place.

The cashier’s speech grew sharper.  She was ready to cry. There were a dozen people in her work area—some snapping back at her, some frozen trying to decide how to respond, and some detach, perhaps imagining themselves on a tropical beach instead of in a long, tension-filled line at Walmart.

Then one woman—old enough to be the cashier’s grandmother–left her shopping basket on the floor to speak to the cashier, “You look as though you are having a really hard day. This is a demanding job. Can I give you a hug?” The young woman’s shoulders relaxed, her face softened as she accepts the hug and even returned one.  She was now ready to help others in a more focused and patient manner.

Is the person being labeled as “crazy” doing something outside of their skill set?

I was at Lowe’s yesterday for the third time that day, trying not to yell or cry about the blinds I had just purchased and tried to install myself. I am not mechanical. My spatial relationships are incredibly weak. Everyone has this experience of trying to do something beyond their skill set–whether it’s public speaking, participating in a new sport, or trying to assemble something from Ikea.

And I had external stressors with work, family, and church that I’m not going to list. I also have internal stressors: personal challenges, weaknesses, and bad habits that I am also not going to list here. My other posts at Segullah gesture to my own challenges substantively enough.

I was trying not to call myself a “crazy lady.” And I was trying not to project my shortcomings onto the Lowe’s employees by calling them incompetent. In a shrill-yet-apologetic tone that was increasing in volume, I said: “I know that I am throwing off negative energy. I believe that this ill-fitting blind is the result of a communication break down, and I’m trying to be objective and cooperative.”  One cashier gave me a comforting pat on the back.

Is the “crazy” person living with a diagnosis such as anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder, or bipolar disorder?

When someone has a physical disability that is very public, there is some social pressure (and laws) to encourage us to accommodate: o hold a door open for someone in a wheelchair or to approve building designs for ramps and elevators. If I had a physical disability, maybe I would be reporting, “No, people don’t get it. It’s still not enough.” But people with invisible disabilities (whose clinical symptoms can be misread by others as selfish or antisocial) benefit from accommodations, too.

I can do better. When someone acts in a way that isn’t appropriate to the setting, I should help them rather than hinder them.

“Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” Ian MacLaren

One of my childhood friends later became a single mom of two busy boys. She was also going to college while working as a waitress. On top of that demanding situation, she lives with a diagnosis of manic-depressive disorder. Understandably, she had trouble from time to time managing her emotions or focusing her thoughts and behavior. It just made her life harder when people threw a label on her, criticized her, or ignored her. Nevertheless, she muscled through.

Now that she’s a grandmother with an empty nest, she has more resources and a wealth of personal experience. She often speaks at firesides at the invitation of her stake president. She uses her gift of public speaking, her years as a high school educator, and her own experience meeting challenges (and at times failing to met them) to raise awareness on how people support others who have bipolar disorder–or anxiety, depression, etc. She explains how she’s learned to seek several avenues of support: seeing a licensed medical professionals who can provide 1) medication and 2) talk therapy, 3) cultivating positive family relationships, 4) maintaining good physical health (nutrition, sleep hygiene, exercise), and 5) maintaining a relationship with the divine.

Is understanding and compassion the stopping point when responding to people who are statistical outliers (odd, unusual, erratic)?

Of late, I’m making an overt effort to do more than drop the term “crazy” from my vocabulary. I’m also trying to go beyond offering compassion (which verges on pitying people) or even putting people on the inspirational pedestal (which places unrealistic expectations on them). I’m seeking to embracing the gifts of those who don’t conform so that we meet as equals. Everyone has something to contribute.  And I always benefit when I embrace their gifts. Always.

Currently, the screensaver on my phone is this quote below by Jacob Nordby. He is an advocate for artists (in the broadest sense). But I apply his quote even more broadly to anyone who is labeled as nonconforming for any number of reasons:

“Blessed are the weird people: poets, misfits, writers, mystics, painters, troubadours, for they teach us to see the world through different eyes.” Jacob Nordby

Remember the older woman from DC, the woman who offered tissues to those bearing their testimonies? I was still attending that ward when she passed, so I was able to attend her funeral. One of the ward members spoke tenderly of this sister and explained how she used her limited resources–like the widow with her mite–to lift and support others. He was earnest in how he narrated her value as a member of the ward.

It’s been too long for me to remember the scriptures he used. Nevertheless, I keep thinking of this sister when I read Paul’s sermon on The Body of Christ.  Perhaps the eulogy included a verse or two from 1 Corinthians 12. Let me close with just two verses, taken from a very rich context:

“And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon those we bestow more abundant honour. . . .That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another” (1 Cor 12:23, 25).


About Karen Austin

After living in UT, HI, CA, VA, DC, WI, WV & KS, Karen now lives in Newburgh, IN with her husband and two children. She's been a BYU writing tutor, an English teacher, technical writer, director of academic support services, and aging studies adjunct. She's reinventing herself--again. New role still pending, but mature athlete, thrift store fashionista, and court jester are strong candidates. She maintains the blog The Generation Above Me.

13 thoughts on “Don’t Call Me Crazy; Support Me and Accept My Gifts”

  1. This is beautifully written, and important.

    I wonder how many of us reading it think of ourselves as the nonconforming one who longs for acceptance, or as the normal (above normal! because who is ever merely normal?) one who could afford to be more accepting?

  2. I've been thinking about this very thing lately. The other day my 13-year-old daughter got into a yelling match with some neighbors, elderly people that we barely know, over our dog, who was loose and ran, barking loudly, toward their smaller dog. I know that those neighbors thought my daughter was a bratty, disrespectful kid. They had NO idea that this brief interaction had so much preceding it and surrounding it. My daughter struggles with adhd and anxiety and other mental health challenges. When she feels threatened (the neighbors yelled at her first), she immediately goes into "fight or flight" mode. She generally *cannot* remain composed, regardless of the societal expectation that children are supposed to be respectful to their elders at all times. They also had no idea that her dog is her lifeline, or all the counseling sessions she's been to which have been focused on her relationship to her dog and her coming unglued when she feels anyone doesn't like her dog. They also made the assumption that she was purposely walking the dog without a leash, and accused her of being a bad dog-owner for doing so. In fact, her younger sibling accidentally let the dog out, and she was trying to retrieve her–rather than being irresponsible, she was doing the responsible thing. Having a child with a hidden disability has made me so much more aware that when dealing with other people, there is almost always more to the story than meets the eye. We need to give grace to everyone we meet.

  3. Ardis: Oh, that's a good observation. People can read this from those two vantage points (I don't conform, and how I can I support others who don't conform.) No one person is the statistical norm for every aspect of their life. Nobody. We're all "odd." That diversity is super cool if we embrace it. I could do better to reach out to people who have different ways of being in the world.

    Megan: Thanks for reading. I enjoy your posts. I could do better about waving to you in the comments.

    Lisa: Oh, that just breaks my heart. Thanks for taking the time to articulate some of the complexities. My heart is heavy for anyone who has to manage a challenge that is absolutely beyond their available resources to address. This can happen to people of any age on several issues. (I recently read a book about low-income housing that was set in Milwaukee. Oh, I had no idea what housing instability looks like up close. The term "Oh, renters" is way too reductive.) But it's young people who are striving with ALL THEIR RESOURCES to manage something that is "bigger than they are" that pulls my heart strings. I like your closing sentence: "We need to give grace to everyone we meet." I could be better about this. I often move through social spaces with a "me, me, me, me–it's all about ME!" energy whether I'm being a clown or being miss bossy pants or being "help me I'm not coping" when I should be further down the path given my age and experience.

    Hugs and hugs and hugs.

  4. Karen, yes to learning about housing instability! Last year we rented an apartment for six months while we moved, sold a house and bought another one. A whole different world for me. Through my neighbors, I got to know people I would never have associated with in a million, billion years under any other circumstance. I have a lot more compassion. I found out that the one set of neighbors whose lifestyle was so utterly different than my own, why, we actually had quite a bit in common. We still keep in touch.

  5. Thank you. ? I've been struggling to remove crazy from my vocabulary. I think it's because I've always viewed the word to mean wild, out of control, and intense – but never in a negative way. I know I need to do better, though. I appreciate this reminder and the excellent examples along the way.

  6. My friend stopped taking his meds because while he was on them he felt great. He thought the meds had "cured" him and he could stop. I understand the desire to be healed.

    His bipolar came back. I noticed and pulled him aside and asked if he had stopped his meds.
    I was able to convince him that they were important.

    Watch out for your brother and sister who may have a chemical imbalance.

  7. I also attended that ward in the 1980s, now over thirty years ago, and I remember the sister (Ellie?) I moved to Virginia and so was not there when she passed. I always thought it was a sweet gesture on her part. I remember those who accepted her offering always smiled (through tears) as she walked slowly towards the pulpit, tissue in hand. Thanks for bring up a good memory.

  8. Lisa: Thanks for a briefly illustrating how we have more in common with others than we often realize at first blush.

    Emily: Yes. Also note that there are t-shirts, mugs, and posters of this saying (and some slight revisions of it that say "outsiders" instead of listing specific types of artists such as troubadours).

    Cathy: I agree that "crazy" can be neutral. However, if an individual has had people use that word in a harsh, reductive, and judgmental way to them (or a loved one) even once, than the person usually stops hearing anything else the speaker has to say once the same word is used, even if it's used in a different way. Their emotions and cognition can switch into trying to process past hurt because the word picks off the scab and they start to bleed again (a little or a lot, depending on other stressors).

    Kay: Love and light to you!

    Floyd: Ah, that is a problem. I have also seen that with people living with other diagnoses, such as Type II diabetes. A man I knew lost his job because he went off his metphormin (sp?), thinking he was cured. I also will do this by not doing self-care (eating right, exercising, scheduling down time to meditate, pray, write reflectively). And so I start to load up on responsibilities and cut back on self-care activities, and then BAM! I backslide. It's good if we can all look out for each other when we mismanage our challenges and our resources. You are very kind to be on the lookout. And I hope that you have someone who can be a back up for you, because this is a very human problem (with different levels of gravity when we don't self-monitor adequately).

    Stan: Ellie! That sounds right. You witnessed her kind gestures of support. I can tell by your description. I think that I did the math wrong. (Typical of me.) I lived at four addresses in DC during various times between summer of 1984 and then January 1985 to sometime around 1888. For the more part, I attended the Chevy Chase Ward. Ellie was very sweet, and I do remember that the majority of the members were very warm to her. All my best to you in all your current endeavors, Stan. Thanks for fleshing out my memory.

  9. I really love your reminder about context and how sometimes people just need the right environment to thrive. I recently started teaching a Sunday School class in Spanish, and though we have a small group, we always have lively discussions. Several of the members of my class have been in my ward for years and I have rarely heard them comment in other classes (some of them have occasionally given prayers or talks when asked–either in limited English or in Spanish–my ward really is pretty supportive). Being in an environment that lets them communicate freely has helped them get more out of church, and I'm so grateful for the opportunity to get to know people better and see a different side to them.

  10. I really like this–in my encounters with mental illness, both my own and that of family members, this perspective is very helpful. Thank you.


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