As I learn more about the various experiences of people with mental illness, the more I appreciate the complexities we encounter when naming ourselves. Out of the global psychiatric survivor movement of the 1980s and 90s emerged different language to describe our experiences as survivors of psychiatric abuse, ex-patients who recovered or were misdiagnosed, and consumers who continue to participate in psychiatric treatment. Fighting the stigma of mental illness, the international Mad Pride movement was sparked in 1993 by community outrage at prejudice against Canadian boarding home residents with psychiatric histories living Parkdale, Toronto. Like the shared identity of capital D Disabled, those who identify as Mad reflect the political nature of their experiences. In this framework, madness is not a defect or a deficit, but rather madness is a product of society’s shortcomings to accommodate alternative ways we inhabit our bodyminds and experience the world. The Mad are known as some of the most inventive, industrious, visionary, geniuses of all time.
As I wrestle with the politics of disclosure in academia, I think a lot about the way I identify. For a while, I was going along with person-first language which, admittedly, mostly non-mad and non-disabled advocates popularized. Ostensibly, this linguistic prescription ‘humanizes’ people by saying they have a certain diagnosis rather than they are that diagnosis. When I caught wave of this trend, I found myself modifying my language to say that I have bipolar instead of saying I am bipolar. However, now that I understand the political force behind identity-first language, I deeply resonate with the phrase, “I am Bipolar.” Being Bipolar has just as much an impact on my identity as being Black. Saying I am a person who has black skin does not have the same political resonance as saying, “I’m Black.” The same goes for my lived experience with mental illness. This experience includes the unbalanced moods and energy as well as the physical ailments and social impairments associated with manic depression, but also the crippling stigma and being forced to navigate a carceral racist, sexist, and ableist/sanist mental health care system to stay well.
But the term Mad does not sit so easily with me just yet. I guess it’s because I have been indoctrinated by the mental health care system to the extent that I have become so comfortable with using diagnostic terms from the DSM to describe my experience. They resonate not only because of what I have lived through (especially while resisting being psychiatrized), but because I now have a social network of Manic Depressives who share the same language. During support group meetings, we find common ground that eludes our most intimate relationships with non-bipolar family and friends. We have words to make sense of our grief, our longings, and frustrations. This language has allowed us to form friendships and solidarity with people who may have little else in common with besides our diagnosis. Although the DSM and the medical model of mental health has severe limitations, I can also say that it also saved my life. It seems madness is complex like that.
So am I Mad? Yes. But I am going to have to chart new waters to find the non-medical language of madness to truly feel like I have both an intellectual and embodied understanding what that identity means to me. I’ve got some books I am thinking with. Sascha Altman DuBrul’s Maps to the Other Side: Adventures of a Bipolar Cartographer has some really interesting thoughts on language. Black Madness :: Mad Blackness by Therí Alyce Pickens is also giving me food for thought. Let me know if you have any book recommendations. I am working on a Black Mad Studies reading list. I will also attending different support groups like the ones at Wildflower Alliance where using diagnostic categories are discouraged(!!). I look forward to sharing updates about this part of journey.
How do you feel about identity-first language? I’d love to read your thoughts.
Photo Credit: Canvas Print by Kiki C Landon
Image Description: A mirror image of two identical headshots of a Black woman adorning crown of flowers, lady bugs, and butterflies against the backdrop of a golden moon that sits above her head like a halo.