Crazy Does Not Equal a Joke

by Shaker DesertRose

[Trigger warning.]

(Part Three of the series "Crazy Does Not Equal..." Part One, "Crazy Does Not Equal Violent," is here. Part Two, "Crazy Does Not Equal Stupid," is here.)

Full Disclosure: I have schizoaffective disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. I have suffered from one form or another of mental illness for most of my life, mostly depression in one form or another, anxiety, and various manifestations of PTSD. I am 33 years old, a ciswoman, white and Cherokee, divorced, mother of one completely awesome daughter, owned by two adorable tabby cats, bisexual with polyamorous tendencies, a proud bleeding-heart liberal, an eclectic pagan, and completely out of my tree.

I've always been hesitant to be open with people about my mental condition. Mental illness is still hugely stigmatized, and I don't want to be treated as if I'm somehow less than other people because my brain and mind are funky. But I've come to the realization that mental illness will remain stigmatized unless people with mental illnesses are open about their conditions and show the world that we're not what society would have the world believe.

People with mental illnesses are often stereotyped as violent, or, in contrast, figures of fun, to be mocked for "abnormal" behaviors. And if we're not to be feared or made fun of, we're childish and incapable of making our own decisions. Failing that, we're weak-willed or of poor character, often therefore leading to the conclusion that we're responsible for our conditions and could be "normal" if we'd just decide to be. On top of all that, we're often considered lacking in intelligence, which can be part and parcel of the "childish and incapable of making our own decisions" or "weak-willed or of poor character" tropes.

My last post on my blog was about how much mental illness can make a person's life really miserable sometimes. And yet people laugh (sometimes nervously) when they see behaviors that originate in mental illness.

How many times have we seen a person with mental illness, but without a home, turned into a joke because zie interacts with zir hallucinations? The homeless person talking to the street lamp (Joon, in the movie Benny and Joon), "directing traffic" with a ping-pong paddle (Carl Lee, in John Gresham's novel A Time To Kill), pretending to catch invisible butterflies before going for a psychiatric evaluation, all played for laughs.

Before I continue, I want to clarify something. People with mental illnesses often laugh at themselves amongst themselves. I once heard a story about a person in a manic episode doing something quite extreme which was pretty amusing and was even more so when the person who did it told the story because zie has a gift for droll, witty delivery. The important point here is that this person told the story, making zirself the butt of zir own joke; that's acceptable, and honestly, the entire room full of people broke up laughing at the story. What would not be acceptable would be for me to tell this story and make this person the butt of my joke, because it's not my illness, it's not my life, it's not my story, and it's therefore not for me to play it for laughs.

Another part of this "joke" concept is that anyone with a wild sense of humor or who often displays zir sense of humor is "crazy" or "insane." How many times have we heard someone called "crazy" when zie is really witty, daring, silly, or just plain humorous? (Martin Lawrence's "You So Crazy" comes right to mind.) This is the ablist side of this trope; people with wild senses of humor may or may not have a mental illness, but they get tagged with a label that might not fit, because people just don't think about what it really is to have a mental illness. Other things get the ablist "crazy" or "insane" label, too, such as the use of "insane" to mean "extreme," as in, "That test was insanely difficult." It's ablist as hell, and it's insulting.

The reality of mental illness can be terribly frightening. When I have hallucinations, some of them scare me half to death. Hearing a voice that threatens you or tells you to kill yourself is not fun. Not sleeping for days is not fun. People in manic episodes have often ruined themselves financially, spending every penny they had and maxing out their credit cards. Depression is not funny; having to force yourself out of bed just to use the bathroom is pure misery, although to be fair, depression is less often made a joke than other sorts of mental illness. Tardive dyskinesia is not funny either; it's a series of physical tics that can result from years of taking psychotropic medications, but people laugh at it anyway.

The plight of the homeless person with mental illness is desperately sad, but no one thinks of that when they make their jokes. Honestly, the idea of being homeless scares me to death, because my own financial situation is wrecked due to years of fighting to be recognized as legally disabled, and only by the grace of my upper-middle-class parents am I not in a shelter or on the streets myself. I've lived unable to afford my medications, getting samples from a kind psychiatrist, and I cannot (not to mention will not) laugh at a person with mental illness on the streets. It's too close to home, and it's not fucking funny. I can far too easily see myself in that situation.

A lot of stories of mental illness are funny. Life is funny sometimes, and for people with mental illness, some of the things we do are just plain amusing. For us, making a joke of our own lives, our own stories, our own behaviors is a coping mechanism; it's a common enough coping mechanism, really. Almost everybody makes jokes about themselves. But that doesn't make us a big fucking joke. I am a person with mental illness, I am not a joke, and I am not the only one.

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