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Let me be very clear about something: I don’t use the word “crazy” loosely. In fact, in writing, I don’t use any word loosely. During daily conversation, my filter and self-awareness aren’t quite where they should be. But when I write, every word is intentional. And I’ve made a decision. To reclaim some agency over our own womanhood, motherhood, and even humanity, it’s time to shift our understanding of the word “crazy.”
“Crazy” as a Sexist Insult
“Crazy,” as an adjective that describes a person or thing, has a lot of meanings. In contemporary American culture, it has become a word the politically correct of us shy away from because of its negative and sexist connotation.
When I was in college, my large group of guy friends called girls “crazy” all the time. Yet they rarely articulated why she deserved that designation. Generally, it meant that she’d shown up when they didn’t want her to. Maybe she’d sent more than one or two texts before getting a response. On rare occasion (there were a few), they did use this word to describe someone with a serious mental health disorder, but even then, it was used in a derogatory sense, not to describe her condition. And let’s be honest, “crazy” isn’t the PC way to describe a mental health problem anyway.
Among the countless times I heard girls called “crazy,” including being told that I was “being crazy” or “acting crazy,” it was never used in any constructive way.
In Some Ways, I Was “Crazy”
There were times, especially at that age, when I often felt “crazy.” This was the age when I began having panic attacks. (Read some of my other writing on anxiety here.) Neither understanding what these episodes were nor having a diagnosis, I felt “crazy.” I called myself crazy numerous times a day because I didn’t understand what was happening psychologically. I’m sure I was called crazy by others when I wasn’t around.
These same guy friends who regularly called girls “crazy” also initiated serious conversations to help me. During these conversations, they used actual mental health terminology. “Anxiety,” “obsessive/compulsive tendencies,” “panic.” These were (and are) intelligent people who cared about me and had decent understandings of mental health. In these conversations, they never once said I was acting “crazy.”
For them, as seems to be the cultural norm, the word “crazy” was reserved for derogatory remarks against women, usually for minorly over-the-top or even normal behavior. Please know that I’m not putting these men down. I love these men. I chose these friends. They’re good people. My point is that this is a norm, and that’s a problem.
A Specifically Sexist Word, Indeed
Here’s the thing: I heard girls called crazy so often that it became part of my own language for describing others and for self-criticism.
I don’t recall a single instance when “crazy” was used in reference to a male.
They were “just drunk,” “being an ass,” “such an idiot.” But never crazy.
The only instances when I remember my guy friends using the word “crazy” to describe themselves or other guys was in the, “Man, that shit was crazy!” sense. This usage, just to be clear, is meant as a compliment. They had a fun night. They likely feel terrible today. At college age, that was a good thing (as long as it was a weekend).
“Crazy” in Pop Culture
The concept of women being “crazy” are rampant in pop culture. Strong female role models both reinscribe and subvert the sexist use of the word. No matter how much we may hate this word, let’s not pretend for a second that we don’t dance and sing embarrassingly to Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” despite it’s normalization of the idea that love makes women crazy while men remain aloof.
Another recent example, and I think a really important one, is the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. This show has tackled head-on the derogatory ways in which the word “crazy” has been applied to women as an oppressive form of sexism. It problematizes the notion of the “crazy in love” female through an intricate depiction of serious mental health struggles. (I’ve had to convince many friends to ignore the sexist title and watch this show, and they’ve all thanked me.) It’s overt self-awareness and feminism are fascinating. If you stick with it through the seasons that have aired so far, it turns into a compelling deconstruction of serious mental health problems. I expect the 4th and final season to be equally as brilliant.
Considering our common use of the word “crazy” as a derogatory term against women, it’s no surprise that so many women (including Rachel Bloom and the crew in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) push back so hard against the use of the word.
Yet still, we seem to have a constant willingness to use the word in everyday chitchat. Just today, Jack was playing with a precious little 16-month-old. The little girl’s mom told me she was in the second trimester of her second pregnancy and called herself “crazy.” I agreed. We laughed.
Reclaiming the Word “Crazy”
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe we should reclaim the word “crazy,” not as a sexist form of insult and oppression, but as a word that makes us all unique, strong, individual.
By formal definition, there are a lot of terrible things the word “crazy” can mean. “Broken down,” “deranged,” and “obsolete,” to name just a few highlights from the Oxford English Dictionary.
But there’s one usage, most common between the 16th and 19th centuries that speaks to me in a soul-cleansing way, and it’s this one I suggest we embrace.
“full of cracks or flaws”
Aren’t we all full of cracks and flaws?
Don’t we want to be?
Isn’t that what makes us interesting, unique, human?
Isn’t that what makes us the exact opposite of obsolete?
Life is Itself a Lot of Crazy
The past month has been an amazing, exhausting, arduous challenge full of packing, unpacking, socializing, leaving comfort zones, returning to comfort zones, travel, planning, replanning, and wondering why I continue to think it’s a good idea to plan in the first place.
Part of my crazy is the insistence on planning when there’s a young child involved who changes every. single. day. Plans never work, and yet, I make them anyway.
This month of chaos has been a delight, but also a challenge to this mama who very much likes control. It’s also been a challenge in that I’ve been surrounded constantly by people. I’m borderline introvert-extrovert. I love people, but I need far more alone time than has been possible
since I brought a tiny human into the world recently.
When You Need a Vacation After Vacation
For the long holiday weekend, husband, husband’s parents, Jack, and I retreated to a small “wellness community” just outside of Atlanta. This small mecca of serenity is full of farmland, hiking trails, fresh organic food, and a warm community. (Full disclosure: we own a home in this place. It’s an outrageous privilege. There’s an important post coming up about the subject of privilege soon. But for now, just stick with me on this “crazy” train.)
We had a wonderful weekend and made many great memories–my favorite of which was Jack’s constant insistence on “exercising” his grandfather by pushing his walker with him, constantly going faster and faster. It was also the first time Jack said “granddaddy” (or his version of it), which became a favorite word for the weekend.
But by the end of the weekend, rounding out the hectic month of travel and socializing and sharing homes with people who are not my husband and son, I was at my emotional wit’s end. To state the obvious: I needed a break
This is obvious not because I’ve had a month full of lack of control, but instead because I’m an adult.
Honestly, what adult doesn’t need a break these days?
I asked husband to please take Jack home without me. The dog (Charlotte) and I would return tomorrow. Again, a huge privilege, I know.
I longed for quiet.
I needed quiet.
I needed alone time.
Until they started preparing to leave.
And then, the mom guilt and panic and desire for my boys and out-of-control-swirling-emotions set in.
My chest tightened. I fought back tears, I held Jack tighter than ever, as if we were parting for a long while. I told husband to drive very carefully, as he was carrying all of my most precious cargo in one giant piece of heavy machinery. When they drove away, I started physically shaking, tears now streaming, breath short and a bit too rapid.
I took Charlotte for a walk to the dog park, keeping my sunglasses on to hide the puffy eyes that had developed from my tears. I took long, deep breaths, attempting to combat the tightness in my chest.
This thing that I had longed for–this peace, stillness, silence–was causing panic.
And while I know that emotions have no basis in rationality, I will highlight why this reaction was so abundantly irrational. They were driving to our home 45 minutes away, and I could return anytime I wanted to the next day. Heck, I could’ve followed right then had I really wanted to.
And yet . . .
Here I was, a blubbering mess hiding my face from the world while I walked around this place of serenity with Charlotte. Her tail wagged; mine sagged. What was wrong with me?
Eventually, we came back inside.
For the past hour (husband and Jack were already home by the time I brought Charlotte in), I had probably internally called myself “crazy” at least 30 times. Which means I’d also scolded myself for calling myself crazy at least 30 times. That’s one round of self-criticism about every 2 minutes. That doesn’t sound right. I might be underestimating.
Time for Some Serious Self-Analysis
I began thinking about this word, “crazy,” that I was berating for myself for continuing to use in relation to myself.
Why is that the word that came to mind?
Was it because I was emotional–a characteristic we all exhibit but that has historically been placed onto women, marking them as the sex less fit to make rational choices, run businesses, run countries?
Was it because I’d had a panic attack, a medically-proven experience in which the mind overtakes and causes physical symptoms in the body?
Was it because I was upset as my man and my boy drove away, and I’ve been cultured to believe that feeling upset over anyone male inherently makes me “crazy”?
So I Did What I Often Do
I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary, my holy grail for understanding this language we use to communicate. “What does it even mean to be crazy?” I wondered, as I quickly began to search and read and sift and smile and breathe.
It means so many things, of course. But one jumped out at me as exactly the one we should all come to recognize.
“full of cracks and flaws”
I continued searching, and here’s what I learned.
In the mid-20th century, this definition made a brief comeback in an unexpected way.
“Crazy paving” came into use from the ~1930s-~1960s. “Crazing paving,” I learned, referred to “a garden walk or pavement of irregular pieces of flat stone or tile.”
Much like the path where I had walked Charlotte while scolding myself for calling myself crazy.
A physical reminder of the beauty of cracks and flaws, right out my door.
A concrete (almost literally) reminder that the incomprehensible, the emotional, the vulnerability are what make us loving, empathetic, full of life.
These are the things that make me share my heart with the entire world in hopes that it will touch someone else’s. They’re the things that make me unique and special.
They’re the things that make all of us unique and special.
Maybe we do want to be a little crazy, after all.
Maybe, someday, if Jack ever calls a girl crazy, he’ll say it and mean it genuinely as a compliment, and she’ll understand it that way. She’ll understand that he means she’s unique, and fascinating, and brilliant, and far from perfect in a way that is beautiful.
If that could ever be the case, then I’d have done something right.
Katy Huie Harrison, PhD, is an author, mom, recurrent miscarriage survivor, & owner of Undefining Motherhood. She lives in Atlanta with her husband (affectionately known on the internet as “Husband,”) son (Jack), and dog (Charlotte). She believes our society puts too many expectations on women that make womanhood and motherhood restrictive. Her goal is to shift the paradigm about what it means to be a woman and mother, giving all women a greater sense of agency over their own lives. You can find Katy and her work featured in places like CNN’s Headline News, Romper, Scary Mommy, Demeter Press’s Motherhood and Social Exclusion, & more.