By Kelly Jensen
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A Washington Post Best Children’s Book of 2018Who’s Crazy?
What does it mean to be crazy? Is using the word crazy offensive? What happens when a label like that gets attached to your everyday experiences?
To understand mental health, we need to talk openly about it. Because there’s no single definition of crazy, there’s no single experience that embodies it, and the word itself means different things—wild? extreme? disturbed? passionate?—to different people.
In (Don’t) Call Me Crazy, thirty-three actors, athletes, writers, and artists offer essays, lists, comics, and illustrations that explore a wide range of topics:
their personal experiences with mental illness,
how we do and don’t talk about mental health,
help for better understanding how every person’s brain is wired differently,
and what, exactly, might make someone crazy.
If you’ve ever struggled with your mental health, or know someone who has, come on in, turn the pages . . . and let’s get talking.
This award-winning anthology is from the highly-praised editor of Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World and Body Talk: 37 Voices Explore Our Radical Anatomy.
Is there a single definition of what it means to be "crazy"? Is using the word "crazy" offensive to those struggling with mental illness and something to be avoided? What does it mean for people when labels like "crazy" are attached to their everyday experiences?
One of the best ways to understand mental health is, of course, to start talking about it. The more we talk, the more it becomes clear that there's no single definition of "crazy," that there's no single experience of "crazy," and that the word "crazy" itself means different things to different people. Some avoid labels, while others embrace them. There is power in language, and there's power in what a word or a label can mean to each person.
"Crazy" is not a singular—or definitive—experience.
by Shaun David Hutchinson
I have Doctor Who shoes. They're custom-made Converse high-tops that I created online. They're TARDIS blue with white detailing and a black strip down the back that says Police Box. I love those shoes and I wear them everywhere.
I am not, however, the Doctor.
My profession is that of author. I spend most days clacking away on a keyboard (another custom-made job, but one I built myself, with old-timey typewriter keys and a hardwood case), drinking coffee, and talking to my dog. Over the past six years, I have produced an average of two books per year, and all the subject matter I write about is very personal to me.
I am not, however, my books.
Many of my off-hours (and often when I have a day job) are spent working with computers. Programming, building hardware, tinkering. I learned to build computers when I was sixteen. I wrote my first bit of code when I was twenty. I have supported myself throughout the years working with computers, and I've enjoyed being able to make money doing something I love.
I am not, however, a computer.
When I was nineteen, I attempted suicide. I was diagnosed with a major depressive episode. I have since been diagnosed as having persistent depressive disorder. I just call it depression. Some days are better than others. Some years are better than others. When everything else in my life is going well, I know I'm about to go through an episode because I'll begin to feel like I'm getting the flu. I become achy, exhausted, irritable. I have tried many different medications over the years but haven't found one that works for me. I have come to accept that I will deal with depression for the rest of my life.
I am not, however, depression.
Depression does not define me. If I were to make a list of all the words I, or others, might use to describe me, it might include: "weird," "inconsiderate," "quiet," "lonely," "goofy," "kind," "awkward," "focused," and "depressed." But those are simply different facets of the person people see when they see me. Depending on the time of day or whether I've had enough coffee or am on a deadline, a hundred people might walk away with an entirely different set of words they'd use to describe me. And while all those words might be useful for cataloging my behavior in one given circumstance, they would not and could not define me completely. Because we define words, not people.
We define words. We use words to define other words. A single word can have multiple meanings depending upon context, but it remains a thing that can be defined. "Depression," for example, is a word with a definition. If you look up "depression" in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), you'll find a list of valuable criteria necessary for diagnosing depression. Look the word up in the dictionary, and you'll find it defined in simpler terms. I have my own definition of "depression" based on my personal experiences with it, because "depression" is a word, and we define words, not the other way around.
Depression is a thing I carry with me. It is a shadow that lurks inside me. Depression is the smoke that ebbs and flows within my body. Depression is the result of chemical changes within my brain. Depression is the parasite. It is the foreign invader. An unwelcome guest. Depression is the voice that whispers in the back of my head. It is the rain that falls and the thunder that shakes the windows and the lightning that strikes the earth.
It is the ghost that haunts me.
I define "depression," but depression does not define me because you cannot define a person. Not with a single word, not with an entire book. Human beings defy definition. Yet the stigma surrounding mental illness makes some believe we can use it to define others, and it often deceives us into believing we must use it to define ourselves.
I dislike the word "hysterical." It is derived from the Latin word hystericus (of the womb) and is often used as a means to undermine women. Men wield the word like a cudgel to undercut women and diminish the legitimacy of any argument they might make. And the tactic frequently works because even those who might not be aware of the word's etymology at least subconsciously know that it (falsely) implies weakness they believe to be applicable only to women. Calling a woman hysterical is a despicable attempt to devalue her and any argument she might be making by defining her by a single characteristic.
People use "depression" in a similar manner.
I wear glasses, I have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), I battle persistent headaches, I am allergic to dust, I have depression. I am no more shy about discussing my depression than I am about discussing my glasses or my headaches. I talk more openly about depression because I hope to show others, especially teens, that depression is not a terminal disease. As a result, most of the people who regularly interact with me know I have depression. Most understand that it is simply a fact of my life. A thing I deal with. Some, however, attempt to use it as a weapon to define—and sometimes undermine—me.
To say my twenties were a tumultuous time is something of an understatement. I moved around frequently, desperate to find my place in the world. I dated a guy during that time, and our relationship was combative from the start. He could be kind and funny. We would often drive along the beach road on Palm Beach island and tell each other increasingly horrifying stories about the people who lived in the gaudy mansions we passed. I was madly in love with him, and I do believe he loved me in his own weird way. But we fought frequently. I was insecure and clingy; he was unsure where I fit into his life.
It was during that time that I was also seeing a psychiatrist in one of my many attempts to find a medication to help me control the symptoms of my depression. Some of those medications made me sleep for twenty hours a day, while others seemed to have no effect at all. During one of our arguments, over what I can no longer recall, my boyfriend-at-the-time said, "You need to go get your medication adjusted."
Just like that, he'd delegitimized my argument and defined me by my depression. It wasn't me speaking—it was my depression. It wasn't me packing my bags—it was my depression. I wasn't me. I was my depression.
In 2016, I gave a speech at School Library Journal's Leadership Summit about the ways in which books can be bridges, and how they can help us empathize and understand people whose experiences are different from our own. During the speech, I spoke openly and frankly about my struggles with depression and how I use them to shape the books I write. I was and still am pretty proud of that speech, and when School Library Journal posted the video of it online, I shared it across social media. I was working at the time for a company where I was involved in computer programming. My boss was an interesting guy that I'd become friends with. He stumbled upon the video of my speech, which he complimented me on. And that, I assumed, was that.
A few weeks later, I was venting to him about an issue I was having with a member of our team—typical office politics that had gotten on my nerves. And while I'm not shy about expressing my opinions, I also dislike pointing out problems unless I am also going to offer a solution. So I did that. I vented. I proposed a fix. And I thought I'd made my point. Then, as I was leaving, he said, "You going to be all right? You're not going to kill yourself over this, are you?"
I didn't know what to say. He couldn't have stolen my voice any more effectively if he'd yanked out my tongue with a pair of pliers and cut it off with gardening shears. With that one question, he had reduced me and my argument to nothing more than my mental illness. He had defined me by my depression. I spent the rest of my time working there knowing that any time I offered my opinion or brought up a complaint, he would attribute my words not to me but to my mental illness.
Society continues to see mental illness as a person-defining trait. When some people find out you have depression, suddenly every action—past, present, and future—becomes attributable to the disease and not to you as a person. Your actions are no longer your own. Your words are no longer your own. They become the actions and words of depression, and you become something less than human. Which is ludicrous. When I had my gallbladder removed in 2010, no one dismissed me because a part of my digestive system was faulty. No one listened to something I had to say and responded, "He can't be trusted—he doesn't have a gallbladder." Yet this happens all too frequently with those who live with mental illness. We are dismissed, distrusted, told our thoughts are not our own.
And the most fucked-up part is that once someone has defined you by your mental illness enough times, you begin to define yourself by it. Depression is a pathological liar. I've published six books and have many more scheduled to come out. Yet my brain will spend hours telling me that I'm a shitty writer. That every sale, every good review is a fluke. That I should give up and spend the rest of my life working with computers in a cubicle. I spent a large chunk of my twenties and thirties doubting myself. I questioned whether the strangers and friends and family members who had ascribed my words and actions to my depression were right. I spent hours awake at night replaying every facet of my day and wondering if I'd only done or said certain things because of my mental illness—and in doing so, I undermined my own sense of self. And when others so readily blamed my actions and words on depression, it made it more difficult for me to separate the truth from the lies within my own brain. If all those people were right, then maybe the things my brain was saying were right, too.
It's only been in the past few years that I've regained the ability to definitively say that my actions are my own. That my words belong to me. That I am not depression. Reaching this point has not been easy, and it's a process that never ends. There was no huge defining moment for me when I recognized how to change. It was a slow realization over many years. But the most important step for me was learning how to filter out the voices that didn't matter from the ones that did. Because the insidious trap of depression is that it tells you that either everything everyone says is right or everything everyone says is wrong. If a friend says I'm a good writer, and I believe them, then when a coworker says I'm overreacting because of my depression, I must believe them, too. Only that's not true. People lie, just like my own brain does. Learning who is trying to help me and who is simply trying to define me has allowed me to better see when my brain is lying to me and when it is telling the truth.
Taking back my life has happened in many other smaller ways, as well. It has required finding confidence in myself. And, honestly, I had to fake that a lot in the beginning. Sometimes I still have to fake it now. I've heard that liars often tell a lie so frequently that they begin to believe it. I've learned that combating a lie with the truth works in the same way. I keep repeating that my actions are my own, that I am worthwhile, that I am not the result of my depression, that I deserve to live. I tell myself those things daily to counteract the lies depression tells. Each time someone attempts to attribute my actions or words to my mental illness, I stop and tell myself that they are wrong.
A support system is crucial to the process. Friends, family members, anyone who cares about you. It might sound cliché, but my mother is a touchstone for me. When I'm not sure I can trust myself, I'll call her to talk things over because I know that I can trust what she says. To my mother, I am not the Doctor or a computer or my books or depression or even simply her son. I am a whole person: complex and unique and loved. She doesn't define me; she accepts me.
You may know someone who has a mental illness, but that person is not that mental illness. Don't try to tell them they are. You may have depression, but you are not depression. Stop telling yourself you are. Wake up every day and tell yourself that your thoughts and your words belong to you. No one is allowed to undermine who you are by defining you on their terms. Depression is a disease, a collection of symptoms. It is not a human being. It is not a person. It may live in your skin, but it does not control you. It may whisper in your ear, but it doesn't speak for you. It may be the smoke in your body, but it cannot suffocate you. It may be the result of chemical changes in your brain, but so is hunger. It may haunt you, but it will never drive you away.
Define words, not people. Define "depression," but don't define others by it. Because we are people and we defy definition.
defining the thing is the trick
by Ashley Holstrom
(Noun) a compulsion to pull out one's hair
I don't remember the first time my hand reached to my eyebrow and pulled. I don't know how much I'd ripped out before I looked down at my book and saw the pages speckled with eyebrow confetti. I don't know how long I'd been doing it when my mom walked in, squinted at me, and asked where my eyebrows went.
What I do remember is that jock asking when a clown with too much makeup joined the seventh grade. Those girls in health class asking what the hell was up with my face. Kids always, always asking if I had cancer.
I remember struggling to color on eyebrows, using pencils that turned orange on my pale skin. I remember feeling like I was the only person who did this thing and couldn't stop. I remember a therapist telling me her favorite mental illness is "trichotillomania" because the word is fun to say.
I remember Jeff, in trigonometry, who said he didn't know what was wrong with him, but every day in class, his eyelashes would disappear. We sat in the dreaded front row, our heads down until the bell rang. As I packed my bag, he'd brush eyelashes off his notebook. I told him the name of what he was doing and that I did it, too. He was the first person I met who faced "trich" with me. He signed my yearbook with: Thanks for helping me with my eyelash problem. I'm going to really try and not pull them out. Really.
Trichotillomania. Compulsive hair pulling. Its sister, dermatillomania, is compulsive skin picking. They fall under the umbrella of body-focused repetitive behaviors, a group of disorders that causes people to touch their hair, skin, and nails in ways that (usually) cause physical damage.
Some people go for the hair on their head; others go for eyebrows, eyelashes, pubic hair, arm hair, leg hair, nose hair, facial hair, any hair. Sometimes the urge is brought on by stress; other times, it's simply a relaxation method that's used while doing something mindless: reading, driving, watching TV, doing homework, scrolling through the internet for hours on end.
For me, the more I read, the fewer eyebrows and eyelashes I have. When I run out of hair in those places and/or get calluses on my fingertips from my nails digging in with each pull, I go for the hair on my head. Other times I pick at my scalp or find little scabs on my legs. As I drive home from work at midnight, in the comfort of the dark—and of being the only car on the highway—I run my hands over my face to find any imperfections that appeared during the day.
In my head, I'm cleansing my body. Never mind that my hands are gross and I'm spreading bacteria. That's not the point. The satisfaction of ridding my body of a flake of skin, a particularly clumpy bunch of mascaraed eyelashes, or an unruly eyebrow is all I'm after. A high, sort of. A comfort. Bonus: When I pull out my hair, sometimes I create a little sore that will soon scab over, and now there's more to pick. The cycle never ends.
My life has always been full of these compulsions. I sucked my thumb until I was eight. I had a baby blanket that I sniffed, rubbed, and carried with me at all times. I painted my nails religiously, then picked off the polish within a day. Those habits were "normal." This hair-pulling thing, not so much.
After puberty hit, I only did these things in private. Big kids don't suck their thumbs. Big kids don't pick their noses. Big kids don't carry their blankies with them everywhere. Big kids don't pull out their hair strand by strand.
• • •
(Noun) a person who suffers from trichotillomania
When a trichster tells someone about what they do, they're bombarded with the usual refrains: "Dude, why?" or "Well, just . . . Stop" or "Put hot sauce on your hands." There are endless options for distracting yourself or keeping your hands busy doing something else. Fidget toys, spinner rings, Silly Putty. Peeling oranges, knitting, popping Bubble Wrap. But these distractions are bandages. They're temporary. They cover up the problem. They help you heal, momentarily, but they don't cure you.
Most sources say there is no cure for trich. Sorry. Get yourself a disorder that's curable next time. But—haha!—don't pull out your hair over it.
"But, girl, doesn't it hurt? I can't even bear getting my brows waxed."
No. It's like scratching an itch. I'm sure the first few pulls hurt, but those days are long gone.
"Is it an anxiety thing?"
That's what people think, but it's not, really. It's a mindless compulsion.
"Isn't it a form of self-harm?"
"Don't you hate it?"
Every. Single. Day.
I've tried to quit more times than I can count. At times, I've stopped without realizing it.
It started to snowball in junior high. I was an angsty kid, bullied for being quiet and preferring the comfort of books over humans. As I read the Harry Potter books, I lost more eyebrows. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix came out after I'd acquired a nasty sunburn, and between peeling away the dead skin on my shoulders and pulling out my eyebrows, I was set. When I reread the book a few months later, I noticed just how many eyebrow hairs I'd pulled out, seeing them nestled in the binding of the hardcover. I brushed them out and let them float away.
When my mom started to notice my once-envious brows were deteriorating, she couldn't understand why. Where were they going? Why were they disappearing more and more every day? How come my eyebrows looked curly after I'd been reading for a while?
Her questions felt like an invasion. This was my thing I did in private, but I should have known that moms know everything. She scrutinized my face daily. When I gathered the courage to tell her I was pulling my eyebrows out with my fingers, but didn't know why, she asked what she could do to help. She would tell me to stop when she walked past my reading place. She would investigate when she sat next to me on the couch or gave me a hug when I left for school.
But she wanted to actively help, and decided to try a different route: makeup.
She helped me fill in the missing eyebrows. She had a stockpile of old eyebrow pencils she'd given up on after drawing on her brows for years—her once-fashionable pencil-thin brows stopped growing back, and she had just a few hairs above each eye. Those pencils became my battle armor, albeit with slightly mismatched colors.
But it was fine. I was merely filling in the missing hairs, not drawing on completely new eyebrows. Yet.
Things were calm for a while. My brows were mostly untouched for all four years of high school. I was reading more, which should have led to more pulling, but I guess the thrills and chills of those years distracted me.
For the first time in so long, I had full eyebrows—two whole eyebrows.
They stuck around for most of college, too. Another miracle.
In my final semester, though, life and schoolwork started to slow down. I had time to read for fun again. I went for some cute young adult romances to take my mind off having to enter the "real world" soon. And I started pulling again. By the time graduation rolled around, my eyebrows were gone, and I was too broke to buy an eyebrow pencil to cover up what I'd done. Oops.
Mental illness doesn't always make sense.
(VERB) to bear with patience
What a way to start the first day of the rest of my life. I felt like a thirteen-year-old me again. And, fittingly, I moved back in with my parents, to the room where this whole thing began.
My pulling was the worst it had ever been. My regular reading spot was soon covered in hair. I sat on the disintegrating, Aztec-printed sofa by the front window, basking in the sun, reading every morning before heading to work. I'd run my fingers through my hair the whole time, catching knots and tangles, searching for wiry gray hairs, and letting the loose ones fall behind the dusty couch.
The vacuum may or may not have gotten clogged trying to clean up my hair. I tried to rationalize it: All this hair wasn't from one day. Hair is supposed to fall out. It's completely normal to lose up to a hundred hairs a day. Surely these are the hairs that would have come out on their own. Surely.
For the past few years, I've really focused on this thing I do. I want to understand it, not just hate myself for doing it. I've read every book on trichotillomania I can find—mostly books for psychiatrists with tips on helping patients with this disorder—but no matter how many times I read the tips and tricks, they don't sink in. An exercise might go something like this:
Count how many hairs you pull out. Keep track of that number and what you were doing, how you were feeling that day. Write down all the consequences of pulling out your hair—how much money does makeup or a wig cost to cover up what you've done? How does it make you feel? Disgusted? Ashamed? Focus on those feelings. Reverse them.
I know exactly how much my makeup costs me. The good eyebrow pencils are eighteen dollars a pop, about once a month, which comes to $216 a year. Add in all the experiments with new pencils and tools that don't work, and over my lifetime, it's not a pretty sum to spend. (But at least my brows look good.)
I know exactly how I feel when I pull out an eyebrow hair and look at it and flick it away and say, "Okay, just one more," and then pull out another and say, "Just one more." I know I'm going to get up, look in the mirror, brush aside my bangs, and look at what I did to myself in an hour's time. I'll sigh, call myself a fucking idiot, run my fingers over my sparse brows, assess the damage. I'll use tweezers to pluck out any hairs that now don't fit the haphazard brow line my mindless hands created while I wasn't looking.
And counting the pulled hairs? That backfires. It turns into a game of trying to beat a high score.
I've tried making bets with myself: You can't get a new tattoo until you can go a month without pulling. You can't buy a new book until you can go a week without pulling. You can't splurge on a fancy coffee until you can go a morning without pulling. You can't, you can't, you can't.
When I told a therapist all this, she told me to stop beating myself up about it. "You don't seem like you want to quit," she said after I shook my head at her list of ways to control myself, "so stop trying." Reverse psychology? Maybe. It didn't work.
I didn't go back to therapy.
(adjective) on point, excellent, the bomb-diggity
God bless the trend to have wild eyebrows. Makeup artists post videos online showing off their extensive brow routines. Cosmetic stores sell packs of eyebrow stencils so that you can have different brows for every day of the week. Every makeup brand has a wide range of top-notch eyebrow tools. People notice eyebrows now, and compliments fly when they're "on fleek."
All the eyebrow love is bringing out the herds of trichsters. We go to the internet for companions, gathering on Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram. We talk about our struggles and lift each other up. We are not alone. We are not disgusting.
I get to have fun with my eyebrows for the first time in my life. I get to have new eyebrows every day. Grumpy? Make them dark and bold. Sad? Make them blond and natural looking. Happy? Anything goes. I'm taking control of my mood by drawing whatever the heck I want above my eyes.
And I spend a lot of time on my drive to work wiggling my eyebrows at myself in the rear-view mirror. Deal with it.
(Noun) the state of enduring without protest or reaction
Even though trichotillomania is a daily struggle, I find ways to laugh at it.
Hairstylists get a kick out of when I say, "Hey, whoa, hey, be careful with the shampoo—I don't have eyebrows. Please don't wipe them off." My guy rolls his eyes when he kisses my forehead and I say to be very, very careful with my eyebrows. Because I don't have any. In case he didn't know.
When a delivery person rings the buzzer and I only have one brow drawn on, I can't go down to get the package because I won't let my face with only one bangin' brow be seen by anyone.
I'm still pulling. If I'm not pulling, I'm twirling my hair. Or fidgeting with something. I probably will pull and fidget my whole life.
Trichotillomania used to control me, but now it's just a part of my existence. I can battle the effect, but the cause will always hang out in my brain somewhere. I'm still dealing with not being ashamed, but I'm getting there.
reading about trich & mental health
A Washington Post Best Children’s Book of 2018
“Jensen has brought together sharp and vivid perspectives concerning mental-health challenges. Featuring writers such as Shaun David Hutchinson, Libba Bray, Adam Silvera and Esmé Weijun Wang, this book asks questions and provides real-life experiences and hope for the future.”
—Washington Post, “Best Children’s Books of 2018”
“This (crucially!) diverse essay collection spans race, gender, sexual orientation, career, and age to hopefully reduce the stigma around mental illness.”
“Empowering . . . deeply resonant . . . With this diverse array of contributors offering a stunning wealth of perspectives on mental health, teens looking for solidarity, comfort, or information will certainly be able to find something that speaks to them. Resources and further reading make this inviting, much-needed resource even richer.”
“Lively, compelling . . . the raw, informal approach to the subject matter will highly appeal to young people who crave understanding and validation . . . This highly readable and vital collection demonstrates the multiplicity of ways that mental health impacts individuals.”
“Thought-provoking . . . Misconceptions about mental health still abound, making this honest yet hopeful title a vital selection.”
—School Library Journal, starred review
“This is a much-needed collection of writing about mental health and the impact it has . . . with mental health stigma unfortunately still being a serious problem, teens really need books like this right now.”
“The spectrum of voices and stories is wonderful to read. Not only that, but it mixes already published pieces as well as original memoir type stories. (Don’t) Call Me Crazy deals with the power of diagnosis/labels not being the same for everyone, and the inequality in the mental health discussion. It is an anthology that stresses individual experiences, support, and listening. If you want to read more about it, Jensen also includes a reading list. So it leaves you not only with more experience, but a jumping board of where to go next. It is equally hopeful, cathartic, inspiring and real.”
—Utopia State of Mind
- On Sale
- Oct 2, 2018
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Algonquin Young Readers