A detailed and trauma-informed case against using the word "crazy," especially in reference to this time of COVID-19


I keep going back and forth on whether to call this behavior out: the use of the word “crazy” to describe stuff that is unpredictable, wild, unusual, or that provokes confusion. I used to use it a lot myself. “That’s crazy!” is a phrase I’ve uttered probably, and this is no exaggeration, a million or more times. But I’ve stopped now. I’ll explain why.

Right now I’m seeing it even more than ever used to describe this era that includes the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic. “These crazy times,” it’s being called.

Each and every time I hear or read someone say “these crazy times,” I wince. It’s that wincing, and the acknowledgment, due to years of diligent emotional healing work, that leads me to write this piece right now. My feelings are valid. It doesn’t mean they’re “true” or that people have to agree with them or take any action on behalf of them, but they’re valid. I’ve learned on my healing and spiritual journey that most feelings are transitory. That has helped me move past momentary intense feelings of sadness or rage without getting stuck. But the wincing in response to this term’s use isn’t going away so here we are. Let’s discuss.

What does the word “crazy” mean?

According to etymonline, crazy is an adjective that originated in the 1570s to mean, “diseased, sickly,” then in the 1580s evolved to mean, “broken, impaired, full of cracks or flaws.” Its modern meaning took form in the 1610s: “deranged, demented, or unsound mind or behaving as so." It started to be used as slang for “cool, exciting” in the Jazz scene of the 1920s. 

My problem with the word is at least 3-fold. 

1. Being "crazy" isn't cute, fun, or trivial.

As a diagnosed “crazy” person who has been institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital ("crazy" house), my “craziness” has been a threat to my own life. I have often wished desperately that I could have the mind of a “normal” person. My crazinesses hasn’t been benign or harm-free, cutely leading to more insights or a more interesting personality, as I sometimes hear people rationalize their own. It has meant that I have harmed myself and others. These harms have been painful. Mental illness has historically been a way to marginalize people, turning them away from jobs, care, or being a part of society. My great grandmother’s sister, Esther, was stigmatized for having mental deficiencies at a young age and was sent to be hidden in an institution instead of receiving treatment, further debilitating her mental state. Since we at ACEs Connection are trauma-informed, we know that being “crazy,” a word that means "suffering from mental illness" means that something happened to us as children that left a lasting imprint on our minds. As Cracked Up star Darrell Hammond says, “mental illness is not an airborne virus.” So the hurt of the word “crazy” used casually hurts doubly: knowing that in the present day, we are viewed as less capable and competent, then picking at the wound from childhood, reminding us that we had unmet needs—that there was this loving, warm, nurturing childhood that could have kept our minds intact that we just didn’t get. Not getting it meant that we ran in circles of violence, addiction, and feeling that there was something wrong with us, all while internalizing blame.

2. “Crazy” has been used as a weapon against women’s very normal emotional reactions to the violence perpetrated against us.

Blogger Amanda Montell writes in her piece A Brief Yet Fascinating History of the Word “Crazy” that women feel men use this word to label valid behavior, belittling it, from PMS to their feelings about literally anything. Gary Nunn wrote in The Guardian that “women are undervalued because our language stigmatizes them as shrill and hysterical.” In my own healing journey, I only recently awakened to my propensity to go numb instead of feeling anger or rage, which are feelings that aren’t socially acceptable for women. I told my therapist recently, “I think the reason we’re not allowed to feel rage is because if we did, we’d want to do real harm to men for all that’s been inflicted upon us, and that’s a threat to their power.” I’ve been the victim of violence by men throughout my life. The World Health Organization reports that about 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner violence in their lifetime. I feel that the actual number is much closer to 1 in 1 but 1 in 3 is still perfectly horrifying so we’ll stick with that one for the time being. By labeling women “crazy,” we can invalidate our experience of being the victims of violence small and large, including the restrictions on our ability to have equal societal power and wealth. 

3. There’s better, more precise language that’s missing every time we use the word “crazy”.

For example, instead of saying “these crazy times” we could say, “these unpredictable times,” or “these chaotic times,” or “these times that are triggering my need to feel in control.” When we’re more specific, people get a better sense of what we’re trying to say, and this increases the feeling of connection we experience with others. 

Check out this great blog for further instruction on "Replac[ing] 'Crazy' With the Adjective You Actually Mean".

I stopped using the word “crazy” a couple of years ago and replaced it with “wild”. “That’s wild!” you’ll hear me say if you have a conversation with me (you will absolutely hear me say this, just wait). 

Is it always offensive?

I would go so far as to say it’s not ever offensive as much as it hurts to hear. I would primarily say that it’s not precise and it’s not what people mean. We can do better.

One of my favorite parodies on the nothingness that is the word “crazy” is the Saturday Night Live sketch by Tracy Morgan. “I’m Brain Fellow! That’s crazy!” he says throughout these sketches from the early 2000s until as recently as 2015, about a safari TV show host describing animals. “That giraffe is crazy!” he says, which is funny because normally a safari TV show host wants to explain something about the wildlife to the viewer. But when he says “that’s crazy!” he’s not telling the viewer anything. The word literally means nothing. The viewer is left confused. Are we going to learn something about these animals or not? What’s the point of this show? Is this person an expert or not? Who gave him his own safari show? 

So the next time you catch yourself using the word “crazy” when I more well-thought-out and articulate word or explanation belongs in its place, think of Brian Fellow. Be better than Brian.

What about when Patsy Cline sings it?

See point 2 above. Patsy is a human being with normal attachment needs that aren’t being met, yet instead of seeing her needs as normal, she is internalizing stigma against women for “feeling so lonely” and “feeling so blue”. Ms. Cline you are allowed to feel lonely and blue. I see you and hear you. You can call me and cry whenever you need to. Just sit with it. That guy had avoidant attachment style and you do not need that in your life. You have done the work and deserve someone who can meet you securely in love where you’re at.

What about when Beyoncé sings it?

The phrase "Crazy in love" doesn't make me wince because falling in love does make us lose our rational minds. It feels appropriate here.

Lastly, I want to touch on how using the word “crazy” can keep us from feeling our feelings. (I guess this is a whole 4th point but the list feels like it ended already.)

We may want to say, “this pandemic has me feeling hopeless, sad, and worried about the future of humanity.” Instead, we say, “these crazy times,” and we stay numb to our feelings. We stay separate from connecting with ourselves and others. My healing work has taught me is that the more times I acknowledge what I’m feeling, whether I write it down in a feelings journal, or say it out loud to another person, the more the emptiness feeling goes away. I feel full, alive, and connected...whole.

Is the word “crazy” keeping us from feeling anything scary that seems like it could open the floodgates and then we wouldn’t be safe anymore? Maybe not, but I’d love for us all to at least consider that maybe yes. In my own experience, the floodgates of feelings have never been as scary as the wall of numbness. The water rushes in and I flail and gasp for breath, and then it's over and I’m left standing lighter than before, with the weight of the water against the dam gone. I didn’t realize how much it had weighed on me.

Just in case you start playing around with feeling feelings instead of using the word “crazy” and you feel unsafe, here are some tips, which are not at all the same as professional, medical advice. 

  1. Crisis hotlines are helpful and underutilized, in my opinion. I call them when I feel overwhelming emotions. The person on the other end has been trained on how to hold space and how to help callers calm down. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-8255 and you do not have to be suicidal to call. If you are feeling intense, overwhelming emotions, you deserve help and a listening ear. 
  2. Therapists help. Many are covered by Medicaid or have sliding scale options. You can search for a therapist (trauma ones are the best, but I'm biased) by location, modality, and insurance type on PsychologyToday.com
  3. There’s a 12-step or support group for every type of person if therapy is still too expensive or inaccessible. Google “[your issue] support group [your geographic location]” for some ideas. Check out our addiction resources guide. 
  4. Ask a friend if they can hold space for you for a set amount of time, say 30 mins, while you process the intense emotion. Ask if they’ll just listen and refrain from giving any advice. Let them know the offer goes both ways and hold space for them next time.
  5. Journal your feelings with the help of the Feelings Wheel. Choose a couple of feelings from the wheel and notice what they feel like in the body. Write down what you notice.

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You won’t be able to karaoke Patsy Cline the same again. Thanks for such different thoughts on the word “crazy!” I can hear you saying, “Wild!” It is important to feel what we feel and I may even ask people who Say “that’s crazy,” “what do you mean specifically?” 😂 

Thanks for reading and thanks for your response, Wendy! Hahaha I heard the Patsy Cline song the other day and immediately started thinking about attachment and gaslighting, lol. 

I think there are so many moments when we can ask people what they mean and what they're feeling...so many moments most of us don't take. So it's a call to action for sure! <3

Thank you for writing this. Since becoming trauma-informed I have found the word "crazy" dismissive, superficial, and stigmatizing. It is exactly for the reasons you have said - it is non-specific and ignores the pain that led to the moment we're referring to. Great work.

Thanks so much, Jessica, for letting me know that this resonated with you. I have more ideas for blogs on using better language so this is encouraging. Thanks for the kind words!

Thanks, Alison. 
When my mom used to say, “You’re crazy” to me it cut me to the core. I wasn’t crazy. I was living in a dangerous, deadly, violent situation and it made my stomach hurt; made me want to throw up. For years. 

Oh that really hurts that your own mom used to say that to you! :'( Ugh I feel so hurt on your behalf. Sending love to Little Carey and present day Carey. <3

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