A Rose by Any Other Name
by Joseph Merlin Bowers
I have a friend who is a dedicated and effective advocate for people like me who have serious mental illnesses. Living in a politically correct world, she asked me once what term I would prefer when someone refers to the mentally ill. After all we are told that words matter. Perpetuating stereotypes is the cruel consequence of words like crazy, lunatic, nutcase and the like.
I spent some time trying to think of the perfect word that would be descriptive, non-derogatory and accurately portray one of us with a serious disease of the brain. After some time I came to realize that I just don’t care and I probably should not. Two quotes come to mind: Shakespeare-“A rose by any other name smells just as sweet.” Brene Brown-“Loving ourselves through the process of owning our story is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.”
Whatever word one uses to describe a serious brain disease, what matters is the image the word conveys to the listener and how that listener reacts to that image. I don’t care what you call me. I do care how you react to me and treat me.
I totally own my story. My story involves mental illness. When I went up the stairs in my house with a loaded shotgun intending to kill my grandmother, I was totally bat shit crazy. Sometime latter when in recovery, I apologized to my grandmother for scaring her badly. She said that the doctors told her that it wasn’t really me that assaulted her. That is only true in a sense. I would never have dreamed of harming my beloved grandmother when my brain was healthy and operating normally. What I did had nothing to do with who or what I really am when healthy. But in another sense it was me. In the grip of insanity, I did what I did. It was me. It wasn’t anybody else. I can’t own my story without acknowledging that.
I belong to the biological explanation for most serious mental illnesses school of thought. I’ve seen brain scan and activity images showing physical differences in the brains of schizophrenics and people with bipolar disorders. When I first encountered this information I had two simultaneous reactions. My first was dismay. If my disease is a physical deformity what hope do I have of recovery. I can’t just change my behavior or my way of looking at things and reacting to events.
My other reaction was a feeling of liberation. My disease was not my fault. It was not my family’s fault. It was nobody’s fault!
I have friends whose stories are much harder to own than my own. Doing so requires much courage and strength. We have done things we will always regret. We wish to hell we could go back in time and undo what we did. To own our stories is necessary to put them behind us, get on with our lives and live in the now, looking to the future. We know the science of why we behaved in a manner uncharacteristic of who we really are.
We are ashamed of nothing. To react with shame to words like crazy, lunatic or nutcase is self stigmatizing. It involves buying into the fiction that having a mental illness is something to be ashamed of. What other disease of what other organ should one be ashamed of?
When I acted crazy it was because I was crazy. I would prefer to have you say I was crazy than something like “a soon to be consumer of mental health services”.