Language is powerful, and the longer I can protect my son from some of the hurtful language I hear everyday, the better.
There was a moment, during a recent panel discussion for parents of children with special needs, when I panicked because my son does not know all the official names of his diagnoses.
During that moment, one parent said that she had not yet told her young son the names of the things that made him different from most other kids, and another parent scolded, saying, “Children know when they’re different. You have to tell your child now.” I felt cold for a moment, because I am a person who hears scolding and takes it into myself even when it is neither pointed at me nor true.
Outside of that moment when I doubted myself briefly (and so many other moments, because raising a child with severe mental illness and intellectual disability is even more baffling than raising a child who is developing typically), I am confident I have given my son the language he needs to speak of his unusual experiences of the world. He can speak of having a hard time with his feelings, of using strategies and needing help from people and medicine to manage them. He talks about how learning takes extra time and how he needs his special school where he gets to work at his own pace and the teachers are very patient with him. He knows that sometimes, he sees, hears, feels, and believes things that other people don’t, and that when reality gets slippery this way, he needs to talk to his psychiatrist and psychologist because this is a medical problem, and he needs help to put reality back where it belongs.
Words he does not know apply to him: mentally ill, bipolar, psychotic.
The first problem is the casual use of words for psychiatric diagnoses that we hear all the time. Moody or unpredictable people are referred to as bipolar. Angry people who act like jerks are called psychotic or psycho. Nations are said to have schizophrenic relationships with other nations. Spree killers are proclaimed to be mentally ill before we know anything about them, sometimes even their names.
Then, there’s the news. Oh, the news. In the US, we speak far too rarely about the crisis in our mental health care system, but when we do, talking heads refer to The Mentally Ill as if they were some massive, homogenous group of people whose needs we must meet lest they shoot us all. In fact, people with mental illness are all around us, dealing with challenges that range from very mild to profound, and our obligation to help them meet their needs for treatment have almost everything to do with being decent people and only a tiny bit with preventing violence.
Finally there are the depictions of people with mental illness in entertainment. Recently, the ABC sitcom Modern Family featured an episode in which the character Claire made a haunted house whose theme was “scary insane asylum” all for viewers’ amusement, and all based on the assumption that people with mental illness are not real people, and they certainly aren’t at home on a Wednesday evening, watching TV. We see again and again in media the same tired tropes: the psycho, the schizo, the madman, the crazed animal, the lunatic, the monster.
I can’t bear for my son to see himself reflected in any of this, so we speak instead of difficulties, challenges, and issues. He knows that everyone has difficulties, and that his specific difficulties are of a sort that requires help from doctors. He knows there was an accident in his brain before he was born and that it makes some things harder for him. Most importantly, he knows that his difficulties are not the most important things about him. His humor, generosity, gentleness, and curiosity are much more interesting than the ways his brain sometimes misfires.
I’m probably protecting myself as much as I’m protecting him. He doesn’t remember the rage he experienced in 2009 that lasted over 10 hours, and during the first hour of which I peeled him off a smaller child who he was trying to choke to death. I don’t want him to catch the evening news after another mass shooting and wonder, as I do, could that be our future? Am I watching myself ten years from now? What will they say about him, about us, about our family?
My son does not deserve to be afraid of himself. He doesn’t deserve to see ridiculous, cartoonish caricatures of people with the same diagnoses he has. He doesn’t deserve to live a life that’s shrouded in stigma around an illness he has because a freak accident damaged his brain before his birth. He doesn’t deserve to live in fear that he won’t be able to access necessary medical treatment because in the US, we have flat refused to prioritize treatment for people who have illnesses whose symptoms manifest in thoughts, moods, and behaviors.
Because of all that, my son doesn’t know he is mentally ill. He doesn’t know that his doctors write the words “bipolar with psychotic features” under his name when they communicate with each other or our insurance company. It’s not because we’re pretending that he’s a typically developing child and everything is fine; it’s because language is powerful, and the longer I can protect my son from some of the hurtful language I hear everyday, the better.
Illustrations by Christine Juneau