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Why You Should Stop Calling Yourself Crazy

You should always listen to your mother, right? Here is one of the things my long-gone mother, Sara, told me that I still abide by: “Don’t put yourself down—let other people do that for you.”

There is another meme out there, much more popular than my mother’s. It is the idea that you are far better off if you can accept that you have a permanently debilitating condition. If you can only identify your addiction or your mental disorder, or if others can label it for you, then you’re on the road to recovery.

That idea is represented by the constantly repeated goal of “overcoming the STIGMA of mental illness.” This claim means that we are unfortunately reluctant to admit that we, or our loved ones, are crazy and we should stop resisting such labels right now! Yet, this idea turns out to have surprisingly little evidence to support, and quite a bit to oppose, its value.

What’s the matter with us that we resist seeing ourselves as having a disorder or disability? I remember meeting a man who had lost his hand in a farm accident who was visited by a state disability worker. The man I knew was also a counselor, and he told me how it only slowly dawned on him that the state rep was there because he wanted to label my colleague as disabled. He quickly ushered the worker out of his house.

So this man refused to see himself as disabled, even though he had an obvious physical deficiency. What do you think of this man? On the other hand, do you find it reassuring when someone tells you, “I’m crazy,” or “I’m depressed” (meaning, not that they are sad, but that they suffer from a permanent condition of being depressed), “I’m bipolar,” “I have ADHD,” or “I have an antisocial personality disorder”?

I don’t. I’m in the business of trying to make people feel better about themselves and to get the most from life, relationships, work, and family that they can. To achieve that, I work with people to identify specific problems they have, to improve how they deal with these problems, and—most of all—to help them believe that they are capable and deserving of happiness and success in life.

Ilse Thompson and I wrote a book this year called, Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict. In it, we say that your problems may stem as much from labeling yourself an addict, and learning to behave like one, as they do from how you react to drugs, alcohol, food, sex, etc. My dislike of labeling people may sound strange from the person who wrote (with Archie Brodsky) Love and Addiction, in which we said relationships could be addictive. But we weren’t seeking to create more addicts. Archie and I meant to show that drug addicts are not a different species from the rest of us.

…the main thing people labeled with disorders need to learn is that they are not abnormal—that everyone suffers from some kind of weak area, trauma, or addiction.-Stanton Peele

Archie, Ilse, and I believe the main thing people labeled with disorders need to learn is that they are not abnormal—that everyone suffers from some kind of weak area, trauma, or addiction. Do you want to prove that? Ask everyone you know if they have ever been addicted, have ever had a disastrous relationship, have a weak area they have never been able to conquer, or have some secret flaw that they fear demeans them in other people’s eyes.

We all do. Didn’t your mother ever tell you that, just because your nose is too big or you are overweight, that someone else has too many freckles or isn’t as smart as you? The job for a mother or a therapist is not to separate you off from the rest of humanity, but to help you to see your common humanity. You are a viable, and a valuable, person.

So it seems ironic that many people who appear outwardly normal are told to, and sometimes adopt, a disease identity. I know one woman who had a personality quirk pointed out to her, who told me, “Finally, I rejoiced—I have my own disease!”

But people who have been labeled from an early age are often struggling in the opposition direction. They don’t want to be crazy—they want to be normal, to be accepted like everyone else.

One such person is Temple Grandin, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of two in 1949, which was ascribed to brain damage (that was very modern, wasn’t it!). However, she always had supportive mentors who felt she was capable of achieving anything she wanted. At the same time, she had a very unpleasant experience in secondary school because the other kids noticed, labeled, and emphasized how different she was—her focus on work, her attire, her systematic habits of mind got her ostracized as a “supernerd.”

What do you think of those kids who mocked Temple in middle or high school? (She went on to gain a Ph.D. in animal science and to make major contributions in her field.) They were scared by her differences, weren’t they? Are you frightened by different people? Is putting people in disabled categories what you think the goal of the mental health industry should be?

Are you frightened by different people? Is putting people in disabled categories what you think the goal of the mental health industry should be?-Stanton Peele

I don’t. I think we need to educate more of us to tolerate different mental styles, substance habits, and ways of being. I AM in the field of addiction. And when something causes a person distress and disables them, I want to help them overcome that behavior. If they get drunk or take drugs, if they are worriers, if they have had more sexual partners than average—I don’t care, other than to make sure they protect, and become comfortable, with themselves. Then I help them decide how they want their lives to go from now on and how they need to change their thinking, feelings, and actions in order to reach that goal.

So, I don’t label anybody, and I ask them please not to label themselves in my presence.

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