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Why We Should Stop Using Chronic Illnesses as Hyperbole

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Every day we’re becoming more socially aware and sensitive about how we use language. I love this. As a writer, I love seeing language grow and change. Some people will call it being “politically correct,” but it’s not that. It’s about becoming more aware of the people around you, and more empathetic toward their differences from yourself.

As a teen, my very diverse friend group and I used “the R-word” and gay all the time. I remember feeling slightly attacked when society began to frown on the negative usage of those words. Not because I hated people with mental disabilities or people with different sexual preferences than my own, but because we thought they were funny punchlines in our day to day conversation. We were accustomed to using them that way, and we didn’t mean anything by it.

But over time, it’s become more and more obvious that using those words in that way is actually incredibly hurtful to those communities that already face so many challenges. It became obvious that using those words frivolously came from a place of privilege. Privilege to be born neurotypical. And even though some of my friends that used gay in a playfully derogatory way actually were gay themselves, they were privileged to be born into a world where those before fought to make non-heterosexuality visible. And they were privileged to be born in a time, place and skin color where much of the oppression either missed them or hadn’t hit them yet.

So I can understand why some people get angry at so-called “PC culture.” It’s because they feel hurt. Because they didn’t mean to be “bad,” and now they feel accused of some kind of crime. But if I (as a moody teenager who was apt to cry “no one understands me”) could shift from feeling oppressed, by having to change my vocabulary to learning about experiences different from my own, respecting those differences and empathizing with those differences, anyone can. It’s OK to feel bad when you’re called on to change. But it’s not OK to hang on to that small hurt and place it above other people’s long-term pain.

But I’m not saying I’m perfect. In fact, I’m about to point out a lot of words I use in an offensive way. But I’m working on it. Change takes practice.

So without further soapboxing, here are some real chronic illnesses that people need to stop using as hyperbole to describe their own quirks or things others do that annoy them. I’m going to post the Urban Dictionary definition of each, Lord help me.

1. OCD.

“OCD stands for obsessive-compulsive disorder.

This is a mental disorder in which the person thinks about something repeatedly (obsesses) or does behaviors repeatedly or carefully, out of his control (a ), such as checking over and over whether the oven is turned off, washing hands more than once, or counting swallows of water when drinking.

This is used as a verb to indicate acting like one has OCD, or behaving like a person with OCD.

Whenever I get any important new medications from the pharmacy, I OCD and count all the pills, to be sure the pharmacist gave me the right number!

After my roommate talks to her boyfriend, she OCD’s all evening about whether she might have hurt his feelings in any way.

 I hate parties because I OCD about my acne!”

OK. This is the one I’m most guilty of. My psychiatrist has pointed out that I actually have very obsessive tendencies, which is a good word to use instead of OCD. I do some weird shit because I do have anxiety, but I do not have OCD. And people who do really struggle a lot more than just counting pills to make sure the pharmacy didn’t short-change them. 

Also, just the English major in me needs to point out that this actually makes no sense because OCD is not even a verb, it’s a noun. So you can’t say, “I obsessive-compulsive disorder about my acne!” That’s just a jumble of random words.

2. Bipolar.

“It’s when your teacher/parent/authority figure is all nice one day and then the next they are flipping out.”

Did anyone see Mrs. Kennedy yell at me today? What’s up with her? She’s so bipolar!”

You can tell this one was definitely written by someone very mature. First, the obvious: anyone can have bipolar disorder, not just parents and teachers.

Second, it’s a real thing. Not just having mood swings. It can be very extreme. Even more extreme than a nice teacher like Mrs. Kennedy having to deal with rotten teenagers all day. Some words to use instead are “mood swings,” “emotional,” or something like “my emotions are all over the place,” or, “Mrs. Kennedy is so unpredictable, maybe I should behave and word hard on a really consistent basis to avoid feeling so ambushed.”

3. “Schizo,” or Schizophrenia.

“Someone with wildly diverse personality traits that manifests themselves in a less than sane manner.”

That bitch is a “schizo.” One minute she’s a Sunday school girl, the next minute she’s a crack whore that would make a sailor blush.”

Wow this post has a lot more cursing that I really intended, but when you’re dealing with Urban Dictionary…

Anyway, people are multifaceted, complex beings. Dichotomy resides in us all. But, perhaps more importantly is that schizophrenia is just plain not the word you’re looking for here. There’s a very clear cut set of diagnostic requirements to get the diagnosis that you can read all about online. But a girlfriend behaving erratically probably has more to do with you than her brain. Sudden extreme changes in expressed sexuality are a symptom of Bipolar Disorder, but you shouldn’t use that word here either. Try, “I just can’t figure out that bitch,” or maybe, “That bitch is wild and I do not understand her.”

Did you notice anything about these examples?

They’re all derogatory uses of mental illnesses. I actually can’t think of a time someone would use physical illness as hyperbole. But I would love examples and would totally do a follow-up post on that.

One example that I didn’t include above was depressed. I feel like “depressed” and “depression” are becoming more and more understood, and people know the nuances of usage. But maybe that’s still problematic. What do you guys think? Leave a comment, let me know.

Another grey area to me is the word “crazy.” I don’t think “crazy” refers so much to actual mental illness as it does to incomprehensible actions, and can be used both positively and negatively. Like, “You went skydiving? You’re crazy!” That could be praise. “Those shoes with that dress?” You’re crazy!” That’s probably an insult.

If we call a mass shooter “crazy” that could describe an actual mental illness or just unfathomable hatred. “Did you see these prices? They’re crazy!” Again, can go either way. I feel like the word “crazy” is so broad that it’s probably OK, but let me know in the comments if you disagree.

Thanks for evolving, world! I’m glad to see people trying harder to understand each other, and I’m willing to give up a funny hyperbole or two to facilitate that.

Photo credit: innovatedcaptures/Getty Images

Originally published: September 30, 2019
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