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On Being Crazy

Definitions govern things like relationship and power. Things like ‘premenstrual dysphoric disorder’. Words make all the difference.

May 21, 2020

Ray Levy Uyeda
Madder than hell
Modified from Kat Love

razy is a magic word. It shifts and shapes itself into a rhetorical crutch. Crazy is a bucket that holds meaning and an umbrella that shields unwanted connotation. Crazy (in most contexts) carries other words with it — words like irrational, untrustworthy, ridiculous, and silly. Crazy, in most contexts, allows the user not to rifle through their lexicon in search for other words, for a better, deeper means of converting their meaning.

Crazy is a word of convenience. Crazy is easy.

Ideas about crazy: Crazy always exists, either explicitly or silently, in partnership, adjacency, a kind of communion with women. She’s crazy, is a refrain heard so often, I doubt, really, that we even hear it anymore, like the word hell, which was once so offensive I could be given extra chores for uttering its name.

Now, like crazy, we say, shit and fuck and cunt. We’re less embarrassed these days by the way the c and the k click together, the way a consonant t rams a car against an imaginary verbal brick wall. Many women of my generation — which is to say, women who are still young to most and old to many — tell our stories with this kind of clicking, with this kind of force.

We’re not afraid to break things with our words. Our stories are not more broken than we are. Our stories don’t break us, they heal us.

How I began to wrestle with crazy is how I began to tell time with my body. I noticed that feeling out of control and irritable, wondering if I had bipolar disorder, or sleeping for nine or eleven hours at night, followed a 28-day pattern. And then — when I started to bleed, the lining of my uterus falling out of its home in dramatic order — knowing I felt better.

While I couldn’t count on my mood to remain constant, I could rely on my mood’s inconsistencies. That is, my emotions, running on a cycle connected with my period, were consistently inconsistent. With a pattern blooming in my mind, I researched potential causes and learned that around 5% of people who menstruate, most of whom are women, deal with this issue called premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD for short.

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Names are important, names help us define the thing. Names are labels that point us toward safety, away from danger, embarrassment or misinformation. A name read properly while calling roll in a classroom is the difference between acceptance and alienation. A label of “queer” is different from the abuse of the word “abnormal,” allowing us to live inside a world made of the queer and trans imaginary, rather than hide away from heterosexuality, a word that does not fit. Definitions of assault and harassment create linguistic boundaries that translate into material laws, governing things like relationship and power.

Words make all the difference.

When I first thought that I had PMDD, by way of an online quiz, I was asked to check how many symptoms lineup, and make sure at least six symptoms are felt every cycle. Learning I was a person with severe PMS, my brain and body flooded with relief; I wasn’t crazy.

Of course, to many folks, crazy is shorthand for premenstrual symptoms we feel before menstruation. Embedded into the social lexicon when women say, “I’m PMS-ing,” turns the noun of crazy into a verb of another form, serving the dual function of linking crazy to periods and superimposing them onto one another.

In that sense, to have a period, to experience a period, is to be crazy.

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As a self-described radical feminist™, I cringe at the use of words like crazy, my anger emboldened by a lineage of usage designed to harm society’s most vulnerable and regulate emotion (as though emotion is antithetical to intelligence and critical thinking) and wielded against those of us who are typically not believed for the experiences of our own lives.

But I used it. When having a breakdown at age 12 — driven by what I know now was PMDD and having learned that it can impact women and menstruating people before we get our first period — I cried to my friends after taking refuge in the bathroom and said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I feel crazy.”

And I still use it. After an official diagnosis from my first-ever therapist, I later told a friend that the yo-yo of emotional experience, coupled with the knowledge that a wave was coming and surely would pass, made me feel like I should believe the bad and that I couldn’t afford to trust the good. The mood swings weren’t just evidence of my mental incapacity, but the fixation on managing my symptoms was further proof of a crazy person’s obsession.

My academic background and lived feminist experience could not shield me from what I knew to be an unfair act by society onto women: I had become my PMDD and my PMDD had become me. Had we ever really been all that different?

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It’s not an easy way back from this thinking because there’s little scientific research into PMDD. Some reports say that it’s a genetic disorder with dysregulated estrogen and progesterone, while others believe it’s a psychiatric condition. Some qualitative research and narrative reports focus on the 15% of women with PMDD who attempt suicide, and yes, suicidal thoughts are one of characteristics of PMDD. In the UK, PMDD is covered under the 2010 Equality Act, and in the United States, Americans with PMDD are technically protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But we know that women don’t report mental health concerns at the rate they occur, and even when they do, women are disbelieved at alarming frequency. The legacy of crazy women is one of the most effective disinformation campaigns.

In a sub-Reddit thread on PMDD, one user writes,

“My mood swings lately have been so crazy and haphazard that I honestly don’t know what [sic] real anymore.”

Another user says,

“I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately for myself and I absolutely hate that it’s 2 weeks of every month that I’m feeling like this. It’s 50% of my life…”

I don’t just know their pain, I feel it, too. There are posts from women detailing the paranoia they feel about their jobs, bosses, families and spouses when the PMDD time comes around. There are stories about underlying issues of depression and anxiety, and when coupled with PMDD it’s hard to tell which is which.

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With no medication, no panacea, and no proof that a total hysterectomy will mellow symptoms, fighting PMDD might have the same call to action involved in fighting all the various dimensions of patriarchy: belief.

While belief does not allow for paid medical leave from work, free or affordable mental health care, or public education on suicide prevention, belief is the counter to crazy. Belief and crazy are magnetic words that repel each other; they can’t exist in the same space simultaneously.

Belief in women’s stories cannot steal pain away, though it diminishes the likelihood that we will feel crazy.

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