The Language of Insanity

The Language of Insanity

Currently, there seems to be no sufficient language of insanity. What I mean, is that for those of us who experience highly unusual cognitive states, there is no adequate way of describing them. “Mood disorder”, “hypomania”, “anxiety”, and all those other psychological/psychiatric terms just don’t do it. Insanity needs its own language.

Language of Anxiety

I’m suffering through a major anxiety bout thanks to medication side effects. I told my doctor the anxiety is so bad that it incapacitates me and I can’t take it. So he says to me, “How does the anxiety feel?”

I hummed and hawed a bit before saying, “It’s like sandpaper is grating on my veins.”

So he says, “How does that work?”

I don’t know. It just does. There are no words or phrases that really describe what severe anxiety feels like. There is no definition for “internally scratchy.” There is no definition for “phone-booth brain with people shouting at me.” There is no definition for “screaming cells.” That’s not my fault. There just aren’t the words I need to describe such an unusual experience. I totally understand why he doesn’t understand but I don’t know how to do any better.

Insanity’s Language

Insanity doesn't have its own language. It feels impossible to describe a serious mental illness. The language of insanity needs improvement.And, of course, it’s not just anxiety that has no words, it’s all the extreme symptoms of mental illness. I have spent 14 years describing bipolar disorder and yet when put on the spot, it’s still almost impossible for me to describe things accurately and concisely. I wrote a book about bipolar disorder and depression and yet I feel like there are many more books required before the subject is really explored.

So when asked, “How does hypomania feel?” or “What is anhedonia like?” it really takes thousands and thousands of words to answer the question. And it requires a lot of thought. And planning. And metaphors.

It’s frustrating.

The Lack of Language Around Insanity

It’s frustrating that I can’t adequately explain mental illness, even though my job is explaining mental illness. How ironic is that?

And I think it’s not my fault. The words haven’t been invented yet. There is no real way to communicate about something that only 4% of people (the percentage of people with serious mental illness) experience. If an experience of insanity were a stubbed toe, I could say that, but the experience of insanity is more like being in a whirling blender, hitting the blades now and then.

So we need new words like “curflumptin” (the state you’re in when you can’t remember things thanks to a medication fog) or “screamy” (what happens internally when a medication is too activating). While I do make words up, I’m a writer, we do things like that (Shakespeare did oodles of it), I’m not a linguist and can’t make up a whole new insanity taxonomy. Plus, you know, it might take a while to catch on.

So that’s unlikely to happen. What I do know is that until we find these new words, these metaphors, these ideas, the difficulty will remain. All people can do is try to be understanding as we flail when trying to explain these insane experiences. And all we can do is try our best to describe our realities. (This may be why visual art works for many. No words are needed.) We should choose the words of others who resonate with us if we can’t find our own. And we should not beat ourselves up if there’s still a gap. We’ll probably fill it, eventually.

Image by Flickr user csullens.


About Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is an award-winning writer, speaker and consultant from the Pacific Northwest. She has been living with bipolar disorder for 18 years and has written more than 1000 articles on the subject.

Natasha’s New Book

Find more of Natasha’s work in her new book: Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. Media inquiries can be emailed here.



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