Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
I heard this childhood rhyme on the school playground many times while I grew up. Usually it was after one classmate hurled an insult at another.
I thought about these words after a recent social media post left me feeling unsettled. I had read a Facebook post by an acquaintance that read, “Am I Bipolar, or what?” The person went on to question her choice in music. I groaned as disappointment set in.
Really? I thought how can you compare a choice in types of music with Bipolar- a debilitating brain disorder? I felt the comment made light of an illness and perpetuated stigma – as if a person had a choice to be Bipolar or not. I made a public comment expressing my concern with the choice of words and the spread of stigma. This wasn’t the first time I had expressed my displeasure about making light of mental illness. But in the past, I sent it as a personal message. I’m not sure why I didn’t choose this route and instead posted my comment on the person’s page that day. There wasn’t a reply, so I didn’t add anything further.
Later that day, I had a phone call to tell me that my comments on the post had upset my Facebook friend. The caller admonished me, pointing out that it was indeed a correct use of the phrase, bipolar. The caller had looked it up and read the description from the dictionary.
I didn’t intend to offend my Facebook friend, so once I knew that I had, I sent an apology in a private message and removed my post. My friend’s response assured me my observation was understood – that it was a result of my well-publicized passion for mental illness. Somehow, I didn’t feel better. I no longer believe the childhood chant. Sticks and stone can break bones. Words can hurt. Period. I had just done it to a friend in my effort to educate. It made me think about words and how they hurt.
Social media enables us to use words to hurt on a broader scale. Words that drive a nail into our wall of defense, now seen by scores of individuals are repeated and hammered permanently into our self-worth and we tend to believe them.
The Facebook interaction left me pondering the tide of word censorship, the use of words and my view on the subject. Have we become a society that is too sensitive to common words and their new implied meaning? I thought about bipolar, the word that started all of this and decided to explore it. Before 2005, I wouldn’t have given the word a thought. But, in 2005, I became involved in the world of mental illness. I’d always known that it existed, but I didn’t think I’d become an advocate for those affected.
This attitude changed in 2005 when I learned about the world of mental illness by default. I had a stream-lined education when schizophrenia manifested in our twenty-four-year-old daughter. But through the grace of God, I found the organization, NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness.) Through this group, I found guidance and understanding. My attitude toward mental illness changed. Along with that came an awareness of my own use of words. I no longer tell someone, “You’re delusional,” when I think their logic seems confused. I’d witnessed my loved one suffer the mental anguish that accompanies delusions. I catch myself before I tell someone, “You’re crazy,” and replace it with “I think that’s silly” or “I don’t agree.” Why? Because too often I’ve heard it referred to as a component of a mental health condition.
I decided to explore word censorship by typing bipolar into the google search engine. The first definition referred to having or relating to two poles or extremities, such as north or south poles. The next one stated: a biological disorder of the brain. Most people call it mental illness. Reading this made me think about my use of words.
This led me to another question: when did bipolar become a term for the previously named Manic Depression? More internet research gave me the answer. On April 14, 1980, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) changed the classification diagnosis – thirty-seven years ago.
So, with that knowledge I had to ask myself again, “Am I over-sensitive about the use of the word bipolar? And if the answer is yes, do I have the right to call people out on social media? Does this help the cause or just hurt feelings?
I stewed about it for hours before I came to the conclusion: I rarely hear the word bipolar used anymore except in reference to mental illness. Yes, bipolar can mean opposites, such as north and south poles with magnets or undecided because of opposing views. But I also realized for most of my life, I’d only heard a more common phrase, “polar opposites” that referred to indecision. But the most important revelation: I can only control my own words.
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Ephesians 4:29 I like this verse. It says a lot to me.
When I publicly chastise others for their use of words, it sounds judgmental. Is that building them up? Isn’t a better approach to lead by example? Or to share my view privately with an explanation why I prefer to use alternate words?
I know me. I will wince when I hear others make fun of mental health hospitals, call someone delusional or crazy, or refer to indecisiveness as bipolar. But I will hold my tongue in public or keep my fingers off the keyboard. A better approach for me is to explain my view on the use of words with compassion and a gentle spirit. In addition, I plan to choose my own words with care, being mindful of how they will affect others. Because sticks and stones may break my bones, but my words can also harm others.