On Mad Advantage: A Letter to 'The Normals' (and to the Rest of Us)

Deaf gain, rather than hearing loss, has long been theorized in capital-D-Deaf cultural spaces. Borrowing liberally from this "reframing" (while acknowledging that there are intersections across identities -- one can be part of the Mad Pride movement and culturally Deaf), I wish to forward a perspective that I call "mad advantage."

If I could go back in time and have been relieved of the unremitting distress and suicidality that I experienced and sometimes, in fleeting moments, still do, but in so doing would have to relinquish my compassion and empathy, a relentless attention to detail, and an ability to perceive the big picture (with intermittent synesthesia) -- flipside facets of depression and anxiety's coin, in my case -- I would choose to give up nothing.

I would rather live with it all, with mad advantage, not minimize or idealize troubles or eschew benefits for the sake of some semblance of alleged normalcy. I would rather not lose anything of "the not-monolithic me" that I have fashioned (with a lot of support) and whose unfolding continues. My beliefs are contextualized by privileged access to resources and choices, and, generally speaking, being able to express my opinions openly.

Being labeled and/or self-identifying as "crazy," one may at first (and in some cases indefinitely) lose access to the power of alinearity. Wandering perceptions, descriptions, expressions, in whatever forms, represent access to a kind of cultural capital that accompanies not having a "crazy" identity. For, presumably, in being, acting, thinking "crazy," the nomadism, the meanderings, even tangentiality altogether can be reduced to shorthand. These communications are turned, often enough, by certain "normals" (and, at times, by self-identified "mad" folk) into overdetermined explanations.

I sense these judgments, simmering and unspoken, but sometimes boiling over, along these lines: "You can't string a sentence together. This feels incoherent. You must be mad. You are doing that crazy thing you do. I can't understand you." Following if not occurring simultaneously with these soupy moments are typically the sentiments "Stop." Or, "Change."

Without the stigmatizing labels of madness, one has greater freedom to roam -- still within the confines of other arenas of access and its blockages, yes. Poesis in abundance, painterly fun, and even grief unpoliced? Maybe not entirely, but greater access seems to exist -- without the Goffmanian "spoiled identity" -- to what is referred to as code switching; or, such access occurs with far greater ease than in the absence of these life-influencing (presumably well-meaning but often violently experienced) labels.

The right to be outside of the box, unaccompanied by eyebrows raised, is much more nuanced than joking, however truthfully, that the difference between madness and eccentricity is money.

If one takes as foundational a point-of-view that folks are not all the same, we may by choice or necessity rail appropriately against oppression while owning ethically how we have access, if and when we do.

While mindfulness teachings help us to imagine and live otherwise, in many respects, even the most centered and cheerful among us do not all have equal access to joy and peace every minute of every day. And, living with emotional variance can be difficult even in the absence of societal and interpersonal oppression. If we absolve ourselves of the idea that those experiencing madness are somehow closer to truth or to the gods, and if emotional differences do not have to be understood as automatically artful, then madness is neither a blessing nor a curse.

Put differently, madness need not be interpreted as a necessary dualism of extremes or as a tenuously magical splitting. "Dangerous gifts" and being "touched with fire" have been described respectively by the Icarus Project and Kay Redfield Jamison, among others. In contrast, Marta Caminero-Santangelo has pointed out that claiming madness is "subversive" is risky in its own right.

My premises here are different from asserting that there is an evolutionary advantage to depression, as has been discussed elsewhere (including in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Scientific American).

For me, the idea of madness as a plurality underscores a range of thinking and feeling. These explicit as well as hidden variances in cognition and affect are expressions of diversity and uniqueness; they have the potential to contribute to experiences of mad cultural pride and the furthering of variegated "crip" identities. Autistic scholar-activists including Lydia Brown and the neurodiversity pride movement writ large have taught me a lot, in these and other respects. Madnesses too may illustrate neuroatypicality.

Much has been articulated regarding the ways people can and cannot, should and ought not to have to share spaces publicly and privately. How do we make space, practically and symbolically, for each other's differences, where so-called "craziness" is concerned?

Misunderstandings of narrative "incoherence" and alinearity can be ableist, whether discrimination is intended or unintended. In contrast, "mad" folks who choose "incoherence" strategically can under certain circumstances experience empowerment, a survival motif associated resiliently with mad advantage. Alas, for some, this strategy may inadvertently re-center the troubling aspects of ableism and its close cousin, mentalism. Importantly, the creative endurance that I'm describing -- distinct from the typified romanticization of madness-as-creativity -- may happen not just in "crip" or "mad" spaces, but in spaces dominated by "normals."

So, what of the "normals," and how can they (you) be expected, after all, to manage in the face of these messy interlocutory techniques? Can't the "crazies" just try harder to pass? Okay, but that's boring, and I'm sick (as it were) of assimilation -- it's also oppressive to always be expected to be the ones who have to make the compromises, do the teaching, be patient. Instead, let us push the imaginative arc further: these matters are not just about accommodations, or the impossibility of our aspirational Universal Design politics. Instead, communication really does involve an array of approaches, probably occurring most productively in the context of interdependent lovingkindness.