Crackpot concoction. The expression stopped me in my editing tracks.
In my role overseeing the Lifestyle section at The National, I come across stories that deal with everything from Barbie-inspired merch and celebrity interviews, to social-media-fed body imaging and parenting conundrums.
Oftentimes language that borders ... not on vulgar exactly, but is still inappropriate, will slip into the more light-hearted of these pieces. When a particularly dramatic actor reveals that he was “going crazy” during the pandemic, for example, or when a TikTok chef from Brooklyn decides to dub a soup she’s been cooking for months on end “crackpot concoction”.
As the conversations around mental health expand, with more people than ever speaking out and seeking help – or encouraging others to do so – the words we choose to use are becoming more important than ever.
As Eleanor de Jong, who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, wrote in a recent column for The Guardian: “I feel deeply uncomfortable when the word ‘bipolar’ is used so offhandedly, usually to indicate indecision, whimsy or whiplash moods. (Katy Perry, I’m looking at you.) Bipolar is an extremely destructive disease and, when people with moody personalities or unruly personal lives claim it as their own, the meaning and pain behind this diagnosis slowly erodes.
“The majority of people with severe bipolar do not lead glamorous, highly creative lives and it’s certainly not a synonym for ‘interesting’. Indeed many, if not most, sufferers are plagued by patchy employment records, high divorce rates, substance misuse and an expected lifespan of eight to 12 years lower than the general population. So it’s really no small thing to start describing yourself, or someone else, as ‘so bipolar’.”
De Jong’s heart-wrenching narrative brought back memories of a story we did on obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Emily (name changed on request), a third-generation sufferer after her father and paternal grandmother, told The National: “As a child I wasn't aware of it, but I could just sense something was wrong. For them, it manifested in excessive cleaning. The house I grew up in could never be clean enough, and we were late for everything because my father had to clean the house before we could leave.
“But OCD is not about being clean or tidy, and I hate hearing people say that the ideal housemate is ‘someone with OCD’. People talk about the condition casually and flippantly.
“This is not a cute way of saying you like to organise your shoe collection.”
Hence the conundrum over the Brooklyn chef’s contentiously named concoction. But that was the name – one that went viral, no less – assigned to this broth. So I took an editorial decision and buried the “crackpot” descriptor deep down in the story, employing the weak prefix “so-called” before its use.
Unfortunately, I was not so cautious during Sunday brunch.
“I am sooo sorry. Seriously, I think I have early-onset Alzheimer’s. I need memory pills,” I said to a friend who asked me why I had not texted her back since Tuesday.
Of course, I regretted the words as soon as they came out of my mouth, mainly because sitting directly opposite me was a friend whose mum had been diagnosed with dementia only last week. She wanted nothing to do with him most days, a reality – her reality – he was struggling to come to terms with.
He looked up at me, ever so slowly, smiled sadly and looked away – a reaction far worse than if he’d grimaced or even called me out.
I started to apologise, but realised while sometimes words are loaded, other times they are empty. It’s up to me, and us all, really, to practise and not just preach mindfulness – in verbal and non-verbal communication – when it comes to mental health.