Our language is flawed. The meanings and connotations of words evolve, and as a result, there are aspects of our daily vocabulary that are offensive to a minority, which subsequently makes it “okay” because there isn’t as much opposition. But it’s not okay. And among these are illnesses.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder. “I’m a little OCD about this”, or “you’re being so OCD” are phrases commonly heard from people of all different backgrounds. But what do these sentences really evoke? The term OCD, meant to be specific, has become synonymous with common descriptions, and people have used them as they themselves deem fit. Sure, you can be a little obsessive, over-thinking and worrying. You can be a little compulsive, having a desire to have things a certain way, or even a little obsessive and compulsive. However, these traits are not uncommon among all humans. OCD is different from these impulses because of their severity and repetitive nature, and it interferes with people’s lives, which gives OCD the “disorder” part.
The fault of language is at play here. From what I’ve mentioned before, language is a dangerous thing that’s evolved and created new definitions for itself, marking old definitions as trite. We pursue the new thing, but at the same time, there is history and culture behind words you simply have no control over. When you choose your words, you are responsible for the effect they cause. When you are the speaker, you don’t get to choose who you offend.
Take the word “retarded”, for example, which is a politically incorrect term. On dictionary.com, one definition (slang) of this word is “stupid or foolish”. But these words aren’t interchangeable. Applying the word retarded is always offensive, and you cannot dictate that it is not. You can’t say the sentence, “I’m feeling foolish”, extract foolish and replace it with retarded without the potential of upsetting someone. Saying, “I’m feeling retarded” doesn’t have the same connotation as “I’m feeling foolish”, so why would we do this with other diseases? OCD is not synonymous with “neat freak”, anorexic is not synonymous with “very thin” and a panic attack is not just a little freak out when you discover you’ve got a test tomorrow morning. It’s insensitive to take a struggle people have to describe trivial matters. So follow this rule: mental illnesses are not adjectives.
Diabetes. This is a very particular case I never seemed to understand. Halloween was a while ago, but it was brought to my attention just how often people threw it around casually, like it rolled off their tongue. “Don’t eat so much candy or you’ll get diabetes!” or, “Are you trying to get diabetes?” are examples that bother me so. One, because these sentences obviously show you know nothing about the actual disease, and two, because these are remarks people use without ever understanding the disease. This could be someone’s first encounter with diabetes and all it entails, which consequently gives them a false view of the disease from the very beginning. Type One diabetes doesn’t have a cure or a pinpoint cause. You may make lifestyle changes to reduce your risk for Type Two diabetes but its origins are unclear as well. Both diseases can be hereditary, and age and race are also risk factors for Type Two diabetes.
So, as a Type One diabetic, my problem isn’t with the actual comment. I’m well aware it refers to Type Two diabetes, because it’s more common, and could potentially be an actual sentence to express concern for an older generation. But it usually isn’t. Using this phrase has become a way to degrade someone even though neither really know what diabetes is or what it does. It’s just a consensus that diabetes isn’t good. And diabetes itself isn’t good. Quite frankly, it’s a pain in the neck, but “Are you trying to get diabetes?” has become a response to an act the speaker believes to be repulsive. This builds a stereotype that we all are initially repulsive people, which leads to us getting diabetes, but we’re not. Our beta cells died on their own, and we had no choice but to accept it. These stigmas then lead people to believe that they know everything about this disease, when their sources come from rumors, and frequently say to me: “Is that sugar-free?”, “My grandfather cured his diabetes with milk” and “Are you sure you can eat that?” No it’s not sugar-free, milk isn’t magical and I can eat whatever I want — I just don’t choose to.
Whether we are diagnosed with a disease or mental illness, we are not adjectives. We are not hyperboles. We are not the extra little something to “spice” up a sentence, or give your story more fervor. Use it in this way and it invalidates what we go through. You take our name without all the bad stuff that comes with it. Our struggles are less significant and, especially from an uneducated standpoint, given a false identity. Our efforts to establish a reliable system among peers to ensure our safety is hindered and taken less seriously because of desensitizing exploitation. Your little joke has blossomed into our problem.
OCD or diabetes. Mental illness or disease. We don’t need more pressure from an outside source. You’re not sympathizing with us when you use them and no one really thinks you’re any funnier. If it’s a slip of the tongue, we get it, but don’t make excuses. Acknowledge that it is indeed offensive and learn from it.
Because our illnesses are not your quirk.