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We talk a lot about stigma; the various forms that it can take, both direct and indirect, and the ways that we can combat it. We talk a lot about this stuff, but often fail to recognize that talking — literal language itself — is sometimes part of the problem.

On the phone with a friend the other day, she revealed that her OCD had been “acting up” due to stress, and went on to describe a morning full of furious laundry folding, laughing as the story went on.

“I didn’t know you have OCD,” I said in earnest, wondering how it was that I could have known her for all this time, and not have ever heard about it.

“Well I don’t really,” she said. “I just, like, get this urge to Windex my whole world when I’ve got other important shit to do.” Laughter again.

I couldn’t name my feeling in that moment. Was I embarrassed for having taken something that was meant to be a joke so seriously? Was I angry with her for such pejorative humour? Was I frustrated with myself for reacting so self-righteously? Or was the disappointment less about her ignorance, and more about my own? Surely this wasn’t the first time I’d heard something like this in my life… Why only now did I notice?

So I made a plan to listen.

For the next three days, I kept my ears open for it; unintentional judgments being made around me, casual exchanges that were capable of evoking feelings of discomfort, or worse, if overheard by the wrong person.

I heard a lot.

– Using ‘ADD’ as a way to describe a general disinterest in something, resulting in lack of focus; “I hated that movie, I was so ADD in it that I texted right through to the credits.”

– ‘Bipolar’ used as an adjective… for the weather

– The word ‘addiction’ used to explain the act of really, really enjoying something, like Green Tea Lattes

– Someone sharing about his long list of “psychotic ex-girlfriends” (Dude, next time you encounter a woman in psychosis, take her to the ER, and not out to dinner. Problem solved!)

It was shocking to observe how frequently we use words like ‘crazy’ to describe things that are abnormal, people who are a little left of center, or traits within ourselves that we just don’t like.

I am certainly guilty of this too. Just last week, I labeled a tin of cookies “nutty like me” to warn my co-workers about allergies. And here I thought I was being clever.

We can talk about change all we want, but maybe the change needs to start with the way we talk. And if I’m not the one talking, if it’s something I hear, I need to start listening to my gut, and say something out loud. Because, with all that I know, it would truly be insane not to.

About Carli Stephens-Rothman

With a BA in Journalism from Ryerson University, Carli has been writing professionally for seven years. Today she can admit that six of those were mostly a blur. Reaching a year clean and sober in December of 2015 -- after privately (and then not so privately) battling addiction for much of her twenties -- Carli has refocused her personal and professional lives in order to nurture a new path. From her home on Vancouver Island, she continues to freelance for a number of Toronto-based publications, including The Toronto Star and SheDoesTheCity, while setting out upon a new academic journey in the field of addictions and mental health. When not writing or studying, or exploring the brilliant world of recovery, she teaches yoga with a focus on healing and confidence-building.

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