Dear Amy: I have struggled with my mental health my entire life.
I’ve been in and out of several psychiatric hospitals over the past few years.
I’ve always been private with my emotions, having been raised in a family that doesn’t talk about feelings. Therefore, my first hospital admission came as a surprise to my parents, though they did visit me often while I was there.
To this day, we still don’t talk about my struggles, nor have my parents asked me about why I was there.
I was recently at a (small, distanced) family gathering with my parents and an aunt. Somehow, the conversation turned to my grandfather’s service in World War II.
In what was framed as a funny anecdote, my parents and aunt repeatedly talked about my grandfather’s time guarding the “loony bin.”
I was very taken aback by this phrase and the laughter that accompanied it. I was too surprised to react in the moment.
Several weeks later, I’m still supremely hurt by this conversation.
The derogatory comments toward the people in the hospital felt like a dagger to my heart.
I don’t know where to go from here. I haven’t had any contact with any of them since that day.
— I’m No “Loony”
I’m No “Loony”: When people make a deeply insensitive remark — or a slur — the appropriate response is to react honestly to it, either in the moment or later on, once you’ve caught your breath.
Retreating into an angry silence may be the norm in your family, but it is not useful. Changing this one thing about how you respond to things that hurt you might be good for you, and it would definitely be useful to them.
Their terminology and attitude toward people with mental illness is both unfortunate and obsolete. Your family members were repeating slurs and stories from 70 years ago, using language that was commonly used at that time.
If you are able, reach out and tell them something along these lines: “I had never heard those stories from Grandpa’s service in World War II before. Honestly, though, calling a hospital a ‘loony bin’ is a terrible thing to say. I was shocked when I heard people using that term. People who have mental illness are not ‘loony,’ and they don’t spend time in a ‘bin,’ any more than people who have cancer do. I feel it is important to let you know that.”
My suggested script does not refer to your own experience in hospitals, which I sense hews to your family’s style.
Being more open about your own illness could be a game-changer for you. I hope you will talk to your therapist about ways to connect more deeply with your family. Your advocacy is a positive step in that direction. (c) Ask Amy
This problem seems to be familial and generational in nature. The grandfather raised the letter writer’s aunt and one of her parents to believe that if you show emotions, you’ll wind up with the loonies in the bin. That’s probably how he raised them. “Quit crying, or you’ll wind up in the loony bin, you whiner.” When you add in that he made derogatory jokes about the people he guarded, ugh.
I can see how it would lead to generations of repression.
And when you add that repression to the aunt’s obvious smallmindedness and the letter writer’s parents’ inability to stand up to peer pressure (by changing the subject or not contributing to the discussion), you’ve got a recipe for tension.
The parents might also be smallminded. But I don’t sense any deliberate snark, because that would require a certain amount of brainpower that I’m not sensing here among the letter writer’s family; and her parents have never acted this way until they were joined by the aunt. I’m guessing the parents went along with the “lunacy” in order to avoid rocking the boat.
I completely agree with Ask Amy’s advice, especially the part about how the letter writer should find her voice. “I’M CRAZY, BUT YOU GOTTA LOVE ME!” Sing it, sister. Just own it. Force it in your family members’ faces and report back.
Seriously, I want the letter writer to become more expressive. Could she dye her hair blue, get a tattoo, shave her head, or just start discussing her emotions and not stopping? Any of the above would be great. I picture her wearing a comfy cardigan and penny loafers. She needs to break out and get funky. Maybe sing some karaoke? Definitely she needs to get in touch with her emotions and master expressing them. That should be the first order of the day here.
I also think she should feel grateful to have uncovered this information. It’s not every day that someone suddenly gets stuff handed to them that explains their family’s dysfunction. This was an unexpected gift!