Bad Behaviour, Mental Illness, and Reasons versus Excuses
So, it’s Mental Health Awareness month right now, and I have a few thoughts on mental illness I’d like to share. Well, more than usual, anyway.
I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about mental illness as a reason for bad behaviour, versus an excuse. Because, while we’re all stuck in lockdown and trying to while away the hours writing full-length operas about our cats and watching Lost, a lot of us have been dealing with the stress, anxiety, and depression that comes with such fear and uncertainty.
If you deal with mental illness, like I do, there’s a strong chance that whatever negative stuff that comes along with your diagnosis has been out to play recently. I know that it has for me. My OCD has been striding out front and centre into my life – “Don’t worry, Lou, I know how to deal with this. Now, touch that wall nine times and then change the colour of your toothbrush”. It’s not as helpful as it thinks it is, but hey, it’s trying.
And this got me to thinking about bad behaviour that comes as a result of being mentally ill. We’ve spent such a long time, as a society, viewing mental illness as an inherently destructive thing that there’s this gut need to deny that destruction when people try to attach it to people with mental illnesses. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot of stigma around certain mental illnesses regarding their impact on the people we surround ourselves with; issues like Borderline Personality Disorder and Bipolar Disorder are often lumped in with an inevitably destructive impact on the relationships of the people who suffer with them. But, broadly, the last few years have seen a turn towards the acceptance that mental illnesses don’t make someone an inherently bad or difficult person, and I am one-hundred-percent all for that.
But there’s no denying the fact that the stuff that I deal with does have the side effect of making me difficult to live with sometimes. When my eating disorder is in full swing, I’m moody, spacey, and constantly selfish. If my anxiety is bad, the urge to perform compulsions is intense, causing further distraction, or I end up seeking repeated reassurance from the people around me, which can seem rude or pushy. Depression leaves me lying in bed and ignoring all my friends’ texts and feeling too exhausted to do anything or see anyone. This stuff doesn’t make my life better and, sometimes, it can hurt the people around me, too.
I don’t think those things make me a bad person, and I think it’s fine to acknowledge that those things come from a place of disordered thinking. But I do think that it’s really easy to hold your hands up and make excuses for behaviour that might hurt you and the people close to you because of your mental illnesses. I know that I’ve done it myself: oh, sorry for being totally checked out of a conversation you were trying to have with me, I’m paranoid that the fart I can feel in my guts is actually cancer. Health anxiety, you know?
I have had many people in my life who I put up with dreadfully bad behaviour from, because they were mentally ill – and, as far as they were concerned, they couldn’t help the things that they did because of that. Their mental illnesses became a deflector shield for the shitty things that they did, a way to avoid responsibility and duck out of the discomfort of accepting that, mental illness or not, they were still the ones doing those things, hurting those people, causing that destruction. Their hands are off the wheel, and the damage they cause isn’t their fault just because they had their foot on the pedal.
I guess that it’s this that’s made me distinctly aware of when I’m doing the same thing, but sometimes, I still find myself sliding backwards and allowing things to slip because I can wave it away as out of my control. And while the disordered thinking might be a reason for that behaviour, it’s not, for me, an excuse.
One of the biggest reasons that I started trying to address my mental health problems in a serious way a few years ago was because they were hurting the people around me. I still think that taking care of yourself should come first, but that was the impetus for me and it remains the same to this day. There’s stuff that my brain tells me to do that’s rude, annoying, neglectful, even cruel.
And that might be a reason for doing them. But it’s not enough to excuse them – not enough to brush them off as inevitable, especially when they hurt the people I care about (and even those people I don’t). Learning to deal with this stuff is about more, for me, than just improving my own ability to live a normal life – it’s about taking responsibility for the actions that I know damage those around me, because I don’t want to let my mental issues call the shots for me. Identifying and working on triggers, managing symptoms, taking my meds. Not making excuses for the shitty things my brain tells me to do. I don’t want to write off my achievements as relative to my mental illness, and that means that I don’t get to write off my shit with the same excuse.
Which is not to say that I have fixed each and every little sharp edge on myself. I probably never will, because I am a lightly-crisped natural-born bitch at the end of the day, and it’s basically impossible to go through life without bumping off someone in a way that pisses them off. But mental illnesses, as far as I’m concerned, should not be used as a hall pass for acting like a fucking asshole. Mental illnesses may not make someone an inherently bad person, and I truly believe that, but they do not offer a delete-all button for being a dick. Your mental illness does not define me, nor does it excuse me. But it’s a part of me, and it’s my job to accept the responsibility to live with how they impact the people around me.
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