The other day, I shared a post on Facebook that seemed pretty self-explanatory. It received some pushback which puzzled me. Here’s the post:
My understanding is that it’s healthier to understand that because we face stress or negative emotions, it doesn’t make it any smaller just because someone else has a “bigger” problem. That has been a constant story for many that I’ve heard from, who struggle with their issues. They prevent themselves for seeking help because their problems are smaller in their own minds, therefore they have no right to speak up, or speak out. We shouldn’t have to minimise what we’re going through for the sake of someone else’s narrative or struggle.
As it turns out, the pushback was for a different reason. The implication behind this idea is that sometimes, this is needed so people get a sense of perspective of their problems. Alongside this conversation, there is the added assumption that people can shake off or shirk their responsibilities, since they can now blame their problems, or use and abuse this mindset to insist on their “bad” behaviour.
I once read a book from a criminal psychologist. I can’t even remember the title, nor do I want to – because all she set out to do in her book was to prove that all criminality and criminals do what they do because of their past trauma. It could be parents. It could be bad experiences. What made me throw the book away – literally – was that she then drew the line to say that since it wasn’t their fault that they had all these hurts, it wasn’t their fault that they acted out this way. Contrast that with something I heard from NCIS on TV – “You choose who you are without [your father].” This was spoken to a criminal who went on to say, “Yes, I choose. Each day, I choose to think of my father. I choose to think of my sister. And every moment that is left, I choose to think of seeing you dead.” We all have choices to make.
A friend of mine who had been hurting ending up stalking a mutual friend I met through him, whom he felt was attracted to him. He was planning a whole future with her, for her, without her knowledge. When she rebelled and tried to remove him from her life, he used all methods possible to tell her that he was hurt and that she was wrong to reject him. She got more and more scared, and hurt, and he kept rationalising it away as his depression. When he got called out – I was involved – for doing things to harm her, he insisted that depression has many faces, and expresses itself differently for different people. He maintained that he had apologised enough – though she had never received any apology – and that he had not been responsible for his actions. He blamed everyone for not accepting him for who he was, and blocked anyone who had anything less than supportive to say to him.
In no way does mental health conditions excuse behaviour. That is something that possibly is not discussed enough, as it can add an unnecessary burden, but is still true. In the midst of an episode, there are things that I do that are out of my control. When church was still active pre-Covid, I stood at the threshold of my church building and then wept as I left, because I could not control the shaking and the fear. I felt guilty after that. I have curled up in a ball at the foot of my sofa, next to my guinea pigs in their cage, wordlessly rocking, because I could do nothing else. More harshly, I have screamed and yelled at my wife because I couldn’t restrain my feelings. I felt unheard and unsafe, and I lashed out. Or I had been frustrated, with myself, with my condition and my helplessness at how I was reacting.
Oftentimes, I am lashing out, and feeling angry and guilty and helpless as I do so. As I escalate the issue, I am watching myself in dismay, feeling that I can’t do anything to stop it, even though all it takes is a word. Or a pause. Feeling worse, and making it worse because I am feeling increasingly bad about it. One such case involved me raising my voice at my wife in public, and then shutting her out completely until we were near home. By then, the tension in me had uncurled enough for me to want to say sorry and ask her to let me back into her life. But the damage had been done, and she had her own hurt and grief to process because of my actions.
Mental health conditions make us unaware of our actions at times. I believe sincerely that this one of the times where the burden of responsibility is lightened – you can’t be blamed too harshly for something you do when you’re effectively sleepwalking. There are also times where we take actions and say things, and even escalate situations where we’re in the midst of a mental health episode, we are literally out of control. But that doesn’t take away any of the bite or harm that we inflict in the midst of those episodes.
Does that mean we are helpless? No – when things are better, we can try to take steps to help ourselves. Someone close to me was upset and tried to hide the fact that they had forgotten – yet again – to complete a task assigned. He was found out, and when talking to him, I tried to understand why he tried to hide. He hated being told that he was disorganised. It made him feel small when people kept highlighting this fact about him. I reminded him gently that if it’s true, it’s true. He *is* a very disorganised person, and tends to forget things that are not written down. But it wasn’t about him being good or bad. It was simply part of who he was. Acknowledging it meant that now he could have things he could work on to help him to work with what he had (writing things down in a notebook). We’re still working on this together.
Nonetheless, for the things he forgot, he made reparations for each and every one as far as was possible. Now he could leave them behind. When he did forget things, there was no way he could have made up for them until they were brought to his attention. Was he any less responsible for trying to remember them? Evidently not.
What we do in our mental health recovery is similar. When things are stable, when we’re not struggling as much, therapy and therapeutic methods are learnt and practised. This is why we seek help – to manage our responses to our emotions better. Medicine helps to take the edge off, sometimes. Therapy helps to teach us new methods or ways of reacting better. When we are in the grip of an episode, it’s hard to think or do anything else other than react to the stimuli in that moment. So personal responsibility and self care include watching ourselves and our environment, to learn our warning signs, to avoid getting into those episodes as far as possible. It also includes learning coping mechanisms – instead of writing things down in a notebook (also valid), we could be learning to rationalise things in our head.
One clear example is when my wife ignores me because she is busy with something. I could think that she is ignoring me, period, and get angry and upset because no one cares about me. This may sound like an overreaction, but is entirely possible in depression, and can then lead to meltdowns, anger and frustration. CBT helped me to re-organise this, when I was calmer, to adjust my thoughts. On my own, I am more able to think that perhaps she’s just busy or that she didn’t hear me. On her side, what has helped is that she now responds quickly that she’s busy and will talk to me when she’s done. This helps both of us to move ahead with less pain and grief.
But in the big picture, telling me that my wife ignoring me is a small problem compared to Covid-19, is as good as telling me that I’m making things up. If my reasoning had been discussed, I would have been even more stigmatised for thinking that way, instead of re-modelling my approach to stimuli. Instead, recognising that being ignored triggered some responses in me from my past, helped me to understand that this is not necessarily true for my wife.
I want to be very clear. It is good to hold both at the same time – that we can have problems, and that others may have problems that may be “bigger” or more critical, life and death types even. But that doesn’t mean our problems are not problems that need to be handled. Another thing to hold at the same time – we can have a lack of control over our reactions during times of intense stress. But we can also have complete control on how we make up for it, or prepare for the lack of control when things are better. In fact, here are a few more:
- We can end up hurting others, even as they are hurting us.
- Self care can take care of our needs, but it is also needed for taking care of others’ needs.
- We can have mental health conditions, but we can also work on being mentally healthy as far as possible.
- We can be responsible for our own actions, even as some of our actions are a result of things out of our control.
- We can help others to get a sense of perspective, even as we acknowledge that what they’re struggling with is real, and possibly painful.
Keeping all these balanced and in mind aren’t easy, but they are all true and good to remember, for the sake of good mental health. At least this is true for me – and I hope it makes sense to someone else too.