Baiting Mental Illness: Attempts at No-Fault Ableism

Note: In this post, I am using the terms “bipolar disorder” and “manic depression” interchangeably. The latter is sort of an old-school term for the same illness, and one that some sufferers prefer as more descriptive. Personally, I find both terms handy in different linguistic scenarios, hence my dual use of them here.

I once had a friend call me a “drama queen” because I had a panic attack. She knew of my anxiety disorder, I’d told her just a few hours prior that I’d been horribly rape-triggered by a traumatic event that afternoon, and was on dangerous ground, sanity-speaking. Yet when her boyfriend decided to mansplain to me about male privilege and rape, when I had no one in my corner to advocate for me, I was in the wrong for choking on my own tears and running to hide while I tried to recover my ability to breathe. I was just a drama queen, mental disorder be damned. That’s just an excuse for being a bad person, doncha know.

This is an approach to mental illness that I am absolutely unwilling to tolerate. Mental illness is not an “excuse” for shitty behavior. Sometimes mental illness causes shitty behavior, but it’s not an “excuse.” It’s a legitimate fucking reason that is often far beyond the control of the mentally ill person.

I bring this up because recently, I lost another friend to my bipolar disorder. She sees it differently, though; she feels that I am an awful person, and while that may have emerged during a manic episode, it is not intrinsically linked to it. Basically, she thinks my true cruelty came out during a manic episode, and I’m blaming my illness for my poor behavior. She specifically said “it wasn’t the manic episode” it’s that I’m a “hateful asshole.” We’ve known each other for years, and she thinks all of those years of me being a generally kind and loving person were a lie, and my one day of horrible behavior is who I really am. One day of thousands, and that’s the “real” me. Man I work hard at this facade. No wonder I snapped! It’s really hard to make the world believe I’m not doing all this puppy-kicking to start my days.

Before I go further into my personal example, I’m going to take this moment to dispel some myths about bipolar disorder:

  • Episodes of mania or depression are always of a similar, recordable length. For some reason, there’s this idea that you can set an egg timer and know when a manic/depressive episode will end, and that’s incredibly untrue. Depending on the individual, their meds and therapeutic control, the specific triggers involved, and the surrounding circumstances, episodes can last from days to months, with strong mood fluctuations from minutes to days. And there may be moments of clarity and calm in the middle of an episode, only to disappear moments later.
  • Outsiders (family, friends, therapists) are best able to judge when an episode is occurring, and when it will end. Just because we’re in the grips of chemicals beyond our control doesn’t mean we’ve lost all concept of reality. A bipolar person can know damn well that they’re stuck in an episode, but still be unable to crawl out (bootstraps! and what have you). And while outsiders can sometimes identify an episode, that isn’t an inherently good thing. Judging an episode as “over” because the bipolar person has met some arbitrary definition of normalcy can be dangerous, because it ignores the very real delicacy of our states of being. Likewise, it’s disrespectful and ableist to blame every poor mood on our disorder. Sometimes our highs and lows are the same as anyone not suffering bipolar, and blaming our illness for everything is ableist and condescending.
  • Bipolar people are hard to love. This is a huge social myth, aimed at isolating the mentally ill. Yeah, dealing with bipolar can be challenging, but so are any of a million other aspects of someone’s personality. It’s hard to love people in certain fields of work, because they’re very busy, so you rarely see them. It’s hard to love sports fanatics whose sports bore the utter shit out of you. It’s hard to love cat people when you’ve got horrible pet allergies. But no one suggests that those people live alone and unloved forever, because those people have not been branded with the stigma given to the mentally ill.
  • Mania is inherently violent. Some manic-depressives are extremely non-violent, even when in the grips of a severe manic episode. Mania is not about what our bodies are doing, it’s about what our minds are doing. We can tear at our internal walls ‘til they bleed, without so much as stepping on a ladybug.
  • Mania and depression are linear, and someone with bipolar can only exist at one given point on that line. A manic-depressive can experience both ends of their illness at once, in a complicated web of interaction. Sometimes a manic episode can trigger a depressive one, or vice versa, and so they are intrinsically linked until the person is able to dig themselves out. This actually makes the illness more dangerous, especially for those of us prone to self-injury or suicidal tendencies. Acts of self-harm that we wouldn’t normally engage in when depressed become common tools of self-punishment when mania sneaks into our depressive minds.
  • I’d also like to cover some little-acknowledged truths about manic depression:

  • Manic-depressives are taught that we are undeserving of empathy or compassion. Our illness is painted as one of selfishness and cruelty, and we are taught to hate ourselves for it. Society only likes personalities that clean up pretty, and ours do not, at least not all the time. We are taught that since we are not “normal,” we can not expect “normal” people to be understanding or kind. Asking such of them is demanding too much, and just another example of how selfish we are.
  • Our mental health does not and should not have to live apart from us as people. The way to manage this illness is not by trying to compartmentalize it and shove it under a rug at the back of our brains, it’s to acknowledge that it is a real part of us. It doesn’t have to be treated as inherently negative, either, in order to successfully integrate it into our lives. Like any illness, it may sometimes make things a little shaky for us, but it does not define who we are.
  • There is no right or wrong way to have a manic or depressive episode. Not everyone will experience their illness in the same way, which is another reason why it’s dangerous for outsiders to make assumptions about our episodes. Some people will have manic episodes that last days and result in taking a sledgehammer to furniture and burning family photos. (I use this as an example because this is what I witnessed from my grandmother as a child.) Some people will have manic episodes that present as nasty comments, an utter lack of patience with anyone and anything, and an inability to properly express any of their thoughts. (This is how I primarily present.) Not all depressive arcs result in self-injury or suicide attempts; sometimes it’s just lethargy and apathy.
  • It is blatantly ableist to bait a bipolar person when you know they are in the middle of an episode, that they are off their meds, or that they are otherwise at greatly increased risk of having an episode. This does not mean you have to walk on eggshells around us, but simply that you shouldn’t trample us under your heels. If someone says their allergies are acting up, you don’t get to wave a bunch of flowers under their nose, then call them a monster when they sneeze on you. Similarly, you don’t get to antagonize someone who has point-blank warned you that they are off their meds or on a manic streak, then act like it’s all their fault when they lose their shit. If you’ve been warned of an episode, or have witnessed it, and don’t think you can stick by the person through it, the least you can do is steer clear, and not antagonize them.
  • It is ableist to demand that we meet social definitions of normalcy in order to be respected or loved. Some folks can never truly be “normal,” in the sense that they maintain an easy balance between their extremes. If you don’t want to expose yourself to the “risk” of experiencing either of those extremes, you should not offer love or close friendship to someone with bipolar. You are not required to take abuse, or stay with someone who you feel harms you, but you also should not promise love and support to someone with a mental illness, then flee the moment that illness causes trouble.We deserve to know who’s in our corner, to know who we can count on when we hit our lows. It’s as much a measure of self-preservation and self-respect as you might view your need to flee.
  • So, back to the personal example: As I said, I lost a friend to a manic episode. But the most upsetting part of it is not the loss of the friendship, but rather how it was lost. It’s left me feeling unsupported, suspicious, and frightened, because of how it lined up with things on my handy-dandy lists up there.

    The confrontation was born of a Tumblr post. (Oh, social media, how you like to cause trouble.) In that post, I said, “Going cold-turkey off one of my meds (which controls both depression and chronic pain) because my doc keeps calling out sick.” Now, I’m going to take this moment to explain that for a chronic pain sufferer, mental illness can be even more frightening, because our physical pain often manifests in psychological ways, our psychological problems can cause physical disorders, and the complex web of physical and chemical imbalances is an absolute nightmare. TL;DR being in pain can, all on its own, trigger bipolar. And I am in a constant state of pain.

    That aside, I announced that I was off a psych med. And one med often feeds off of another, one pill may increase or decrease the effects of another, so going off even one pill (especially cold-turkey) is a recipe for disaster. So, when a friend mentioned reading that post, and came to me with objections related to another part of it, I lost my shit. Want to know how lost my shit was? Here’s an example of how I was able to communicate during this day-long episode:

    I’m losing it. huge manic episode earlier soitired to nap it of then woke up to being abandoned by someoneiright card about me and nowijust want to fucking kill myself

    Not exactly my normal eloquence, is it? And I actually had moments of much worse lucidity.

    I was so angry at this friend for bringing up something that, seen through my mania, was so insignificant and selfish that I flew right the fuck off. And I said nasty things, some of them utterly unreadable because of my inability to properly communicate. (Seriously, I drunk-text better than that.) Then it finally hit me that my fury was less about the subject my friend had brought up, and more about how ableist it was to insist on talking about it while I was in such a state. And then I kept saying, over and over, how ableist it was, and it kept not mattering to her, or not making sense to her, or maybe both. And I said it with a lot of “fuck”s because that’s how I roll. Like I said, I was nasty. And, caused my my illness or not, I would have apologized for that nastiness once I came back to center. But when she told me everything was “overwhelmingly” my fault, that “it wasn’t the manic episode,” it was how “hateful” I was…that’s when I realized the friendship was over. Because I’m not willing to have fair-weather friends. My “hatefulness” in that day was outweighed thousands-to-one by my kindness on other days, she knew I was having a manic episode, she knew I was off my psych meds before she started a contentious conversation, and still it was all my fault? My inability to meet social standards of “normalcy,” my physical, chemical inability to communicate to her level was worth derision? I will not grovel for forgiveness of my illness from an ableist person.

    When you’re dealing with an unmedicated or mid-episode manic-depressive, you don’t get to feel superior for being kinder, calmer, or better able to communicate. Feeling that sort of moral superiority over me when I’m physically and chemically unable to reach those standards of acceptability is like feeling superior to me because you can run.

    Get it? Because I’m a cripple. lololol.

    Reinforcing those unattainable standards of normalcy on someone in such a situation is ableist, full stop. And I’m tired of people expecting me to apologize for being disabled.


    About bunnika

    shout at the brick wall; if it doesn't hear you, shout louder
    This entry was posted in ableism, challenging privilege, sj allies. Bookmark the permalink.

    2 Responses to Baiting Mental Illness: Attempts at No-Fault Ableism

    1. randomcheeses says:

      “Mental illness is not an “excuse” for shitty behavior. Sometimes mental illness causes shitty behavior, but it’s not an “excuse.” It’s a legitimate fucking reason that is often far beyond the control of the mentally ill person.”

      Sometimes I just want to quote you forever because you express so succintly what I take hours to explain to someone (who has often stopped listening to me by then anyway.)

    2. kayla says:

      Thank you so much for this post. I lost my husband to BPD (I had it, while he had PTSD and depression, not a good mix) and I’ve never felt okay with my disorder. Thank you for writing this and helping me see that I deserve a love that’s not going to leave when I’m at my lowest.

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