Mental Illness is an Important Explanation. It is Not an Excuse.
An explanation is not an excuse. In my life and the lives of my friends lately, I’ve seen some confusion about that.
I have Borderline Personality Disorder (obvious to anyone who knows that diagnosis). The risk-taking and need for validation so inherent in that affliction was part of what led me to sleep with so many of my students for so many years.
I knew I had BPD. I chose not to control it or get help. BPD is part of the “why” of what I did, but it does not excuse what I did. I am as guilty as if I did not have a personality disorder.
You could say my personality disorder cost me my job, but that would be wrong. My choices did.
Whacked out on eight times my prescribed dose of Klonopin, in September 2013 I drove my mom’s car across three lanes of traffic and ran a young mama off the road, sending her to ICU. I was depressed and addicted and having delusions. My depression and addiction and psychosis explain why I was medicating so heavily, but my agony did not take away one ounce of my responsibility to tell my mother that I was in no shape to drive.
You could say my mental illness and addiction caused the crash, but that would be wrong. My choices did.
When people fuck up, we want to know why. “Why” helps us understand the inexplicable; it helps us create a coherent narrative when the alternative is to believe in randomness or callousness. There is value, perhaps, in knowing someone did something because they were sick rather than because they were making a calculated decision to hurt you out of malice. But, honestly, so what? The why is like telling an Angeleno the weather today in Oslo or Oklahoma City: an interesting fact, but not particularly relevant.
Mentally ill people deserve compassion. We NEED compassion. Please, if there’s a way to help us when we’re struggling with despair or suicidality or basic life skills, help us! But you do us no favors at all when you imagine that our illness infantilizes us, or you allow us at our most manipulative to claim that we “deserve a pass” because our minds are touched by fire and our capacity to reason is gravely diminished.
If we claim the right to injure you with impunity through our words or our actions because we are ill, or if we ask for immediate forgiveness because as badly as we behaved, we weren’t responsible? Please don’t buy that as an excuse.
The line between what we can control and what we can’t is a gray one for all of us, the mentally ill in particular. Individual circumstances can vary. But if we are well enough to be on our own, not on a conservatorship, we are well enough to know the difference between an excuse and an explanation.
Hold us to it.