Mental illness doesn’t evaporate the consequences of our actions.
“Let me tidy up and show you what ‘clean’ looks like!”
Last summer, when I moved to New York to complete an internship, I sublet an apartment with a woman, Katie, that I’d met on Craigslist.
At first, it was perfect. She left to travel for work for a few months, leaving the entire apartment to me.
Living alone was a blissful experience. The typical OCD-related obsessions I have in sharing space with others (Will they be clean enough? Will they be clean enough? Will they be clean enough??) aren’t a huge concern when you’re alone.
However, upon her return, she confronted me and the friend I had over, complaining that the place was a “complete mess.” (It wasn’t?)
Within her tirade, she committed several aggressions: misgendering my friend and insinuating I was dirty, among other things.
When I finally confronted her on her behavior, she defended herself, using her own diagnosis for OCD as justification.
It’s not that I couldn’t understand this experience. I knew firsthand that coping with mental illness is one of the most confusing, destabilizing experiences a person can go through.
Unmanaged illnesses such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other diseases can hijack our reactions, causing us to behave in ways that don’t align with our values or true characters.
Unfortunately, mental illness doesn’t evaporate the consequences of our actions.
People can and do use coping skills to manage their mental health that reify problematic structures, as they should.
Mental illness doesn’t excuse your transphobia or racism. Mental illness doesn’t make your misogyny and hatred of queer folk okay. Mental illness doesn’t make your problematic behavior excusable.
My living situation in NYC perfectly illustrated the ways in which people can use mental illness to evade accountability.
With Katie, the introduction of her own mental health struggles into the conversation was a deliberate attempt to derail accountability for her behavior.
Instead of responding to the frustration, humiliation, and fear I voiced in response to being yelled at by her — a random white woman I had only met once before — she justified her violent behavior with her diagnosis.
Her explanation for her behavior was understandable — but not acceptable.
As someone with OCD, I have great empathy for the amount of anxiety she must have felt. When she claimed I was destroying her home, I could only guess that having another person contaminate the space she (and her OCD) had created must have been jolting.
However, all behaviors have consequences, especially those that impact other people.
The transphobia she put forth by misgendering my guest, the anti-Blackness she recreated by pushing forth tropes of my assumed filth, the white supremacy that empowered her to speak down to me, and her attempt to manipulate my conflict resolution with her tears — these all had real consequences that she needed to contend with, mental illness or not.
We who cope with mental illness have to be aware of the ways in which our attempts to cope can perpetuate problematic beliefs.
In the midst of my eating disorder, for example, I had to wrestle with how my intense desire to lose weight was simultaneously giving more power to fatphobia. I was engaging in the belief that there’s something “bad” about bigger bodies, thereby harming people of size, however unintentionally.
If someone has anxiety and clutches their purse at the sight of a Black person, their anxious reaction is still reifying an anti-Blackness belief — the inherent criminality of Blackness — even if it’s motivated, in part, by their disorder.
This also requires that we be diligent about the beliefs we perpetuate about mental illness itself, too.
Mentally ill people are continually painted as dangerous and out of control — we’re constantly associated with instability and chaos.
If we uphold this stereotype — that we’re not in command of our own behaviors — we do so with serious consequences.
With recent mass shootings, for example, the common “lesson” learned was that more needs to be done about mental health, as if that was the cause of the violence. This eclipses the very real fact that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims, not perpetrators.
To suggest we have no self-awareness while activated upholds the false idea that mental illness is synonymous with irrational, erratic, and even violent behavior.
This becomes an even bigger issue when we begin to pathologize forms of violence as a condition rather than a conscious choice.
Believing that problematic behavior is okay because of mental illness means that truly violent people are simply “sick” and therefore can’t be held accountable for their behavior.
Dylann Roof, the man who killed Black people because he’s a white supremacist, was not the narrative widely spread. Instead, he was often viewed sympathetically, described as a young man who had mental disorders and couldn’t control his actions.
These narratives impact us, too, when we try to seek support in the course of our care, by stripping us of our autonomy.
To suggest that people with mental illness aren’t in control of their actions and can’t be trusted means that people in positions of power are more justified in instances of abuse.
Imagine that we’re painted as having a propensity toward the gratuitous violence of mass shooting and can’t practice enough restraint to control ourselves.
How many (more) of us would end up in psychiatric holds against our will? How many (more) of us would be massacred by police officers who view our existence as dangerous, specifically Black people?
How much (more) would we be dehumanized when simply seeking out support and resources for our well-being? How many (more) condescending clinicians would assume that we couldn’t possibly know what’s best for us?
Knowing that we can (purposefully or unknowingly) use our mental illnesses to avoid responsibility, what does being accountable actually look like?
Often times, the first step in making amends is to acknowledge that no matter how complex our mental illnesses are, we aren’t exempt from being held responsible and can still hurt people.
Yes, Katie’s OCD meant that she may have been more aggravated than the average person by seeing a stranger in her space.
However, she still hurt me. We can still hurt each other — even if our mental illnesses are driving our behavior. And that harm is real and still matters.
With that acknowledgment comes the willingness to rectify wrongdoings.
If we know that we’ve hurt someone else, how do we meet them where they are to right our wrongs? What do they need to feel like we understand the consequence of our actions, to know that we take their emotions seriously?
Attempting to prioritize the needs of others is essential in the forgiveness process, even in the personal sh*tstorm that can be managing a mental illness.
Another way to be accountable is to actively address mental health concerns, especially ones that can negatively impact others.
Mental illness never just affects one person, but usually affects units, whether that be your family, friends, work environment, or other groups.
With this dynamic in mind, being proactive around our mental health means trying to prepare for mental health crises whenever possible.
For me, I know that a major relapse in my eating disorder would not just be incredibly painful for me, but also disrupt the different circles I operate in. It would mean being unresponsive to my family, isolating from and being cruel to my friends, missing copious amounts of work, among other scenarios.
Being proactive in my mental health needs (keeping what’s accessible to me in mind) means charting my emotional health to prevent small lapses from turning into serious incidents.
However, establishing a culture of care is a two-way street.
While our mental illnesses aren’t justifications for hurting people, people we interact with need to understand that the neurodiversity of mental illness may not fit into established social norms.
For people who come in and out of our lives, they have a responsibility to us to understand that our mental illness may mean we live our lives differently. We may have coping skills — stimming, taking alone time, excessive hand sanitizer usage — that can seem off-putting or even rude.
Like any type of interaction with people who are different from us, a level of compromise is needed.
Of course, not a compromise of values, boundaries, or other essentials — but rather a compromise around “comfort.”
For example, for a supporter of someone with depression, a firm boundary you might have is not taking on the role of a therapist during a depressive episode.
However, a comfort that you may have to compromise is always choosing high energy activities to do together.
While you might prefer them, your comfort may need to be disrupted in order to be supportive and mindful of your friend’s mental health and capacity.
Existing with mental illness often blurs agency. But if anything, that means we need to become more adept at repair work — not less.
Because of how quickly thoughts turn into emotions and emotions lead to behaviors, our actions are often guided by gut and heart reactions to the world around us.
However, like anyone else, we still have to hold ourselves and each other accountable for our behaviors and their consequences, even when they’re unintentionally harmful.
Coping with mental illness is an extremely difficult feat. But if our coping skills bring pain and suffering to others, who are we really helping but ourselves?
In a world where mental illness continues to stigmatize and shame others, a culture of care among how we coexist as we navigate our illnesses is more important than ever.
Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman and freelance writer, musing about all things race, mental health, gender, art, and other topics. You can read more of her funny thoughts and serious opinions on Twitter.