Once you begin to understand your mental illness better, you start to truly recognise how much it feeds into your behaviours and experiences. Because depression is more than just being sad, ADHD is more than a struggle to focus and anxiety is more than feeling nervous.
For me, that was when I underwent treatment for my Borderline Personality Disorder and started educating myself more on it. For years, I had struggled with anxiety, depression and an eating disorder, simply thinking I had been unlucky enough to collect all three. Everything aside from those easy terms, I attributed to a terrible personality.
But once I was diagnosed with BPD and started opening up more to my therapist, I realised how closely these disorders were linked, and how many more ‘personality traits’ were actually symptoms of my BPD. It turned out that I wasn’t just a horrible human being, I struggled with an overwhelming fear of abandonment, and so I was desperate to keep people in my life. I realised that not everyone struggled with constant feelings of emptiness they were desperate to fill, and apparently, other people don’t have erratic mood swings - the more you know!
I could see the damage BPD was inflicting on all of my relationships and friendships. I could see why I acted the way I do, even if I still struggled to stop doing these things. But now that I could understand everything more clearly, I was stuck with the age-old dilemma.
How do I explain this to people without making it seem like I’m excusing my crappy behaviour?
It’s a slippery slope to excuse poor behaviour on a mental illness or another factor. When our actions hurt others, we can’t wave our wand and make it go away by citing our mental illness. Damage was still done, and someone else should not be suffering for our actions.
But, our mental illness is often relevant to the discussion, because it explains our actions. It can help someone to understand why you did what you did. That isn’t to remove blame, but to show that it didn’t come from a place of malicious intent. This shouldn’t stop someone from being angry or upset, but it will allow them to understand why you did what you did.
For example, if you ignored someone’s messages for a week because you were in the throes of your depression, saying that later won’t fix everything. They were still worried or hurt by your silence. But it will show them that it wasn’t about them, and that your actions don’t reflect how you feel about them. They should know that you're struggling too.
The fear of abandonment stemming from my BPD makes me feel very jealous and insecure in romantic relationships. I constantly feel like I’m losing my partner, and so I’ll act out, say things I don’t mean and try to emotionally manipulate them. I am still the person who carries out these actions. It is something that I need to work on. But if someone is choosing to be involved with me, they also need to understand that I struggle with this; they need to meet me halfway so that it is easier for me to do the right thing. They need to understand, whilst not excusing what I do.
Nowadays, a lot of people will get highly defensive when someone mentions their mental illness in relation to their behaviours, as they see it as an excuse. But whilst mental illness is not an excuse, it is an explanation, it does help us to understand why someone is acting the way that they are.
Mental illnesses are far more complex than a single symptom. People with ADHD may interrupt you as they struggle with impatience and difficulty keeping quiet, they also can struggle with bursts of frustration. Someone with depression may seem uninterested in what you have to say, or engage in self-sabotaging behaviour that affects you as well. It’s important to understand how far-reaching the symptoms of a mental illness are, so you can understand that it doesn’t stem from the person’s personality or how they feel about you.
Mental illness isn’t an excuse, but it definitely is an explanation. As struggling with a mental illness is so difficult and consuming, that they can’t be perfect, they can’t hide all of these symptoms to act exactly like someone without this disorder would. They are trying their best and they need you to understand that.
So when someone explains how their mental illness influenced their actions, don’t see it as them trying to excuse their actions completely, take it as an opportunity to understand them better. And then share how it affected you and how it made you feel, so they recognise the implications of their actions. Then both of you can find a way to avoid this happening again or deal with it in the future, by both sharing what you need in this situation.
Mental illness can be an explanation without being an excuse.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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