mental illness

No Apology Necessary: Self Care, Accountability, and Mental Illness

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Kate Earley

Killjoy, PR lover, politico, and I run on caffeine.

Sometimes, I compare my mental illnesses to hurricanes. Diagnosed with both bipolar disorder and PTSD, it’s not uncommon for me to have to pick up the pieces of a mental disaster. I’ve lashed out at people when I get claustrophobic and triggered in large crowds. I’ve acted out and put myself and others in danger during manic episodes, and let friendships wither and die while in depressive phases.

Last year was a great example. Hurricane season was in full effect in the summer, and I’m not referring to storms hitting the gulf coast. They erupted all over my life. My PTSD was out of control, and when you add in mania, it’s a disastrous combination.

You wouldn’t blame somebody for getting sick and needing to put their physical health first, but, there’s no sympathy for the mentally ill in this department – even though it’s exactly the same concept.

People have actually demanded apologies from me for me needing help, and for me removing myself from triggering situations. For a long time, I carried guilt and shame around on my shoulders. Even though it wasn’t my fault – and I shouldn’t have been ashamed for putting my health first – society’s expectations of the mentally ill are frequently ableist and shift blame onto its sufferers. It’s easy to internalize that expectation.

This all changed when my friend introduced me to a radical concept: what she likes to call the “fuck everybody else” and “you > everything” principles.

You > Everything: Why Apologies for Your Mental Illness Are Unnecessary (And Are Actually Counterproductive)

Society traps the mentally ill by demanding apologies for things that aren’t our fault. For people who don’t struggle with a mental illness, there are dozens of internalized misconceptions: it seems to them that the mentally ill are somehow in control of their illness and are choosing to be afflicted. On the inverse, some people seem to think that the mentally ill are completely incapable of leading happy or fulfilling lives. It’s a game you can’t really win.

This leads to the “demanding apologies” concept – a dangerous thing that we must reject in every instance. The truth is, you’d never demand an apology for somebody bowing out of a marathon because they broke their leg. Your internalized ableism shows in full effect when you demand apologies from the mentally ill for things that are similarly out of their control.

It terrifies people when the mentally ill put their needs first. It is a direct affront to capitalist, ableist, patriarchal power structures that people rely on for their privilege and power sources. The fact is, you should never apologize for putting your needs related to your mental illness first.

The “you > everything” principle is radical for this exact reason. It prioritizes the needs of mentally ill people and encourages them to love themselves holistically. “You > everything” is the callout that ableist cultures are afraid of. It is not selfish to take care of yourself. It is not selfish to put the needs of yourself in relation to your mental illness at the forefront.

This is where the “fuck everybody else” part of the principle comes in.

This concept blew my mind when my friend first started telling me about it. It seemed so radical. And that’s because it is. You don’t have to apologize, because apologizing for something that isn’t your fault is absurd and gaslights you into believing that it is your fault.

Learn to love the “you > everything” principle, and chances are, you’ll gain a new understanding of self-care and self-love in relation to mental illness. You will learn to be gentle with yourself, to regain your strength, and how to forgive yourself for things that were out of your control.

“Thanks For Understanding:” Picking Up The Pieces

You are under no obligation to apologize to people for things that are out of your control, but, if you lashed out or hurt somebody during an episode, you might be considering how you can mend fences.

There’s no obligation to do that, either. If you would prefer to not think about it, if you think that it might trigger or upset you – then don’t do it. See above “you > everything.”

However, if you are considering trying to mend some fences or offer up an explanation for behavior, there are a couple important things to remember.

Thank people for their understanding in advance, rather than apologizing for something that isn’t your fault.

If you’re noticing that “it’s not your fault” is a common theme in this piece, it’s because that’s the point. Sometimes, despite the best treatments, therapy, and medications, we still have symptoms beyond our control. And that’s okay. So shift your thinking. Instead of apologizing, explain to people (to whatever extent you care to) that you occasionally struggle with [insert behavior] and while you understand that it’s out of your control, you appreciate their understanding that it’s not you, not how you normally act, or how you wanted the situation to be.

Educate, educate, educate.

If you’re comfortable disclosing your illness to people, then this is a prime time for education about mental illness, ableism, and symptoms specific to what you struggle with. When people think of mental illness in the abstract, instead of being able to have real-life examples of the symptoms they read about, they’re less likely to be understanding of mental illness in the first place. Send them links or resources to help them understand what was going on.

Understand that some people won’t understand – and that it’s not your burden to bare.

Some people will be completely unwilling to understand what was going on, express sympathy, or otherwise be compassionate towards you. And you have to learn how to distance yourself from those people. You cannot afford to carry around guilt that is misplaced. People who make you feel guilty for something that was out of your control are people that are unwilling to acknowledge their own internalized ableism and privilege. Why have them be the focal point of your life? It isn’t your job to carry that cross and otherwise grovel.

 

Having a mental illness and surviving it is one of the hardest things a person can go through. It’s time to practice radical self love and stop apologizing for your existence – put your needs at the forefront of your life and divorce yourself from internalized ableism.

One comment

  1. I have PTSD, anxiety disorder, and depression, so I liked a lot about this article.

    However, my concern is the section claiming we don’t need to apologise for hurting people during an episode. I call BS. Having a mental illness does not give us carte blanche permission to be assholes, and blaming all bad behavior on the mental illness is shirking responsibility.

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