Every now and again, you hear this argument being thrown around:
“I’m not an asshole, I’m depressed.”
How can you expect that person to be held accountable for cheating on you, or stealing your money, or treating you like shite – they’re sick!
We’ve taken great steps towards opening the dialogue on mental illness, but even with the stigma removed, we are barely scratching the surface. We know those who suffer from depression and other mental illnesses are subject to terrible systematic and interpersonal injustices. We know that the people who set the rules are still holding a bunch of outdated values and ideas despite there being evidence to the contrary. We know there are great barriers to getting help that are not just inside our heads.
The average person would see someone struggling against unjust odds and try to help out in any way they can. That’s not political correctness, that’s basic human decency. The problems start when we conflate the golden rule with a total lack of boundaries. We don’t say: Hey, it sucks that you’re going through this, but you can’t hurt me to make yourself feel better. We say: Hey, it sucks that you’re going through his, and you should not be held accountable for any of the things you do that put me in danger or hurt my family.
We can imagine why that happens – ‘if the shoe were on the other foot, I would want someone to support me’. And so we open our doors and hearts and wallets unreservedly, extending a hand of friendship, no matter how many times we get bitten, burned, or have our hearts broken over this. We buy into the idea that boundless love will save this person. We don’t stop to wonder why we had boundaries there in the first place.
Depression is a real illness and depressed people have done terrible things – to themselves and to others. Want to get even more specific? When I was depressed, I accused my mother of being ashamed of me in front of a store full of people; I yelled at my grandmother for encouraging me to take a non-artistic career path; I went on a starvation diet and tried to pressure my friends into joining me; I got a crush on a teammate and proceeded to stalk him online for a good year.
None of those behaviors were even remotely okay, and I was not owed forgiveness for any of them. I didn’t lose friendships because I was depressed. I lost friendships because I trampled on other people’s boundaries and expected them to pander to me.
The same holds true for the parent who keeps borrowing money with no intention of paying you back, even when you’re on a shoestring budget. The same holds true for the boyfriend who infects you with an STD because he cheated and didn’t tell you. It holds true for the girlfriend who only uses you as a sounding board, even as you become depressed yourself; and the acquaintance who concern-trolls you about your weight despite numerous requests to shut it down. None of it is okay. You may volunteer to be someone’s support, but they cannot demand that of you, and you should not be asked to sacrifice your own safety and wellbeing for them to get better.
And doing the work to recover should not be contingent on your presence, either. From my own experience, getting better can take months, if not years. Week after week of exercises, therapy appointments, and hard work; of rehashing events that happened decades ago; of false starts and slip-ups. On my bad days, I’m impossible to live with. On my good days, I can still read ill-intent into the nice things people say or do for me. The only person who can control me is myself – asking that of anybody else is an impossible task. It would grind any person to dust.
Here’s another thing I learned – someone who loves and respects you would be horrified if you got sick, trying to help them. Many people who are depressed, in fact, put off asking for help for fear of seeming ungrateful or greedy or worrying their families. Despite all the terrible things I have said, I didn’t think my mother was ashamed of me. I love my grandmother. I’m sorry for all the friends I made to feel bad with all the diet talk I hoisted on them. I’m ashamed for having made someone I cared about feel uncomfortable or unsafe. I will be ashamed and apologize for my behavior to those people all my life, and work hard to never hurt anybody in the same way again; but if they chose never to forgive me, I would still apologize, still do the work.
Not because I have to redeem myself, but because it’s the right thing to do.
And here is what’s difficult: None of these things in of themselves are red flags. You may be reading this and thinking, you have bad days sometimes. You say things you don’t mean. You get tired of all the hard work that staying on top of depression takes. You wish people supported you more. You may think that dismissing someone JUST on one of these things is unfair and cruel.
I would agree.
But if someone is exhibiting a pattern of behavior, where they treat you badly, trample your boundaries, refuse to get a support network that is not you, and expect you to give them a pass because of depression? That person doesn’t act like someone who cares about you. Or your well-being.
In cases like this, it’s important to put yourself first.
In fact, it’s preferable.