On depression and being a jerk

There’s a great bit in Gwyneth Lewis’ book Sunbathing in the Rain where she talks about how her husband, Leighton, deals with her when she’s at her worst with depression. As well as being caring, gentle and attentive, he’s also not afraid to push back when her moods get too much for the both of them. “There are two people in this marriage,” he says to her at one point in the book, “and you’re not both of them.”

I think it’s a mistake to believe that being compassionate means never throwing back at someone, even when you love them. I’ve lived with depression since I was a child. I’m well aware of its effects on my mind and body. I’m also aware of how much of a jerk I’ve been occasionally as a result of it. I can be a jerk to myself and also to other people. And what I’ve realised is that sometimes I need people to tell me to knock it off when I’m being unfair. I don’t need to be guilt-tripped or judged, but I do need people to be firm when I’m taking things too far. I actually think it’s important.

Which is why I was dismayed to read this paragraph in a recent article on the Blurt Foundation website:

In a moment I’m not proud of, I reacted to a third friend’s engagement with snark, instead of joy… After I crapped on her happy news — and quickly apologized profusely, reminding her I was not in a healthy state of mind — she wrote me off completely. I even tried to educate her about depression’s stranglehold on a person’s emotions and actions, to no avail. “Many [people suffering bouts of clinical depression] say things they normally would not say,” says Melinda Gallagher, PhD, a psychologist in New York City. “It’s important that loved ones understand this as a symptom of the disorder and that with treatment and time, she will feel better and more like herself.”

[emphasis mine]

It’s an understandable story and we’ve all been there, but I wasn’t happy with the parallels being drawn between having a mental illness and behaving in a shitty way to your friends. Being a jerk to the people you love is not a symptom of depression and it’d be absolutely dreadful if friends and family began to expect this from anyone suffering this awful illness. Being a jerk is often what happens as an unfortunate consequence of feeling crappy 24/7, but it is not a symptom. And it’s really, really important that we make that distinction for so many reasons.

Just to be clear, here’s how I define being a jerk while depressed:

  • Making snarky comments
  • Spreading rumours
  • Name-calling
  • Taking (or breaking) other people’s things
  • Demanding that people be there for you whenever and wherever you choose and if they don’t, they’re not “true friends”
  • Personal insults
  • Ignoring other people’s needs or arguing about their legitimacy
  • Any physical abuse of any kind, including behaving in an aggressive or intimidating way

Here are some things which do not make you a jerk while depressed:

  • Being generally irritable and angry
  • Cancelling plans because you have no energy
  • Not being able to keep up with work of any kind (including housework)
  • Not being able to get out of bed/shower/brush teeth
  • Having memory lapses
  • Appearing sad or withdrawn; not being able to have conversations
  • Not taking advice (this is general well-meaning advice, not medical or legal instruction)
  • Self-harm (we get into murky territory here because some can argue that there are instances where other people will be impacted by this, but if you’re so far under you’re actually causing harm to yourself, it’s not conducive to assume you can take full responsibility here)

All of these things are things you cannot help when you’re ill, or at least not quickly, so they do not count as shitty behaviour. Once you’ve established whether or not your behaviour was unacceptable, here’s how you apologise:

“I’m sorry. That behaviour was shitty and I shouldn’t have done it. It wasn’t fair on you.”

Here’s how not to apologise:

“I’m sorry, but I think I’m partly excused from my actions because mental illness.”

“I’m sorry, but I think I’m partly excused from my actions because mental illness AND I’ve had a bad day at work/my cat died/I’m going through some hard stuff in therapy/I can’t find my Avengers DVD.”

“I’m sorry. *gap of five seconds* Here’s loads of information about why my shitty behaviour is excusable because mental illness.”

“I’m sorry, but I really need you to be compassionate and understand why I said those shitty things to you because mental illness.”

“I’m sorry, but you’re not depressed and your life doesn’t suck so I get a free pass to be a jerk to you every now and then because somewhere in the gnarled, dark parts of my psyche I believe it’s evening the score a little.”

Remember: your illness is not your fault. All of the rotten feelings and symptoms you may experience on a daily basis are not your responsibility. However, your shitty behaviour to other people absolutely is your responsibility. You’re ill, but you’re still a person. You don’t get to demand that other people give you special treatment when you’ve hurt their feelings without reason. And having an illness is not a good enough reason.

(What if I can’t apologise?

I get it. You’re sunk. You’re so far under you don’t even know which way is up, let alone who you’ve just hurt with whatever you said. If you can’t string the words together to apologise (or if you’re feeling unclear whether what you did was shitty), remove yourself from the situation as fast as possible. Saying “I need five minutes” or “I can’t talk about this any more right now” is good enough, as is simply not talking. Whatever you do, just don’t say anything else!)

I can’t burden myself with huge amounts of guilt over unfair things I’ve said while depressed because that helps no one. What I can do is own up when I’ve messed up. In fact, it’s important that I do. It’s my way of stepping back into the world, saying “Hey! I’m still here! Hold me to account for my actions!” And that’s actually a really important part of my recovery.

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