The identities of those described have been changed to protect their anonymity.
Everything else has been told exactly as it happened.
Many years ago, I attended a depression support group. Most of the people there suffered directly from one or more mental illnesses, whereas some of them were just very graciously there to support those of us who do. Among the latter group was a woman whose teenage child was bipolar. Once, during the woman’s turn to share her struggles with her child’s affliction, she very seriously said these words exactly:
“People with mental illness are jerks.”
The group, of course, gave a collected offended gasp, myself included; although I knew immediately what she most likely meant to say, by no means did she say it respectfully or appropriately. Rudely as she put it, this woman was probably just venting her frustration that her child was often very demanding of her time, patience, and attention, among other things, because of the bipolar diagnosis. The group leader quickly reprimanded her with a sharp tongue: “That’s offensive. People with mental illness aren’t jerks,” he said. “They just need more support, and you need to be more supportive.”
After going home and giving some thought to the situation, I realized that while both parties had valid feelings toward each other – her frustration, his offense – both were also mistaken to get angry at each other instead of showing compassion for the other side of the argument. Had they each taken a moment to consider the opposite side of the story, they might have discerned some key, subtle details hiding under the immediate surface of the situation that might have helped them sympathize with the other person’s point of view.
The accusatory woman made a very common, though genuinely offensive mistake: she blamed her kid for the awful toll that bipolar disorder takes on a family, and then generalized that blame to everyone who suffers from a similar set of symptoms. Her exhaustion with her child’s involuntary and unwelcome problems manifested as anger toward the kid personally, an anger which she then expressed bitterly to the group. Blaming a person for their mental health issues is a thoughtless and inaccurate thing to do, and expressing that resentment in someone else’s safe place, like a support group, is tactless. Sick people go to support groups to feel validated, not to be told they’re jerks. She failed in her responsibility to realize how her words would negatively impact the other people at the meeting.
That being said, while I mostly agree with the group leader’s defensive point of view toward the woman’s insult, his unkind reaction to her remark was also fairly thoughtless. In all likelihood, she probably didn’t have many opportunities to talk about how difficult it is to raise a sick child, and so she utilized the freedom of expression offered to her by the support group to vent about her very real, very legitimate fatigue. After all, some support groups are not just designed to be venting spaces for those who suffer, but also for those in support roles. So with that in mind, instead of telling the woman off as abrasively as he did, the meeting leader should have taken a moment to educate her about why we, as a mentally ill group, took offense to her accusation that people in our demographic are “jerks”.
But first, before any issue can be debated, it’s essential to understand the terms involved: in this case, what it means to be a “jerk”. Are you a jerk if you simply need extra love because you’re sick, even if it puts undue pressure, sometimes in the long term, on the person from whom that love is needed? Are you a jerk if just avoiding your own suffering means negatively impacting someone else?
The dilemma, in my mind, boils down to this: when you’re ill, the minimum amount of help you need may be more than the maximum amount your loved ones can give. Are you a jerk for asking for that help?
I think the answer to these questions is definitely no, it doesn’t make you a jerk just to ask for extra sympathy and attention where your mental illness is concerned. However, to avoid being inconsiderate or thoughtless, one key condition must be met: you must make an honest and genuine effort to minimize how much you take from your caregivers. A sick person demands patience; a sick person who’s also a jerk demands unnecessary patience. For example, someone who has been conditioned that their caregivers will get them anything they want and abuses that privilege is probably behaving like a jerk.
Of course, if that person truly is too sick to help themselves sometimes, it’s within their rights to seek care from someone else. The key concept that separates jerks from the truly needy, then, is lack of consideration for the person in the support role. For example, when a mentally unsteady person frequently needs to talk to a family member about their problems, they’re just doing what they have to in order to survive. That doesn’t make them a jerk; it’s just an unfortunate circumstance wherein someone has to suffer.
And keep in mind that where mental illness is involved, pain demands to be felt, and any pressure or frustration a caretaker feels at being relied upon parallels the pain the ill person is going through. If the afflicted puts some portion of that discomfort on their loved ones, it’s not because they’re being inconsiderate jerks; it’s because that pain can’t be worked through silently. It needs to be distributed if it is to be survived.
In fact, mentally ill people like me are often painfully aware and regretful of the draining demands we put on those around us. With that in mind, many of us (though by no means all) go out of our way to minimize the impact our disease has on others, making us definitely not jerks.
What the support group leader should have pointed out to the frustrated woman, then, was the distinct difference between someone who needs a lot of help, and someone who thoughtlessly demands too much of it. Had it occurred to the woman that her child might already feel guilty about the pressures that bipolar disorder placed on her shoulders? Did she realize that far from being thoughtless, her kid probably felt embarrassed and ashamed to ask for so much from her?
The ultimate lesson to be learned here is that even though it’s easy for a chronically sick person to exhaust their loved ones and vice versa, it’s important that both sides not start dealing out fault. After all, no one asks to be bipolar, but no one asks for their loved one to be bipolar, either. When it comes to distributing blame in situations involving a mental illness, everyone should have a little (or a lot) more compassion. Those who support the ill would be wise not to think the disease is the sick person’s fault, and those who have to request extra love and care should be kind about giving their supporters a place to vent about the difficulties of being leaned on. However, if your idea of venting means unfairly blaming the sick for their own suffering, you might want to reexamine who the word “jerk” really applies to.
14 thoughts on ““People With Mental Illness Are Jerks””
Very thoughtful piece, ma’am. Food for thought. Thank you.
Beautifully written–it takes me back to a very difficult time. My heart was breaking for both my daughters (siblings are deeply impacted by familial mental illness) and I was worn out, exhausted, and getting very little support for myself. I remember the feelings of constant overwhelm, which eventually took a physical toll as well as the expected emotional one. It sounds to me as if that mom could have used a safe, parents-only group in which to vent. You captured both sides of the dilemma clearly and without casting undue blame. Best wishes for your ongoing health.
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Thank you. It’s hard to say whether the sick actually suffer more than their caretakers or not – but in the end, it doesn’t really matter. Illness makes everyone miserable. And everyone needs support. I hope for the best for you and your family.
Yes, this story is an example of why caregivers need their own support groups to have a safe space to vent. Just like going to an alanon meeting vs an AA meeting.
I totally agree. I think we can even expand the idea, and say that everyone needs some form of therapy to support them through tough issues.
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My perspective is, as a support person, if someone is at the point of calling a mentally ill person a jerk go strangers, probably they have exhausted their empathy long ago. There is very little support for people who try to support people for mental illness, and the resources I have found universally support pouring out your energy and resources infinitely, no matter what toll that may take on you. I want support people to know that they do not have to do this. You are not a bad person if you set limits to not be miserable forever. If a person will not get professional help that does not make it your responsibility as someone nearby to provide large amounts of non professional help. Anyone who takes and takes without considering the effect on others truly is a jerk, and it is shameful there are not more services for these people who have given all they have and find they just can’t care anymore.
As one of those jerks, I know all too well that one can only say ‘sorry’ so often. I am lucky enough to be seeking professional help, but in the meanwhile the only thing I can think of to do – rightly or wrongly – is to avoid people so I don’t potentially burden or hurt them, which only feeds the demon, so to speak. Thank you, Zoe, for such a discerning and compassionate piece.
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Yes I tend to avoid and isolate when I’m not doing well, for the sake of others. But that isolating isn’t the best thing for me.
I was diagnosed with bip-polar November of 2016 and it’s been a struggle, but I am endlessly grateful for the love and support of my family and friends. Of course, I often feel like I’m draining them sometimes, and perhaps during the first three weeks of my diagnosis it was the toughest journey for my parents specifically and I can say with certainty that at the time I was acting like a jerk – not because I wanted to, but because I didn’t understand why THEY couldn’t understand how I felt. I know better now, but this post on your blog has really made me take a step back and reevaluate my situation.
Thank you, Zoe.
I met your father, Phil, last Sunday at his panel discussion about misconceptions of the universe, and if it weren’t for him tweeting about your blog, I would have never came across this. You are both amazing people and I am already a big fan of yours from hereon out.
Very insightful! It’s often the case that the person providing the care (usually a family member) will suffer from some mental illness as well, which muddles things even more. Caregivers often mistakenly think things like, “I have the same problem, and I don’t act this way,” when things get tough, which isn’t logical because everyone has their own experience with mental illness, and some people have it worse than others. I remember feeling this way about my mother. By age 12, I was her support person. I was wholly unequipped for the role. I resented her. She has never been an easy person to get along with (she has anxiety, depression, and borderline personality disorder, and I have anxiety with flare ups of agoraphobia and depression). I now realize that she made a lot of mistakes, but she had no other support. I had health problems, which means we spent more time together than my siblings had with her. People drowning will grab anything to keep their head above water. I was just there. She didn’t mean to put all that on me, she had no choice.
Anyway, thank you for your insight and thoughts. It does help if you can take a step back, but sometimes it’s hard to do when you’re in the moment.
It’s very kind of you to be so forgiving of your mother. Many in your situation wouldn’t be, I expect, after what you had to go through to support her health. It sounds like you understand very well where she’s coming from, which I think is the most crucial element of forgiveness. A similar story: I’ve had one significant partner in my life, and he was recovering from an alcohol dependence when we were together. Paradoxically, he was extremely judgemental of those who were still drinking (whether it was problematic or not) – my best guess is that he didn’t understand why they couldn’t kick the habit like he did. Sometimes those who are most similar to us are the easiest to judge.
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Sometimes the mentally ill person has no insight (self awareness) of their illness and or the amount of care of various sorts it requires; all the more likely if that person is a child or even a teen.
I know I was hard to deal with when I was young and first diagnosed. I agree that thoughtfulness is a trait found more often in older people, especially those with experience being sick.
I found a simple “Thank you” makes a HUGE difference. When younger my daughter was confused and scared. What was this illness? Now, we know, and as a family we deal with it. But when she started saying “Thank you.” it was incredible how happy we all felt. I can’t explain why other than, it meant she understood we were working hard also. I’d also like to say, that as hard as it is to be a family member of someone with a mental illness, it is NOT AT ALL as hard as it is for that person. I can go on vacation. I can get away via my own art and writing. BUT, for the person with the illness there is no vacation. As a parent there is also the moment you realize, that you can’t cure of fix this illness, that in the end, it’s up to the person with the illness to learn to deal with this. Parents want to think they can “Fix” everything. Knowing you can only be supportive, loving and help with all the endless appointments, but you can’t cure this, is a huge step. Know that often parents feel like they have failed a child with a mental illness. My friend has an adult child with epilepsy. She told me she somehow feels it’s her fault, like she ate the wrong thing in pregnancy. Parents find it hard to accept that, we all are born with things we’ll have to adapt to in life. We’re just there to help in any way we can.