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.