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‘Am I Using My Mental Illness As a Cop-out?’

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

I’ve never thought of myself as a good person. I can do good things, but I’ve always known that at my core, I’m a bad person. I wouldn’t say I’m a ghoster, but I’m a serial abandoner. I disappear completely from deep and meaningful relationships despite knowing it’s wrong. It sounds silly, but I can’t help it. It’s like my brain shuts down after one thing or another. 

There’s something so comforting about finding a label. Just like when I found the term bisexual, for the first couple weeks after my bipolar diagnosis, I felt untouchable. At last, there was the answer to the question I couldn’t put into words. But it’s starting to hit a bit different now that I’m settling down. I’m starting to wonder, Are we more than our mental disorders? 

The selfish part of me wants to blame everything bad about myself on the bipolar. But nowadays, giving the excuse of mental illness feels like a cop-out, like I’m pushing the blame onto something that can’t be punished. I’m having trouble determining what’s me and what’s my illness, what I can change and what I can’t. It could be the case that the world is filled with bad people and I’m just one of them.

What does a personality separate from disorder even look like? What is a personality, other than habits stacked on top of each other like The Little Rascals? I want to believe I can get better. I want to believe it’s worth it to put in the work, but I worry that my personality is based on coping mechanisms that have been set in stone. I can take my meds, change my diet, exercise more, sleep more, but I don’t know if any of it will fundamentally change who I am. I guess I don’t know how to answer “Is this a bipolar thing, or is it a me thing?”

Do you think it’s possible to separate yourself from your mental illness? Is that even something I should be trying to do? Am I, at the end of the day, just … bad?

Signed,
Bad Bipolar

Oh, BB. I think I get it.

I’ll start by saying I’m not acquainted with all the finer points of bipolar. These are, quite understandably, fraught waters. If I say something that doesn’t serve you, please feel free to send it downriver. But as someone with his own mental-health struggles, this is a question I’ve wrestled with for a good chunk of time myself.

Like you, I experienced a wave of clarity when I received my diagnosis. It was in the aftermath of a haphazard trip to Prague that busted both my bank account and my brain. I’d spent a week bumbling around the city, sleeping on a cot, having crying fits in various cafés and risky sex with strangers at odd hours of the night in emptied street markets. It was while contemplating throwing myself off a particularly medieval bridge that I thought, Perhaps we ought to get a professional’s opinion first.

It was nice to arrange my behaviors into a framework of disease. It was like corralling my unruly monsters into a pen. My fears of abandonment, my sheer terror of being discarded, my inability to stand against the riptides of my emotions — all these were identified and neatly filed into a manila folder titled “Borderline.” There was something beautifully bureaucratic about the whole thing. It was like housecleaning for the mind.

For a golden while, I thought this was my road to wellness. The process held the sleek, sanitized authority of science: waiting rooms and white coats and orange prescription bottles, people with degrees who spoke with a welcome dispassion, passion having been established as something of an enemy of mine for how it had only recently torn me to ribbons. I was fixing it. I was being treated. I was getting better.

And, you know, BB, I benefited quite a bit from that process. I was given a useful vocabulary for describing what had previously been impossible to describe. I was given access to tools to help me deal with the turbulence that sometimes rocked my brain. It became a lot easier to stay on my feet on those occasions when the ground would suddenly shift, when the world around me would arrange itself into claws and fangs and strangers. I fell less often. I ran away less often. In all likelihood, getting professional help saved my life.

But ours is not a world of pure reason. It’s not as simple as identifying the problem and then solving it, as it seems you’re already aware. I think in my case, I clung to pathology, was eager to incorporate borderline into my identity, because I thought that was the trick. I thought that naming the thing was the same as understanding the thing, that life was a matter of symptoms and diagnoses. This turned out not to be the case. I was still left with questions.

Who are you, who am I, without our disorders? What qualifies as a disorder in the first place? Even if this disorder were completely distinct from me, if it were an invader, a foreign object, a disruptor of my true self, then wouldn’t I still find “me” in how I dealt with it? How I grew around it, how I survived it, how I shifted and adapted and negotiated with it? I’m not so sure we can disentangle any part of ourselves from the greater whole, that we can remove any one variable in the endlessly complex equation of ourselves without arriving at a totally different conclusion — at “someone else.”

I think that complexity scares people, BB. I think it drives people to atomize themselves, to find every last micro facet of their identity so that they can have some rules, some answers. Here is the language we use. Here is how we define ourselves. Here is the good, and over there is the bad. These are temporary seawalls against the chaos of reality. They are serviceable answers we can temporarily call the truth.

And there is a comfort in having answers, even if those answers are unsavory. Let’s say, yes, you’re incapable of being in healthy, reciprocal relationships. That sounds awful. But, hypothetically, at least it’s a question answered. You can move on from there. It’s out of your hands. If it’s truly impossible, if it’s just a fact of your condition, then you can stop trying so hard. You can stop wondering, What if?

Having something you can point to as “the bad thing” is useful in that sense. It may befuddle some, but throwing your hands up and declaring yourself a “bad person” holds its appeal as well. But “bad” is a value judgment independent of reality. It’s a human concept, and although we are humans ourselves, we are nonetheless governed by forces beyond our understanding, incapable of achieving the total exploration of our own depths.

Can you separate yourself from your mental illness? No. Are you more than your mental illness? Incalculably so. You are more than a collection of symptoms waiting to be pathologized.

I’m not saying you can simply choose to be a better friend or partner. The fact of the matter is, yes, there are things in this life we are simply incapable of. Sometimes illness or disability take options off the table. I know that from my own life.

I’ve made bad decisions. I’ve hurt people. My illness has a lot to do with that. But I’m also capable of making amends. I’m capable of changing my habits, of getting back up, of doing the right thing. I’m capable of trying. In that way, despite my unique obstacles, I’m not unique at all. I’m human.

My hope for you is that you stop trying to see yourself as made up of wholly good or wholly bad elements and embrace the comforting chaos of the truth: We are unruly things, complex and entirely unknowable. And in the brief tumult that is life, we do, at least in part, get to define what it means on our own terms.

Con mucho amor,
Papi

Originally published on February 23, 2022.

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase J.P. Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons here.

‘Am I Using My Mental Illness As a Cop-out?’