Morally obligated work

Mental illness isn't your fault, but it is your responsibility

The first time it happened I was 16 years old. There was no inciting incident, nothing terrible —or even remotely bad— happened to bring it on. It was just a quick change of mood and an intrusive thought. I was hanging out with friends, having a good time, when a dark cloud came over me. I went from happy and carefree in the way only a 16-year-old could be, to the depths of despair. It only took a moment and it was on me.

As I walked to my car and sat down the intrusive thought stayed with me. I pulled out of the parking lot and began driving, fully expecting that I would kill myself that day. I don’t know why I was having these thoughts. I didn’t have a plan to anything in particular. I just knew that suicide was the only solution; it was a no-brainer. The solution to what, I have no idea.

I’ve always known there was something wrong with me. Even as a kid, I was prone to extreme mood swings and excessive anxiety. As a teenager the feelings of depression and anxiety became worse, but I always associated it with adolescent hormones. Or maybe I was taught to believe that, I’m not sure. Whatever the case, I’ve always known that in some way I was different from “normal” people.1

Mental illness was never part of the equation in my mind, though. Growing up in rural Michigan, in the 90’s, and within a fundamentalist Baptist world, we just never talked about mental illness. Teachers didn’t, school counselors2 didn’t, and parents didn’t. I’m sure a lot of people around me took antidepressants and went to psychiatrists, but it was always hush-hush.

From your peers you learned to not talk about it, too. In 10th grade a boy in our class committed suicide and he was immediately smeared as a coward, weak, and probably gay.3 To admit any kind of problem was to admit weakness, a cardinal sin of teenage boys at the time.

I remember once broaching the subject with my dad during a long car ride. There was a man in our church who was very publicly going through a mental health crisis. I asked my dad about the man, what was going on. Jerry, my dad said, suffered from manic depression.4 In the best way he knew how, my dad explained what that meant and how it affected this man.

It all sounded very familiar to me. Manic phases of hyper productivity and sometimes regrettable decision making. Depressive phases of lying in bed for days, feeling as life was a house of cards ready to fall at any moment because everyone was out to get me. I asked my dad about it, without being completely open. He told me it was probably just hormones. Everyone gets a little sad sometimes, he said. We never talked about mental health again.5

It took another 20 years for me to seek out help. I assumed that because I had never sought help in the past I was strong enough to handle it. I assumed my habits for coping with mental illness were just as good as medicine and therapy. I was very wrong. And in the process, I ended up doing a lot of damage to both myself and my family.

It all came to a head a few years ago when my wife essentially forced me to see someone. She didn’t threaten to leave me or to take away the kids, she just sat down and calmly explained there was something wrong with me and that I had no option but to seek out help. I did seek out help and I’ve been kicking myself ever since for not doing it sooner. My moods are more even, I don’t have constant repetitive thoughts, and haven’t spent much time thinking about dying. It’s been the best years of my life.

That’s obviously a very condensed version of my battle with mental illness. I’ve not gone into detail about getting healthy, but needless to say it’s been a lot of work. It’s taken patience, experimentation, and a lot of forgiveness from my loved ones. It’s a long road, one that I’ve only been on for a short time.

It’s with this narrative in mind that I recommend you read this post by Freddie deBoer.6 For the uninitiated, deBoer is a writer who had a very public mental health crisis a few years ago, one that involved him falsely accusing another writer of sexual assault. In the post, he goes to great lengths to stress what I’ve believed for a while, something that many don’t seem to understand: mental health is not your fault, but it is your responsibility.

I’m not to blame for my mental illness. There’s something wrong with my brain and I was just born that way. I didn’t do anything to warrant the suffering I’ve been through. And believe, it has been a lot of suffering. To paraphrase a story from the Gospels, neither I nor my parents did anything to deserve this. It just is.

But mental illness isn’t something like cancer or type 1 diabetes. It’s not something that came upon me suddenly and harmed only my body. I’ve injured myself and those around me. I have done harm to relationships, some that might never recover. I might have been out of my mind when I decided, for whatever reason, that going to graduate school was a good idea, but I still have to pay for the loans. I was having an episode when I said terrible things, but I still have to deal with the repercussions.

It is my responsibility, now that I feel like I’m in a good place, to begin repairing things. I can’t just tell everyone that I’m sorry and it won’t happen again. There’s no handwaving this away, I have to put in real work and rebuild trust. I have to prove to my wife and kids I’m moving forward and not backwards. I have to prove that to myself.

The most striking part in this post by deBoer is where he talks about the work of getting better:

There is a certain amount of ethical, psychological, and therapeutic work that I have to do because of what I did to Malcolm, work I am morally obligated to do. It can only happen internally and it can’t be seen by or shared with anyone else. I have been doing it and I will go on doing it and the only person who can function as the arbiter of whether I’m doing it well enough is me. If that’s unsatisfying to you because you can’t see what’s going on in my head, well, sorry. You’ll just have to live with the suspense.

“Work I am morally obligated to do.” Amen.

  1. I’m not doing the “I have a mental illness, aren’t I so special and quirky” thing. I just always knew my brain didn’t work in the same way that others’ did.

  2. Thinking back to my secondary school career, I think I only saw the school counselor once in 4 years. The only thing I remember from that encounter is that he told me joining the Marines would teach me discipline and be good for me. I did not take his advice. Thanks, Mr. Snyder.

  3. For those who didn’t live in this particular context, you really have to understand how terrified we were of homosexuality. To us, “gay” wasn’t just another word for dumb, like it was for a lot of kids. We were absolutely terrified of being perceived of as gay in any way. To call this toxic masculinity is an understatement; it was vile and I don’t think I’ve ever really done a full accounting for how this shaped my life.

  4. I don’t remember hearing it called Bipolar until much later in life.

  5. I don’t hold any anger towards my parents, only love. I understand they weren’t perfect and they were raised in a certain world. They were both better than their parents and I’ve done a better job in regards to mental health than my parents. Parenting doesn’t happen in a vacuum, we are all formed by our culture, beliefs, and genetics.

  6. I’m not here to argue deBoer’s merits as a writer or to say I agree with everything (or anything) he’s ever written. I’m talking only about this particular post of his.