Blame it on the…Bipolar Disorder?

I am a teacher, and this makes me an expert in excuses.  I’ve heard everything from the mundane (“I ran out of time”) to the cliche (“my dog ate it”) to the bizarre (“my baby brother pooped on it”).  The more years I teach, the more excuses I hear.  They all have one thing in common:

I hate them.

I recognize that sometimes there are logical explanations why things don’t get done, but I’m still annoyed when a student uses an explanation, no matter how legitimate, as a  flippant excuse.  It’s one thing to say, “We were out until eleven for a family event, so I skipped all of my homework.  Whatever,”  and it’s completely different to say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t get last night’s homework done because we were out late.  I had my mom e-mail you as is requested in your homework policy, and I’m only requesting a one-day extension.  I’ll have it done as soon as possible.”

Recently, I stumbled upon THIS article from (a generally great resource for people with bipolar disorder) about loving someone with bipolar disorder.  I did not like the article.  I don’t know that I can say I disagree with it, exactly, but I know I don’t like it.  This quote from the article represents the crux of my issue with it:

“Bipolar disorder is a medical condition that manifests in behaviors that look like personal choices. It’s hard for partners to understand this as the symptoms feel so personal. When a person with bipolar spends a child’s college fund, makes horrible accusations, cuts down all of the trees in the back yard, refuses to listen to reason, and comes close to destroying a relationship, it’s hard to step back and think, This is an illness, but it needs to happen.”

It’s worth mentioning that the author of the article is a leading expert on bipolar disorder.  She’s written multiple books and many, many articles about it, she’s worked with Oprah, and basically she is a lot smarter than me about this stuff.  I can’t totally discount what she’s saying.


I can’t stand the “blame it on the bipolar disorder” approach.  Like its close cousin “blame it on the alcohol,” it absolves the offender of any culpability.   At least if someone blames an action on being too drunk, they have to admit that they made the choice to get drunk.  They could decide not to get drunk again, and logically those resulting stupid decisions would not happen.  Blaming things on bipolar disorder is even more frustrating, because it feels like the person is saying, “my brain made me do it!  It’s not my fault at all! Also, you never know when it might happen again!”

I had a talk with a student a few weeks ago who was having a lot of trouble behaving in class.  Her default response was, “Well, I have ADD.  This makes my brain work differently, so I can’t behave.  You don’t understand what it’s like when your brain makes things hard.”

REALLY?!  YOU’RE RIGHT.  IT MUST BE EXTREMELY DIFFICULT TO HAVE A BRAIN THAT DOESN’T WORK CORRECTLY.  Obviously she had no way of knowing the brain battle I fight on a daily basis, but her words still cut.  I took a deep breath and said, “That must be very hard for you.  I’m sorry that you have to deal with that.  The thing is, ADD might make things more difficult for you than they are for other people, and that might be  totally unfair, but you have to work with us teachers to find some strategies that can help you overcome those difficulties.  You can’t just decide that you’re never going to do what you’re supposed to.  The behaviors are still unacceptable, even if there is a logical reason why you struggle with those things.”

Once I said that to her, I realized that I feel the same way about bipolar disorder.  The crazy behaviors that come with manic and depressive episodes, no matter how common or how explainable, are still not okay.  I don’t agree that you can spend your child’s college fund and your husband should just say, “Well, it’s an illness.”  I don’t agree that you should cheat on your spouse and then say, “No big deal.  My brain made me do it.”  You don’t get to plead “not guilty by reason of insanity.”

But here’s the kicker, ladies and gentlemen – in a court of law, “not guilty by reason of insanity” is a legitimate defense.  Whether I like it or not, sometimes people DO lose their decision-making capabilities so much that they don’t have control over their actions, and sometimes other people have to accept that as a valid explanation for behavior.

I think perhaps one of the reasons why I hate that so much is because it’s terrifying to think I could be out of control again.  I finally feel stable on my current cocktail of medications paired with my sleep and exercise routine, and the thought of a relapse is scary.  I like to think that, with proper preparation and accountability, I could keep from making some of the mistakes I’ve made before – some potentially deadly mistakes.  Unfortunately, the looming probability of a relapse hangs over my current success like an ominous shadow.

Additionally, setting aside for a moment whether or not I could do something dumb and “blame it on the bipolar disorder,” I have to live with whatever fallout comes of my decisions.  There are consequences regardless of whether or not the actions were chosen while fully competent or half sloshed on brain chemicals.  The guilt is real.  The shame is real.  And the bottom line is, maybe I would rather live with a sense of guilt and shame than a sense of helplessness.  Maybe that’s why I’m so hesitant to blame anything on my disorder.  I’d rather take all of the blame, because then I have all the control.

I’m aware that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  There needs to be a sense of understanding that people with this illness face unique challenges, but the people with the challenges don’t get to stop fighting.  They don’t get to explain away  their behavior as fine because it’s “not their fault.”  They don’t get to run their tornado of crazy through the lives of their loved ones and then just say, “Oops. Don’t mind me.”  It doesn’t work like that.

Andy’s never had an issue with forgiveness (one of his best qualities, I think).  Regarding this issue, he says, “Why does it matter what percent of a bad decision was your fault and what percent should be explained by an illness?  Either way, I forgive you when things happen, we move on, and it’s about time that you figure out a way to forgive yourself.”  I know he’s right, but it still bothers me.  I want to know how much I’ve had control over in my life and how much was honestly “not guilty by reason of insanity.”  Except you know what?  Maybe I don’t want to know.  The answer could be scary.

I guess I don’t have a good conclusion to this post because there’s not a conclusive take-away in my mind regarding this topic.  I’m still so confused.  I would love to hear your opinion if you’ve found a way to marry the dichotomy of taking responsibility while still acknowledging that this illness does not allow for complete control.  My brain can’t mesh these two facts.

Then again, let’s be real.  My brain can’t do a lot of things.  Why are we relying on my brain here?  Comments, please.  Help me figure this one out!


10 thoughts on “Blame it on the…Bipolar Disorder?

  1. I 100% agree with the quote from the article you posted – I think that those who suffer from severe bipolar, or who are going through an intense mood episode, can’t really be held accountable for their actions.

    My partner has bipolar disorder. She never has any stable episodes, she bounces immediately from major depressive episodes to severe manic episodes, and she has psychotic symptoms 24/7. A lot of the time her brain doesn’t think the same way most people’s do, and I have to excuse some things she does…she’s not ‘blaming’ her bipolar, she’s not using it as an excuse – she can’t think any other way. When my partner was psychotic, she *knew* I was a spy plotting against her, and acted on her truth (obviously I wasn’t).

    My partner doesn’t know her thinking is out of whack; her thoughts are as truthful to her as me knowing that the sky is blue and the grass green without having to go look out of the window. Her bipolar isn’t an excuse for her behaviour, it’s an explanation.

    My partner is constantly trying to manage her symptoms. She’s come up with countless games and tactics to try improve my life and help her keep a grasp on reality…but it’s tough. My partner blames herself for everything, and I am constantly reminding her it’s NOT her fault, it’s an illness, you’re trying your hardest etc.

    I hope this comment makes sense, I may have warbled. It’s been a long day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your insight – your partner is lucky to have you. I know what you mean about being out of control… I’ve been fully convinced that my husband was trying to kill me, that something terrible would happen if I didn’t sleep in our backyard…really weird stuff. Obviously I would control that if I could. It’s just so….scary. I hate it.


      But I’m thankful for people like you who make life livable for people like me.


  2. I like this post, because I have felt the same way. I know I have done some crazy and/or stupid shit while under the influence of bipolar, and I don’t use that as an excuse. I know that the mania contributed to my actions, but I still feel responsible for them. Then again, I have impossibly high standards for myself that I can never live up to, so regret and shame gnaws at me, even many years later. Maybe it is healthier to forgive yourself for your actions, apologize to others, and move on. I have a hard time with this.

    Related to the topic: In Ohio the casino companies have launched an ad campaign essentially saying that gambling addiction is due to brain chemistry rather than a flaw in your character. I have a big problem with this. Someone may be addicted to the dopamine rush they get from gambling, but they make the decision to drain their bank account. Is that any different that a manic spending spree? I don’t know.

    And now for a classic excuse: One time I gave my math teacher an excuse that I ran out of paper, which was true. After promising to turn it in the next day, I still had no paper. Sooo… I did my algebra problems very neatly, one problem per square of toilet paper. I brought in the roll and tore off the work to turn in. She threw my homework away in front of the entire class, to everyone’s amusement.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s good to hear someone else has struggled with this, but I do wish there was a clear answer. *sigh*

      The toilet paper thing is FANTASTIC. I’m so bummed you didn’t get credit for that (pun intended).


  3. I’ve gotten better at forgiving myself for even *having* a mental illness, so understanding that it *pushes* me one way or the other and accepting that is getting easier, too.

    One of the things that helps me is to remember that lack of insight is a symptom. So, when my other symptoms surface (like distorted thinking & emotional turbulence), when I need insight *the most*, it might be hard to find. I consider myself extremely lucky that I retain as much insight as I do, but there are times that I can’t see when I’m Looney Toons.

    The task for me always is to just SEE it, and then acknowledge that the illness is in play without judgement. One book that my therapist recommended (& I tell everyone about) is “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach. It was a game-changer for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks – those are some really good thoughts. I definitely see what you’re trying to say about the lack of insight. Thanks also for the book recommendation. I’m going to try to get that. I really appreciate your insightful comments – they make a big difference!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m with you, I hate articles like that. In part because they make me feel like I’ll never be in a relationship, never mind I’ve never had an episode so bad like the one described in the article. My therapist point blank told me several times that I’m perfectly capable of being in a relationship if I want to, but I don’t always believe her.

    The other reason is I don’t want an excuse to be a jerk. I’m very conscious of when I *want* to use bipolar as an excuse. I’m ashamed to say it almost always happens with work. I would always find myself using it to make myself feel better about not doing my best work. Thankfully, no one at work knows I’m bipolar, which means I never tell them my excuses. I try an catch myself though.

    I can’t wrap my head around being so sick I have absolutely no control over what I do. There were moments before I was diagnosed, particularly when I was a teenager, I said and did mean things which are so out of character for me. I still try and sort out what was all me and what was influenced by bipolar.

    I think your husband is right though, does it really matter as long as you deal with it like an adult? It’s just a fact of life that some people simply can’t deal with someone with bipolar. It’s hard. But its possible. It has to be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sorry that you struggle with this same thing. It’s like, you don’t want to use a disease as an excuse, but SOMETIMES IT REALLY DOES CAUSE PROBLEMS.

      I’m sure you can be in a relationship if you want to. There are actually some brilliant gifts that come with bipolar disorder (Have you read “Touched With Fire”?) Sometimes I try to focus on what I have to offer because of this disorder, but I have varying degrees of success with that line of thinking.

      :-/ We’re in this together. Keep on fighting.


  5. I absolutely LOVE this post!! How I feel all the time with SPD. Sometimes I do things and wonder why I wasn’t able to catch myself, and then I realized that I really did not have the capability to do so, and that it really wasn’t my fault. And then I work on coping strategies so that the same doesn’t happen again.

    It can be scary knowing that one of these days something random might happen and really throw me off… like get slammed with projects at work and not knowing how to handle it and ending up back in the hospital.

    But then I remember that I have a God who promises to work all things out for the good of those who love Him, and I breathe a little easier.


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