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 bphope.com (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.

HOWEVER.

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!

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