Recounting Accountability

A couple years ago when I began attending a bipolar meetup group in the area, I was worried I’d fall into a hole.

This pit would be full of dark things, like the words “mental illness” and “disabled”, and the black sea of gook would engulf and drown any accountability I felt I had in regard to my actions.

I had seen this slip in places before, where one embraces whatever diagnosis is thrown at them after some turmoil, then relinquishes all control over oneself in favor of using the diagnosis as a scapegoat.

I ruined my relationship? Oh, it was just mental illness. I didn’t have anything to do with that.

I was desperate to retain some semblance of control. To retain me, my integrity, and the accountability that the general population is held to in regard to their actions.

I will not allow myself to use mental illness as an excuse.

The ride has been a bumpy one, and I’ve since rescinded the absolute nature of my goal.

This last year, for example, I had to come to terms with the fact that I could not keep up physically with the people around me. I couldn’t perform at work as well as the people around me. And trying to hold myself to the same standards of others (physically) was making me crash and burn, over and over and over again.

Is it beginning? I wondered. Am I using bipolar disorder as an excuse as to why I can’t work as hard as my co-workers? Am I watching my accountability slipping away?

I’d like to believe that the fact that I felt tortured because I couldn’t do those things somehow makes up for the fact that I couldn’t do them. Since I was struggling so much and wanted to work hard, is bipolar still an excuse, or an adversary?

My boyfriend, wise as he is, told me I couldn’t do more than I could do.

Maybe it was my personal standards that needed to change? If my standard was how much I can actually do, as opposed to how much I want to do, the excuse is no longer relevant. I am only capable of doing what I am capable of doing, and as long as I still push myself to do everything I can, I can keep those torturous feelings of inadequacy at bay.

You better believe that took some getting used to, and the adjustment seemed much more difficult than, say, just having my brain transplanted into a new robot body. Or rather, since the brain seems to be the issue, having a new brain transplanted into the body I have now.

Anyway, that compromise was very difficult for me. It wasn’t one I had really intended to make, but I was driving myself into deep depression anytime I tried like hell to keep up with the rest. Realistically, after something hasn’t worked for the last 8 years, I guess trying a new approach might produce better results.

But then that leaves that other, daunting situation, where mental illness is an excuse for bad behavior. Treating others badly, treating myself badly, and the like.

I’ve done some terrible things, terrrrrrrible. Did I do them when I was totally irrational? Some of them. Did some of them involve insensitive outbursts at people who didn’t deserve them? Yup. Did I leave a trail of emotional carnage in my wake like some kind of bipolar Godzilla?

You bet.

And I am definitely not proud of those things (which is why you will not be seeing a detailed list here pointing out what those things were).

I am certain bipolar disorder had at least something to do with these incidences, but I was there, I was the one who gurgled out poison words. I kind of wish I had some kind of clone to blame everything on, but I don’t. It was me.

But facing that fact is hard. It is much easier to say, “well, I wasn’t quite myself, so I wasn’t part of what happened,” but the distinction of whether it was me or not (internally) is only made by myself. Maybe if bipolar episode Sarah had a “B” emblazoned on her forehead everyone could tell whether I was the one creating mayhem or not, but as it is episodic, irrational me shares a body with sane (ish) regular me. There is only one mouth for those words to escape from, and if sane mouth is going to have any credibility, that means taking responsibility for crazy mouth.

And I know those moments, because you might be thinking, ah, but what about when my consciousness seems to be floating apart from my body and I’m subject to just watching it do whatever it wants? 

Sorry. Still counts.

Even if, at this point, someone close to me can tell that I am not behaving normally, those actions and words are linked to me.

I dated someone for a handful of years who clearly had periods more lucid than others. He would repeatedly attack me verbally, or threaten me, or worse.

I told myself over and over again that it wasn’t really him that was doing it, I knew him well enough to be able to recognize the little marker on his forehead when he was being completely irrational. But it didn’t make his actions or words hurt any less. Hell, I’ll be lucky if I can get over the shit I went through with him sometime in the next 10 years!

I waited for him to snap out of it. To grow out of it. It got worse.

I thought, maybe mental illness is making him an asshole?

Then I realized that wasn’t the case. He was just an asshole. He didn’t apologize for his actions, he didn’t try to do anything about them. He didn’t take any responsibility for hurting me over and over again, even though he knew he was doing it.

After being on the receiving end of that behavior, it seems so unfair that it hurts so much more when someone says something awful to you than it does to say those things yourself.


Like that Family Guy episode where the inmate (waiting to stab Peter’s friend Joe) sits on the bunk in prison and says, “I wonder what this feels like?” before jestingly stabbing himself in the leg and screaming out in pain. “Is that what I’ve been doing to people all these years?!?”

Maybe it was the growing up I needed to do in order to take responsibility for what I was doing. Getting emotionally pulverized for 3 years really made me realize that regardless of what is going on in my head, I am responsible for the things that come out of my mouth. Period.

So bipolar disorder? Not an excuse.

And I still have outbursts, and irrational periods, and urges to do weird, nonsensical things, but the difference is that I have a system set up, something to counteract those things when they occur. Whether that is a system of thought, a system of medication, a system of people to call, or a plan in the event things get totally out of control.

If none of those help and I make a mistake, then ok. It was me that made it.


18 responses to “Recounting Accountability

  1. I have, unfortunately, been doing the same thing recently since I was diagnosed. I have been refusing to take responsibility for missing work since I’m “sick.” I feel like I’ve been cutting myself too much slack, but I do really need the mental health days. I think there has to be a middle ground between letting yourself heal and taking responsibility for every fuck up.

    • For me that was where changing my expectations to fit what I was actually capable of doing when depressed/recovering made a big difference. I’ve always had really intense, unreal expectations for myself, which can sometimes be helpful (hypomania, anyone?) but when I have trouble functioning, that’s probably the least helpful thing I could have going on.

      I think a lot of people feel guilty about taking care of themselves because we’re afraid it is a selfish thing to do (I know I do that). I say take as many mental health days as you need, because only YOU know what you need to help you recover. And to some extent, I believe that by recognizing you need time to recover and by taking the time you need, you ARE taking responsibility there. 🙂

      • “An unexamined life isn’t worth living.” – Socrates

        There is no middle ground between letting yourself heal and taking responsibility for every F’up. They are two different things.

        Smile and the world smiles with you. Change your expectations of yourself, and take better care of yourself, and the world says “stop doing that, because I know I should do it too, and you’re making me face the fact that my priorities are from someone else and it’s so much trouble to create my own.”

        We are lucky because we been given a thorn that forces us to live an “examined” life. It’s a relative and qualitative improvement. An examined life produces art, invention, and wisdom.

        Be responsible for yourself, i.e., your health, to yourself. That’s forever.

        F’ups have a short shelf life. F ’em.

  2. On Accountability.

    Let me quote “but I was there.” Yes you were.

    I cannot be a dragon if I have no fire. If there is fire, then I must be a dragon. Bipolar or not, I am an asshole. If the asshole is awake and I am high; just leave, you’ll get burned. If the asshole is awake and I’m low; just leave, you’ll get burned.

    In a less derealized mode with more stable functioning, I’m still an asshole I just feal bad about it sooner. The work for me is not to try to “control” my disease, but to learn to be less of an asshole. Thankfully, I’m not the only one and I don’t stand out in a crowd… or do I?

    There is hope. As I am not always high or always low, they call me Bipolar. And I am not always of “good” character or always of “bad” character, they call me human. I am loving, caring, generous, trustworthy, respectful, responsible, and fair. But I am also envious, jealous, stingy, disloyal, selfish and a liar.

    I have a lot more traits, “good”, and “bad,” just as you, but I know that most humans of character can and do choose to forgive me. Maybe even this asshole can learn that trick.

  3. This is by far on of your most enlightening blogs yet. It is quite impressive to see someone you know and love be able to own responsibility for actions while under the influence of the nasty “B”. You my friend are incredibly admirable.

    • Thank you!

    • Is it not true that as adults we must own our actions? A regretable action is hurting others. A responsible action is to care for ourselves to prevent us from hurting ourselves. Being Bipolar has nothing to do with it. Have I missed the point?

  4. Responsibility and accountability are very important to me. To me, taking responsibility for my actions turns my bipolar from and excuse to a reason. If I was using bipolar as an excuse, I wouldn’t apologize or try to make up for my behavior during any given time period. Instead, I go to the people I have wronged and tell them, “I am beyond sorry that I hurt you during this episode by saying/doing X, Y, Z. I want to let you know that I do not feel this way on a regular basis. I would not normally say/do these things. But I did. Is there anything I can do to help you deal with it/me?”

    Okay, I probably don’t say it that eloquently, but…y’all get the idea. And sometimes, the answer is for me to go away. Which is very painful. Other times, what they ask for isn’t something I can give them. Then I have to make the decision as to whether I can keep that person in my life. And that is equally painful.

    Oddly enough, the concept of putting the situation in the past and “letting sleeping dogs lie” can actually be effective. It only works if the persons involved all have enough distance from the occurrence that the feelings of pain or betrayal are no longer strong enough to cause hurt and there are stronger feelings of love and compassion to bridge the gap.

    For the most part, though, I know that I am responsible for what I do. Even when I am in a manic (or depressed) phase, the pain I cause through my words or my actions is due to no one but me. If I am depressed and stop returning calls and refuse all invitations for months, then I have to take responsibility for the friends I lose in the process. Not only in how it effects me, but how it effects other people as well. If one of my friends has managed to stick around, but the others that we both know have found my behavior outside their comfortable standards; then it is my responsibility to accept their decisions as to whether I am welcome around them. I can apologize, but I cannot change their minds.

    Part of taking responsibility, though, is recognizing where ours stops. I am responsible for *my* behavior…not how others react to it.

    • You’ve got some great points, especially in the area of what can happen to friendships when a bipolar episode hits. It can definitely be rough, and I think that is partially why I’ve been gravitating toward having friends who are of a similar mindset. When people have been on both ends of that situation, they are usually much quicker to forgive and forget.

      Sometimes it is REALLY hard for me to draw that line between responsibility for my behavior and the behavior of others. That’s a really important distinction to make, especially in places like the workplace. I’ve had the darndest time with people who don’t know when to focus on their own behavior and leave a situation alone, so I hope that by witnessing those sorts of blunders I’ve learned something from it.

      • Honestly, I have to laugh at times when people tell me that having a mood disorder is no excuse for X. True enough. I completely agree. But what excuse does my coworker have for being a total and complete asshole and talking to me or about me as if I am the highest contender for the Idiot Fuck-Up Championships? So, my bipolar disorder and social anxiety are not an excuse for bad behavior, and I take responsibility for my own mess-ups. Whereas “normal” people treat others like shit with impunity and don’t take responsibility for a damn thing. And there’s something wrong with “us”?

  5. I must refresh my screen more often. My replies, that seem to be to colonialpunk, are actually to the person before. I apologize.

    Regardless of that, I seem to be slightly high right now. Therefore lies the reason for so many replies that seem to be clever, at least to me, and possibly redundant to the post, and other replies.

    This is not my blog! Again, I apologize.

    Please don’t think ill of me… I’m Bipolar. ;->

  6. I’m loving the conversation your post has created. We’ve spoken about this at home: Mental Illness VS The Rest.

    I think a great deal of things can be explained on mental illness: uncontrollable rage, dysphoria, catatonia, and a great deal of things can also be explained on just being like everyone else: being pissed off, having a bad day, wanting to be alone.

    As a caregiver, it’s something I myself needed to put in perspective, as not everything is about my wife’s bipolar illness, and when she’s pissed about X, it needs to be validated for what it is.

  7. I’ve always been worried about whether I am using it as an excuse.

    I think there’s a huge difference between using it as an excuse and as an explanation (naturally followed by a heartfelt apology). One night, I recall my husband and I were riding around in the car. We do that sometimes. And, I was going on about something. I don’t remember what, but I was really upset. And he asked me, “What is wrong? What is upsetting you?” I stopped dead in my tracks. “I don’t know. Nothing. I’m irritable. I’m really sorry.” And there was a complete attitude change. When he defused it by making me realize that I had become irrational, it changed everything.

    I don’t say things like, “Excuse me, I’m bipolar.” Normally, it starts out with, “I was (insert emotion) here, and there was no justifiable reason for it. I see that now, and I profusely apologize. What can I do to make up for it?”

    I worry that it’s one in the same. Thoughts?

    • Personally, I don’t think it’s the same at all. I think recognizing that we are being affected by a mood swing is one of the hardest things we can learn. Fact of the matter is, though, that even people without a mood disorder have mood swings. If I can at least recognize that my mood is being distorted, then I can try to be prepared and watch my tone of voice and other behaviors.

      I have gone into work, sat at my desk, put my head phones on and focused completely on work. On these days, I only talk to my coworkers as it’s related to the job. When I am asked about this, I just tell them, “I am having a bad day/in a bad mood and I didn’t want it to spill all over y’all.” If I do get caught up in a conversation and end up snapping at someone (the which happened the other day), I find time to take that person aside and apologize to them personally. I will tell them that I am in a bad mood, but that is no excuse for saying what I did and tell them I am sorry.

      I am not using my bipolar as an excuse, just trying to work around it. Granted when I blow friends off like I did this weekend, it is harder to apologize. I still do so and, thankfully, have some really great friends.

      • ColonialPunk

        I agree 100%.

        I think acknowledging our behavior is a huge part of it, and at least personally there is also the important element of being ready to apologize if (and when) I snap.

    • I would say that what you’re doing isn’t making an excuse, but taking responsibility.

      I think it is one thing to apologize with the explanation that you didn’t recognize that you were being irritable, for example, but the sorts of behavior I’ve seen where people aren’t taking responsibility for their own actions usually results in a response like, “well it isn’t my fault,” or “they deserved what I said to them anyway”.

      Or even, when confronted by someone who is upset about a situation, the response can look something like, “what I said isn’t that big of a deal.” So ignoring the fact that we are hurting others is somewhat synonymous for me with not taking responsibility for our actions.

      And I have similar situations with my boyfriend, I can’t always recognize my behavior until it is pointed out to me (though I’m getting better). I think having someone around you trust enough to be able to point things out to you without being offensive about it is extremely helpful.

  8. I have a mother who is bipolar, and my youngest sister makes her look like a saint in comparison. My mom was hurtful, said awful things that still haunt me about being a lazy, worthless pig who is setting myself up for failure, just like my dad. She used to wake me up at 3am, when I was 7 years old, and beat me every 15 minutes until my room was spotless. I remember feeling scared, tired, and desperate for the night to end, and I remember my dad fighting with her about how she was acting crazy, and that I didn’t deserve this, and to please let me sleep and he’d have me clean my room later that day. That was just one example out of a landslide of scary/frustrating/humiliating moments in my youth. I’m using it now as a way of giving my sister’s actions something to compare to. Although my mother still won’t admit that anything is or was ever wrong with her (she has ended up alone after several failed marriages and a huge family of kids who stay out of arms length, only checking in often enough to make sure that she isn’t homeless or ill), my sister has been diagnosed, and admits to needing help. Unfortunately, she uses it as a crutch to be mean and put all of us (and her patient, but woefully unfortunate husband) through a lot of horrible encounters. It is almost a guarantee that at least once in EVERY interaction will include an episode, followed by wild accusations that we all just hate her, statements that it’s not her fault, and even crazier, knee-jerk behavior. Having been the most abused child in the family (even my mom admits that she hated how much I reminded her of my father), I have the lowest threshold for being abused as an adult by anyone, but I still find myself unable to let her go… For my own good. She gives the term dramatic a whole new meaning, but can also be the most ellequent, loving girl (she’s 29, but still a girl in my eyes). I would give everything I have if she could come to the same epiphany as you, but how does that happen. The hardest thing is that she’s wildly intelligent, which makes the bad times even more difficult, but I see that wonderful mind being wasted, and her life diminishing if she can’t figure it out. There are things she knows like that sleep deprivation and alcohol can set the bad traits in motion, but even while she’s doing them, she admits that it’s going to end badly, and there’s nothing we can do to change the outcome for her (or ourselfs, unfortunately).

    I don’t know if I need answers, or just the chance to connect to an understanding circle, so that I don’t feel like a bastard for not jumping on the “she’s sick, just be nice to her, no matter what horrible things she says or does” train. It’s immensely relieving to read similar experiences, and know that there are people on the other side of the illness who are struggling as well.

    To the girl who started this thread: you give me hope that maybe my sister can find a way to cope and we can get some of that sweet person back… I just need to figure out how to help her realize that taking responsibility is an important step. Thank you! Thank you so much!

  9. Reblogged this on So What? and commented:
    Important read, as someone on the receiving end of the abuse.
    When do we stop excusing someone’s behavior and start holding them accountable when there is a mental illness involved?
    And at what point can we walk away without feeling guilt when our lives and our sanity are being destroyed?
    Of course there is not one answer to fit all situations. But there comes a point when you have to stop tolerating and start demanding the basic respect any living being deserves–not from others, but from yourself, to have the strength to walk away.
    To understand that it’s not selfish to do so, if it’s best for your safety and that of others around you; demanding that someone tolerate your abusive behavior ad infinitum, regardless of the circumstances… at what point can we accept that as selfish?

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