What My Mental Illness Taught Me About Self-Control
There are entire lines of therapy that basically boil down to “learn self-control so you never upset the sane.”
Some people achieve great success with one or both modalities and I don’t want to undercut their experiences. I find both next to useless for me, personally. I already understand how to intellectually assess a situation to gauge which emotion is “appropriate,” and oddly, thinking positively doesn’t make my emotional response go away. (A cognitive behavioral therapy worksheet had, as a helpful step in a flowchart, “change behavior,” as though, poof, I could magically erase my feelings and change the way I react to a situation.)
I know that my father sometimes despaired of what to do with his obstreperous child, especially when it came to my generally hostile reaction to his parade of girlfriends. It wasn’t that I was jealous of them, as they seemed to think, but rather that I bristled at their attempts to tell me what to do, on the grounds of dating my father. I don’t obey people who don’t respect me, and their disrespect was a heavy cloud around them; I was thought of as an inconvenience, not a person.
There is such a confusing expectation for children: They must comply with orders from adults because adults are, by some logic, better than them. Then adulthood arrives and, with it, the dismaying discovery that there’s a whole cavalcade of adults who are “better,” to whom the rest of society owes respect simply because of the social superiority granted to them by similarly confusing logic. For example, police officers rarely behave in ways that establish trust or respect—though we are required to follow their orders. Doctors, often using their degrees as battering rams, decide that they know a patient’s body better than the patient themself. Seniors in organizations can get away with bald-faced lies and attempts at humiliating people with no consequences, simply because of a title.
As a grown-up, the news that there would always be more people to obey sank to my stomach like a stone.
I’m intensely aware I need to keep the side up—to wave off minor harms, to be calm in the face of adversity, to turn the other cheek when someone is cruel to me. More bluntly, I need to not act crazy. Many mentally ill people that I know are cautious, sparing, nervous with their emotions. When everything we do is linked to waning mental health, even rational stress reactions to trauma are seen as further evidence of craziness and why we can’t be trusted. People use our diagnoses against us and consequently, we are expected to spend a great deal of time eating shit.
We dutifully keep our mood journals, use the various tools we’ve learned or developed to regulate our moods into tight, contained boxes. Sometimes we gaslight ourselves:; this isn’t that bad, it could have been worse, we’re being unreasonable. Just stick it out, it will be over soon.
So we ask ourselves: Is this response rational, or am I tipping over into the bad place? We self-police. It becomes intensely challenging to figure out whether we are seeing the reality of a situation or are falling back into old ways and patterns—the things that did not serve us. It is even more true for multiply marginalized people, who face constant invalidation of their bodies and experiences. To be crazy and trans, for example, is to have people constantly question your gender, suggesting that this part of your identity is the symptom of a mental health condition, ignoring the profound impact their invalidation can have on your mental health.
At age nine or so, one of my father’s girlfriends endeared herself to me by treating me as an adult—as an equal—and took me seriously when I expressed feelings of anger or betrayal. She didn’t have any children of her own, but understood that being respectful goes a long way. One day, I was tired and fussy and lashed out at her. I remember this not because of the hurt on her face, but because it was the first time I consciously wanted to apologize to another human being for something I had done that hurt them. It was the moment I understood what an apology’s purpose was, and critically, the moment I understood that fatigue and other factors might explain cruelty, but never excused it.
That goes other ways, and in other settings, too. One of the most dismaying things I can hear from someone is a confident assertion that my behavior during a conflict was caused by my mental health condition. It is the comment that best undercuts me, and also defangs the situation. It ends the discussion. There’s no need to interrogate what happened further, because this whole thing is about me overreacting—because I’m crazy. Suddenly, the burden of fixing things is thrust back onto me, even if I was the one wronged, even if a sane person in my situation would be met with sympathy and agreement. And in cases where I do need and want to take responsibility for my own behavior because I committed harm, a brusque “it must have been mental illness” denies me the opportunity to do so. This does not serve me, nor does it serve the person I harmed.
And so I keep myself buttoned up tight. Controlled. I try not to waver, to slip. Even in a situation where I feel grossly, objectively wronged, where people around me agree with me, I try to remain neutral, calm, even. I fail more often than I care to admit.
I have seen what happens when I do not keep the side up.