I’ve done a lot of things that I am not proud of. Things that are just weird, awkward, silly and stupid. Things that are mean, manipulative, selfish and cruel. And many of these events or actions happened during periods of severe depression, mania or anxiety. And if I dig even further, I can recall that many of those “things” that make me cringe happened during the period of my life where I was still figuring out my mental health before I received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. This was from approximately September 2012 to June 2014, around the time that I made several huge changes in my life, including moving from Montreal to Toronto. Lately, I have been reflecting on my behaviour and the consequences, or sometimes the lack of consequences. I wonder – did I deserve it? Did I deserve to lose friends? Did I deserve to be treated, at times, as if I were an awful human being? Did I deserve the feelings of loneliness and isolation? Probably and probably not. It’s complicated.
Looking back at my life and my formative years, it is clear that there were always signs of mental health issues. However, my significant and life-changing experiences with mental illness truly began in the months after I moved.
I was already a bit fragile, I think because there was a lot of severe stress and family trauma in the summer of 2012. Not to mention years of struggles with undiagnosed mental illness, without seeking any support or treatment. When I moved to Toronto to complete a one-year post-graduate certificate, I dived head-first into the new experience, trying everything I could to start over and attain a life where I felt happy. I thought this involved leaving a four-year relationship with the love of my life and so, I ended the relationship quite abruptly and suddenly, without much warning to him and without much thought to the consequences, to his feelings or mine. I think almost immediately I could sense that this was the wrong decision but I tried to move forward and focus on my studies, friendships, and yes, dating new people because I thought that was the solution to my problems.
There was a guy that lived across the hall in residence with whom I hung out quite frequently during orientation. We became friends quickly, along with a group of other students. I found him to be kind, smart and good-looking and developed a crush on him, despite my still-existing strong feelings for my previous partner. Soon after the breakup during Thanksgiving weekend, we began to casually date and hang out one-on-one outside of the group.
In the meantime, my mental health was quickly deteriorating. I was incredibly anxious being single and without my best friend. Still, I pressed on because I believed I was doing the right thing. There was a terrible week in October where I experienced panic attacks almost hourly. I didn’t know they were panic attacks but they caused a lot of problems. I had to walk out of class before giving a presentation because I couldn’t breathe. I missed almost a week of school because I was scared that these attacks would occur during class and I wanted to avoid the embarrassment. Since I was living in close quarters with my new friends, I relied on them to support me during this difficult week. We would be hanging out when the tell-tale pounding of the chest would begin and the closing of my throat. I would ask one of them to help me with my breathing. It would completely disrupt the evening and alter the mood from a fun, easy-going hang-out to a stressful and frustrating experience. I had only met these people weeks earlier, so their willingness to help me was greatly appreciated. But looking back, it might have been wiser to make a phone call, to speak to my family or friends from back home, to call my sister who lived over an hour away by bus and keep the panic attacks a private issue within the confines of my dorm room.
Towards the end of the week, I was starting to feel better and the panic attacks had subsided. I was feeling really guilty for everything I had put my new friends through, so I went over to one of their rooms to offer my thanks and appreciation. I didn’t have a chance though because the conversation went sour fast, with my new friends basically telling me that they couldn’t and didn’t want to handle the burden of my issues. It was too much for them. Fair enough, I had recognized that this might be a possibility but it was still quite hurtful. It was painful to sense that I had made the wrong move, that I had put my energy into relationships that weren’t as strong as I had believed or that I had personally destroyed those relationships with my actions.
Luckily, the guy I had been dating was somehow still interested in me and still attracted to me. Also, a few amazing friends stuck by me. We continued to date for the next few months, but I refused to put a label on the relationship, even when he asked me. I said it nicely, I hope, insisting that I still really liked him and wanted to be with him, I just wasn’t ready. In hindsight, I was confused because I still missed my previous partner immensely and couldn’t shake my feelings for him. I thought that if I kept trying, eventually the feelings would go away and I would be able to focus all my attention on the new guy.
Christmas break rolled around and I made plans to see my previous partner when I returned to Montreal for the holidays. Over the next two months, I essentially jerked around both boys, telling one it was over and telling the other that I wanted to be with them, and then changing my mind. I was utterly indecisive and confused about my feelings. In the meantime, I had never felt more unhealthy when it came to my mental health. It was the first time I experienced the severe chest pain that has become a regular signifier of a new depressive episode and nothing I could do would make it go away. I was in constant discomfort and was barely eating. Each time I would “begin” a new relationship, I thought it would make the pain go away. But it didn’t. Finally, I decided that if I was so confused and in so much pain, I should just break away from my previous relationship because it was clearly not working and go with the guy across the hall. I also started taking anti-depressants prescribed by a doctor on-campus.
By this time, most of my friends in residence were disgusted with me and I was too ashamed to tell them about my mental health issues, so I just resigned myself to the fact that they would believe I was a terrible person. I believed it myself.
Over the next few months, I adjusted to the medication and started to feel a lot better. My dating life was pretty great, but I was feeling really lonely. Since I had spent more than the first half of the year dealing with my mental health issues, I hadn’t really connected with too many people in my classes. I was surrounded by intelligent, funny and amazing women who had all formed strong bonds with one another. I felt like an outsider. I did have some really good friends but my mental illness just told me that they didn’t care.
School ended and I started my internship. I was no longer seeing my new guy every day since I lived in the west end of Toronto and he lived in Hamilton. With the medication finally working and the physical and emotional pain becoming less intense, I realized that my feelings for my previous partner had not in fact disappeared. I could tell that the new guy loved me and was trying to figure out a way to say it. I felt awful because I had strung him along for over 8 months. I did have feelings for him, that wasn’t a lie, but it was clear that there was a severe imbalance in our relationship. I knew that wasn’t fair and one day, I finally mustered up the strength to call him and break up with him. Was that respectful of me to do it over the phone and not in person? Or was that just another shitty thing amongst all the shit I had put him through? I thought it would be better since I didn’t think it would be kind to do it when he was visiting in Toronto, forcing him to go all the way back home with this heartbreaking news. Nor did I think it was wise to go visit him at his home, where he was my only means of transport to the train station.
I saw him a few times after that, which was another bad move on my part because I encouraged him to think that there was a chance we would get back together. I just wanted to be friends with him, because I sincerely liked him a lot and thought he was a good person. But I guess I was naïve to think that it was possible.
Once our relationship was over, I had decided that I was truly meant to be with my previous long-term partner. I waited a few months to make sure I was certain and then I called him to talk about it. He told me that he still cared about me but that he was still really hurt from all of the pain I put him through and that he was certainly not ready for a relationship. I decided that I was willing to wait because I knew we were meant to be.
That fall, my benefits from school expired and therefore my medication was no longer covered and I decided to stop using them cold turkey. I was feeling better, so I was fine, right? They had done their job. For a few months, I was healthy, functional and feeling great. However, the depression and anxiety slowly started to creep back in. I had constant chest pain and I could hardly eat. I was having difficulty concentrating and my tasks at work felt like they took a lot longer than they should. I was staying later to make up for it. I was withdrawing from my friends and family and spent most of my time hiding in my bedroom. I was having horrible, dark thoughts, including awful negative self-talk about my personality, appearance, you name it. It was during this dark time that I started to call my previous partner, confide in him and talk to him about my experiences. He was pretty friendly, receptive and willing to hear about my issues. I remember one time he talked me into getting out of bed and going on the treadmill. He stayed on the phone the whole time.
Finally, in the spring of 2014, he decided that he trusted me and we got back together. And we’ve stayed together ever since. It’s been over three years since that time and since then, I have received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and have gone through some terrible, difficult times with my mental health. However, my faith in our relationship has never waivered.
I honestly can’t believe I am telling you this story because it doesn’t exactly paint me in a positive light. I treated both of these men like shit and completely disregarded their feelings. I speak to my partner about this period of our lives on occasion and I think we have both made peace with it. But still, I will never feel like I have apologized for my actions enough so again, I am deeply sorry. To the guy down the hall, if you are reading this, I am truly sorry for how I treated you because you really didn’t deserve it. I haven’t spoken to you in a few years and I don’t even have your number anymore, but I hope you are happy and healthy.
Now, almost two thousand words later, I will attempt to answer the question: can I excuse my behaviour because of my mental illness or am I just a shitty person?
I guess everyone might have a different opinion about this and that’s fine, but I’ve decided that it is complex. I do need to take responsibility for some of my behaviour, but I don’t think I am a shitty person. I think that, in that year and a half of my life, I was a deeply troubled, confused person who was in a lot of pain. Yes, I was (maybe still am) really selfish. But I was also just trying to deal with severe depression and anxiety without the right resources or help. I was far away from home without my support network and so I latched on to this new person for emotional and physical support. I just think this is a really gray area.
I just think this is a really gray area. I don’t want to blame my behaviour on my mental illness, but I strongly believe that my actions during that time do not reflect who I am as a person. My bad behaviour at the time was definitely an indication that my mental illness was not being managed well. I was a lot less mature and I didn’t know anything about mental health. It just wasn’t discussed as often or as permeated in our popular culture as it is now. I also just didn’t have a lot of experiences with relationships or dating. But to truly reduce the stigma of mental illness, we can not just assume that bad behaviour is a sign of mental illness. Sometimes, it is just a personality flaw. If my personality was flawed at the time, I hope that I have changed for the better. I don’t think that I am beyond redemption. While I haven’t always had control over my actions, I can control how I respond to the consequences and ramifications. I know that I am definitely responsible for making up for the harm I have caused and will cause in the future. I take ownership for my screw-ups and do my best to be a good partner now, in the present. I am very lucky that my partner has compassion for me. He knows that I am trying my best to take care of my bipolar disorder and understands that the illness sometimes gets the better of me.
Do you ever think about these types of questions in regard to your own mental illness? I’m curious. Let me know in the comments below!