A mental health diagnosis is only an explanation, not an excuse

Let’s be 100% clear. Mark this down, come back for reference, let it sink in, accept it as truth, and realize this is the central theme of this narrative.


Everyone on this planet has the same social contract with everyone else on this planet.


I’ve got bipolar, and I’ve done some really stupid-ass stuff when symptomatic, particularly when in the throes of hypomania. I had sex with five different girls in one day. I got myself convicted of 4th degree felony embezzlement. I did all sorts of crap that got me fired from job after job.

In each instance, there were consequences. The latter is self-realizing; I’d get euphoric, I’d get charismatic, I’d get irritated, I’d get angry at a co-worker… and I’d get fired. The middle critter is a blog of its own. And the former is a source of such shame and guilt that I’m going to use it as the example of how I broke this social contract with my fellow planet-mates.

Back in my New Mexico Tech days (late 80s, early 90s), we’d have this thing called 49s Weekend. It’s a mining thing, the Miner 49s of the 1849 California Gold Rush, and it was a tenuous connection to New Mexico Tech which was originally named New Mexico School of Mines that wasn’t founded until 1889 while New Mexico was still a territory. The 49s were a forty year memory by the time our school was founded, and not in California. I tangentialized there, and it won’t be the last time in this blog because this is really difficult to write.

Shame, guilt. I was a halfway decent looking guy with halfway decent social skills at a school where nerds and geeks came to learn and perhaps breed. That’s not good. I’m not going to erase the “breed” word because it’s yet another ploy of severity-diversion that is untoward for this topic. It was just that sort of flippancy that permeated my thinking while manic.

It was 49s Weekend, and each year the school rolled in the War Wagon, a Budweiser panel truck that opened on each side to reveal a good dozen beer kegs with free taps for all. There were lots of intoxicated nerds and geeks, and there was a festive flair that lent itself to impeded critical thinking from kids who came to this university on the strength of their critical thinking skills. I loved 49s Weekend because, in retrospect, it would trigger an incredible euphoric hypomania that was rife with exaggerated charisma/charm and a huge drive to get laid.


Hypersexuality


Hypersexuality is common for people with bipolar. And this sypmtom of hypomania was not a good combination for the planet. For me, it was a great combination in theory and not in practice. For the five girls who fell victim (and they really were victims) to my unchecked, undiagnosed bipolar disorder, it characterized my modus operandi towards having sex. What it manifested was heartache, betrayal, and a casual flippancy of “So what? You agreed to go back to my dorm room.”


“So what? You agreed to go back to my dorm room.”


How romantic and charming. Five girls. One day. Cashing in on charisma and paying out in shame and guilt. And it was earned shame and guilt. Because it didn’t end well for anyone.


One girl was a virgin. And three days later she killed herself.


Better still, she named me by name in several paragraphs of her suicide note. I did this. This was my doing, this was my fault. I might as well have poured the poison down her throat myself.

It didn’t matter that her suicide note was sixteen pages long and all handwritten, both sides of the college ruled notebook paper. It was those several paragraphs that pointed to my culpability that grabbed my attention. I did this. I took her virginity, and because I didn’t care about anyone but myself, this young woman killed herself. Because of me.

Five girls wasn’t an accomplishment, it wasn’t bragging rights, it wasn’t anything but complete disregard, disrespect, and, worst, disinterest in the welfare of these women.


It was just something to do. Nothing wrong because it’s simply what I wanted to do and how could that be wrong?


It’s difficult to talk about this. I’ve shared this at APD’s Crisis Intervention Training, an audience of a few dozen. I’m putting this on the interweb as a mea culpa that might be read and might not be read. It’s difficult, and this is part of my recovery journey, and it’s something I’ve been forced to own as part of who I am now.

In 1999 I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder by trying to do myself in. Only in retrospect do I understand what I understand now. I can try to gloss this over and say:


“I wasn’t diagnosed yet” or “I can’t be blamed because the bipolar made me do it” or “When I’m manic I can’t make any promises.”


Let’s go back to the core of this blog. Let’s bring that first concept up to the front of the class again. What were the words I shared? Oh, yes. Copy & Paste:


Everyone on this planet has the same social contract with everyone else on this planet.


It doesn’t matter if I was symptomatic and unaware and egocentric because I have bipolar. My behavior wasn’t kind or thoughtful. It was cruel and damaging. That’s not holding up to my end of the bargain. Behavior like sleeping with five girls in one day is not what the rest of the planet considers acceptable behavior. I broke my contract.

Since then, particularly after I was diagnosed, I’ve learned a few things. First, and most important, is that people kill themselves for their own reasons that are much deeper-seated than losing their virginity to an insensitive cad like me. There were some fifteen additional pages to her farewell narrative that also played into what might not even be the root cause of her suicide. It wasn’t my fault (try convincing me of that… 18 years of therapy hasn’t done much more than help me accept this in the most academic of terms).

Second, romantic fidelity was crucial in my relationships thereforth. It was a “scared straight” event that had me key in on one girl and one girl only after that, and perhaps the penance is I married this girl and now have the PTSD to bear because of it. No longer was I going to treat women like disposable, broken toys.

Third, I am responsible for my behavior, aware of the bipolar or not, and ESPECIALLY because I am aware of it now. I’m as responsible for my behavior as anyone else on this planet, so I don’t get to say “I can’t be blamed because the bipolar made me do it” or “When I’m manic I can’t make any promises.” I have to be constantly aware and constantly vigilant of my symptoms because I refuse to harm another through romantic indifference and infidelity.

Here’s where I’m going with this. I’m sharing this very difficult to tell story because I feel the same way about criminal behavior in peers. As a peer, I don’t get to say “I can’t be blamed for breaking the law because the bipolar made me do it” or “When I’m manic I can’t make any promises I won’t break the law.” Same social contract, and I face the same consequences as everyone else on this planet.


Peers do not get to say “I can’t help it because I have a mental illness” as a get out of jail free card.


I’m an executive board member on the Bernalillo County Forensic Intervention Consortium, a collaborative of community stakeholders dedicated to diverting peers to services rather than jail time. The idea is that those peers who are only first becoming aware of their detrimental behavior deserve an opportunity to treat their symptoms to be sure not to break the law again. That’s a good balance that places the responsibility on the peer in exchange for the community’s help in obtaining services. I firmly believe we are all responsible for our own behaviors, and I also firmly believe peers do deserve a chance to seek treatment to help themselves and keep their social contract with the community.

For me and those with bipolar, it’s more specifically called “playing the bipolar card” to get out of trouble or justify lies or explain away responsibility for how I treat others. It might be harder work for me than others on our planet. I take meds and have to be aware if they’re working. I have to make use of psychiatric services and trust the guidance of my providers. I have to find coping tools and symptom-management skills that will help me keep my detrimental bipolar symptoms in check. And more than anything, I have to make this promise:


I promise that I’ll stay diligent in treating my bipolar symptoms so my actions won’t harm others.


This was really tough to write. This promise I make through learning lessons in the most harmful of ways. And it’s the same promise that everyone else on the planet makes to me. We’ve all got the same social contract, and having mental health issues is no excuse to break this contract.

by Steve Bringe

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