Abusive people who also happen to have mental illness can often use their mental illness as a manipulative tool to convince victims/survivors to stay. Often, rhetoric makes its way around the internet that says we must support a person with mental illness fully without question, and while that’s true–we should offer our support for those we know with mental illness when they need us–this belief can be dangerous because victims of abuse feel like they have to abide this rule, even if they’re being abused. I want to share my thoughts because this absolutely happened to me.
I was trying to explain this concept to E last year. I met his sister, D's, boyfriend when we went to LA in February and he raised a lot of red flags for me. Since I dated an abusive man with bipolar disorder for over three years in high school, I recognized the signs quickly.
E really liked the (now ex) boyfriend, and I pointed out that E likes literally everyone upon first impression because he’s a human dog. He loves everything, which is adorable but also an example of how his privilege has shaped his interactions with the world.
I am much more wary, having been in several abusive relationships, and this three year high school relationship still lives in my memory every day. It was my first formative connection to a person. It stole three years of my life. It taught me all the wrong things about how to love another person and how to relate to the world. These are things in still unlearning every day 10 years later.
So when I met D's boyfriend and I saw these little similarities in personality (he was suddenly deeply involved in conversation and then suddenly withdrawn, he would ask to leave family gatherings early, he would snap about small things D said) it made sense to me when he mentioned he had bipolar disorder. After a long struggle, my mom was finally diagnosed as bipolar November of 2014, so I obviously felt terrible for feeling wary of this guy because he struggled with a very real and difficult mental illness. I felt like a judgmental jerk.
But I wasn’t just seeing the signs of bipolar disorder. I was reliving what it was like to be in a relationship with someone who has abusive and happened to be mentally ill. Someone who used his mental illness as manipulative tactic to convince me to stay for so long. When I talked to E about it, he didn’t see it. The boyfriend was trying hard to earn E's trust and get in his good favor, but I wasn’t as important so the boyfriend focused on being polite to me less. I could see all the cracks in his friendly demeanor.
E, D, the boyfriend and I all got spent time together one night in LA at D’s little house close to Los Filles. E and the boyfriend went outside to chat for a bit, and she asked me, earnest and drunk, what I thought of the relationship. D doesn’t date a lot of people, and she was serious about him. The relationship was somewhat new and raw. I clumsily tried to express to her that I was happy she had someone she loved and could take care of, but I was so familiar with that type of love–the type of love that drains you, teaches you to stop caring for yourself and dedicate all your energy to someone who abuse me physically and mentally the longer I stayed–which is hard to talk about eloquently when both parties are tired. But, she was nice about it and reassured me that she didn’t feel like she was being taken advantage of. That was that.
Then the boyfriend reappeared from outside. He was blacked out and yelling. He stumbled around the kitchen not even registering D and I were in the room, and D knew it was time to put him to bed.
I don’t know why this moment felt to weird to me. Until then, I was trying–struggling internally–to give the boyfriend a real chance. He mentioned he was bipolar and off his medication, so I was trying hard not to judge his behavior and understand that this mental illness is so, so hard on people. But D and I were just talking about how she is an actress, and she often has a hard time practicing self care and mentally calibrating after she finishes intense plays in her MFA program. She stops paying attention to her own needs. And then the boyfriend stumbles in, obviously angry about something and directing it at me, a person he barely knows, and D has to cut short her conversation–our heart to heart–to take care of him. And I hate the way he grabbed her arm too tightly and way he slammed the bathroom door and the argument I heard through the wall of her bedroom. It felt so familiar, like when two years in to my abusive relationship I tried to eat dinner at my best friend’s house and A called me 67 times, screaming about how I wasn’t there with him when he needed me. It was the first time I had seen my best friend in months because I was spending so much time with him, and he couldn’t let me have this one thing. A night to myself. Away.
I realize this is much more dramatic comparison to D’s situation, but it still rang true. I can’t understand it. I just felt it. But I was still an outsider in seeing their relationship, so I stayed out of it. I didn’t bring it up again with the exception of a private talk with E the next day.
D and the boyfriend broke up a while ago. I probably shouldn’t be writing about this because I don’t even know why they ended things. We haven’t had the chance to talk about it (I started a new job and she’s finishing her last year in grad school), but I hope she’s safe. I hope she’s taking care of herself. I hope it’s because they both want to be healthy.
I want to be clear: I’m in NO WAY saying people with mental illness are more prone to abusive behavior or are abusers in any way. I'm mentally ill. Mental illness runs in my family. I get it. But an abusive person can have a mental illness and use that mental illness to justify and validate their abusive behavior. It happened to me, and I see it happen to others.
For those of you who are following me and have a mental illness, please call me out if I have said anything problematic, ableist, or inaccurate. Your input is valuable to me.