Question: Should you have to apologise for things you say due to your mental health?
I’ve been toying with this question for a few days since first thinking about writing this post, and I keep finding myself caught between the two obvious answers – yes and no. As social animals we follow certain structures in our social groups and society itself. Even animals in the wild will have their own ways of apologising. Young wolves will submit to their siblings after taking play fighting too far and causing unintended harm. Penguins and elephants have been known to console another outside of their own social circle if there’s been a death. So at first glance it does seem that the answer should be clear, but when it comes to mental health the waters get murky.
Would you expect someone with alzheimer’s or dementia to apologise for something they said? If someone with multiple personality disorder, schizophrenia or another personality disorder offends you, do you expect them to take full responsibility for their actions and apologise?
These might seem like quite extreme cases and of course most people would say no. Having your whole brain and personality hijacked by an illness is hard enough without having to keep a list of people to apologise to for something you didn’t realise you were saying. But would you expect someone with another mental illness to apologise for speaking out of turn? If your friend suffered quite badly with depression or anxiety and said something hurtful they didn’t mean during an ‘episode’, would you be less inclined to forgive them than you would with the person suffering from schizophrenia?
I’ve been on both sides of the coin when it comes to this. Truthfully, I think there are a lot of factors that come into play, like what was said and what the relationship is like between the two people. When you get close to people you learn their strengths and weaknesses, their greatest triumphs and their worst fears. With a clear mind we can all say we would never knowingly hurt someone that we love, but you don’t have to have a mental illness to get caught in the heat of the moment and say something you regret. But of course, there is a difference.
With my own mental illness (BPD) I’ve become a very observant person. I can quickly size up where someone’s buttons are and even though I know in myself the clear minded person I am detests hurting people, my jerk reaction to being cornered and threatened teaming up with my way with words and knowledge of buttons has lead to some pretty catastrophic results. It’s a hard thing to explain because once a wire is tripped around my defence perimetre, I’m no longer at the helm of my mouth. The worst thing is how quick it can happen. No, actually – the worst thing is having to sit by and watch as my extreme defense strategy Godzilla’s its way through a conversation because I’m scared. It’s like having an attack dog in your head at all times – it thinks it’s doing the right thing protecting you by going for the throat.
Having said all of that, I always apologise for the things I have said out of turn. This isn’t because I think it’s expected of me or because I think it’s my fault that I have an illness that can affect me in this way. I apologise because I want to make a clear distinction, to myself and the person I’m apologising to, between me and the guard dog. It might be a part of me, but it isn’t me and apologising makes me feel human, it makes me feel like I’m a part of the social circle. I feel the same when I’m on the receiving end of sharp teeth due to someone else’s guard dog. I’m not immediately expecting them to apologise but I know that they want and need to, because sometimes hearing the person you’ve hurt say, “I forgive you,” is the first step to forgiving yourself.
It’s a touchy subject with a lot of grey areas, but I think it’s always important to remove yourself personally from a situation and try to place yourself in someone else’s shoes, not to mention communicating. After all, how can you really know what’s happening behind someone’s eyes unless you ask?