I was recently speaking with a friend about forgiveness. She was hanging onto a big, bad resentment toward someone who had repeatedly hurt her over the years. The problem was, she wasn’t sure if she had a right to be angry with them because they were spiritually, physically and emotionally sick. Then she asked me a question that I could have answered with a lie.
“Did you ever use your illness as an excuse for your bad behavior?” I knew the second she asked that the honest answer was, “Heck yeah, of course I did.” But it’s a little more complicated than that. For me, my mental illness, addiction and bad behavior were all woven together. I wasn’t quite sure where one stopped and the next one started. It was kind of like a perpetual chicken or the egg riddle.
I was depressed, struggled with Bipolar II, used drugs and drank. I drank a lot. When I fell into my last, and by far, my worst depression, I’m pretty sure I had a full-on psychotic episode. I had visions of doing very bad things to people and to myself. So, I think that qualifies. Did I mention that I drank? A lot. It was the only way I knew to escape the pain of the depression. But what came first? Drink-drugs or depression?
I took my first drink at 16 and had my first major depressive (bipolar?) episode at 17. I’m not sure if I drank because I was depressed or got severely depressed as a result of drinking and drugging. Hence, the chicken or the egg? Along the way, I will admit that I manipulated and used my illness the same way I manipulated and used people, places, things and circumstances. I would blame the drinking on my depression and blame my depression on being a victim of other people’s actions.
Ironically, I then turned around and hurt other people with my drinking and depressive episodes. I hurt my children by neglecting them. I hurt my husband by criticizing everything he did or didn’t do. I hurt everyone that loved me by making them fear for my safety. And I hurt myself by clinging to the delusion that just because I was diagnosed with an illness, I could hide behind that and expect it to validate and excuse my conscious decisions.
Receiving a diagnosis brought with it a sense of relief for me. When I found out I was bipolar, addicted, etc…. I was actually glad. Someone had finally been able to tell me what the heck was wrong with me. I had known for years that I wasn’t normal. I didn’t approach life the same way others did. I didn’t see things, the world or myself in the same way most people did. But I never quite knew why. The label was comforting because I had an explanation. But along with the explanation came accountability.
In recovery I learned that having an addiction or mental illness is just like having any other sort of illness in the sense that once I know I have it – and most importantly – what to do about it, it’s up to me to follow through. If I was diabetic and didn’t monitor my sugar and take my medicine, I could try to blame my illness if my symptoms flared up. But the blame would really be mine. I knew, and then consciously chose not to monitor and medicate. I see my illness the same way. Once I was informed and educated about the illness and what the treatment is, it became my responsibility to maintain my health with the prescribed protocol.
For me, the protocol that works best is a combination of 12 Steps, honesty, meetings, service and an ever deepening faith in and understanding of God and His will for my life. Do I ever forget to take my medicine? Sure, who doesn’t? But part of my treatment plan includes an accountability group. These are people that God has surrounded me with on my journey of recovery, who know my struggles and recognize my symptoms. They call me when I forget to show up for myself, they point out when I’m being a drama queen and they knock my illness out from under me if they see me using it as a crutch.
Another integral part of my regimen is spiritual fitness which includes, but is definitely not limited to, forgiveness of others and of myself. And this brings me back to the beginning of this post. My friend felt guilty feeling resentment toward this person in her life, because this person was sick. She also felt guilty that she was glad this woman wasn’t in her life at the moment. My friend was actually experiencing peace not having to engage with this woman.
In the end, she was able to look at the woman, her illness and the situation from a different perspective. She was able to be humble, gentle and patient, without compromising her own feelings. This gracious woman saw that the peace she felt was from God and the guilt was not.
She saw that even though she may not be able to distinguish conscious behavior from illness induced symptoms, she didn’t need to anymore. Instead, she just needed to recognize that the woman that hurt her was sick. All my friend could do was pray for her and thank God for the fact that this ill woman wasn’t in her life right now. And thank Him for helping her see that on the flip side of the guilt she felt from not having a relationship with this woman, was the gift of peace that the absence of that relationship brought her.