Abuse or Mental Illness?
In discussing mental illness, and specifically PTSD and other trauma-related disorders, I mentioned that some symptoms of mental illness can mimic abuse. I say mimic because while these symptoms may look the same as abuse, they are not about trying to control.
Here’s a classic example:
My partner has several mental illnesses which interfere with his perception and memory. So he might ask me for a drink, I bring him something, and half an hour later he says, “Where is the drink I asked for?” I say I brought it, but he insists that I never got it for him, and he needs a drink right now. If I tell him that he’s wrong and I did get it, he might try to convince me that I am misremembering and never brought him anything.
This could very easily be gaslighting, but it isn’t. He didn’t actually see me bring the drink, doesn’t remember drinking it, and is honestly upset because I told him I would do something, and to the best of his knowledge I didn’t. He isn’t trying to control me or rewrite my memories—his memories are deceiving him.
In similar ways, someone with mental illness trying to express their feelings may come across as guilt tripping, manipulative, etc. Not because they are trying to control or manipulate, but because there are damn few ways someone in the depths of depression can say, “I feel like I’m a useless waste of space and you are going to leave me because I’m such a piece of shit” and NOT come across as overdramatic at best, manipulative and guilt tripping at worst.
This makes it difficult to identify if a partner’s behavior is the result of mental illness that is out of their control or abuse.
Abuse AND Mental Illness
While mental illness often mimics abuse, mental illness can also occur alongside abuse. Having mental illness doesn’t magically stop a person from being abusive. In fact, some of the roots of abuse (like insecurity) can be worsened by mental illness.
When mental illness and abuse occur together, it can be very difficult to separate out which is which. After all, you can’t get into someone’s head to find out if they are trying to control you or not. In fact, I suggest you don’t even try.
We want to be supportive of the people in our lives. Abusive partners with mental illness can and will use this against you. You cannot support them and help them heal while they are using their illness as a tool to control you. In fact, they may actively resist healing. If they get help and get their illness under control, they lose a powerful tool for maintaining their hold on you.
How to Recognize a Mentally Ill Person Who is an Abuser
Okay, this is inexpert and based entirely on my experience.
Working to Get Better
Mental illness is hell. The vast majority of people with mental illness want to get better. Not everyone who wants to get better can or will do the work. Gaining control of mental illness is hard. And just about everyone will, once in a while, say “Fuck it, I can’t do this anymore” and stop trying for a while. But most people will (sooner or later) pick themselves up and start trying again. An abuser who is using their illness as a tool for control may be one of the people who doesn’t want to get better. Being mentally ill is too useful to them.
Not Willing to Support You
Someone with severe mental illness may not be able to give you the support they (or you) want. But they will try. A few days ago, I wanted to take our son to the park, but I wasn’t feeling well enough to go out alone. Michael was in a real bad way, hadn’t slept all night, and was having paranoid/delusional thoughts about terrorists attacking our small town. But he said, “If you need me to go, I’m there.”
Now, there have been times, lots of times, he couldn’t be there for me. But no matter how bad he got, he did what he could. Sometimes that was just holding me while I cried. Sometimes it was watching our son for a few hours so I could get out.
The mentally ill abusers I’ve known have not been willing to support anyone but themselves. They make promises about when they are feeling better, they make excuses about how bad they are doing. Any request for support (or even understanding) becomes about them and how unreasonable you are to ask them for anything when they are so ill and need so much help.
If they do help or support you in some way, it comes with a massive guilt-trip and/or is something that also benefits them.
Their Illness is About You
When people who are mentally ill say things that sound abusive, they are focused on themselves. When they talk about wanting to kill themselves because no one loves them, they aren’t trying to get a reaction. They are lost in their pain and their maelstrom of a mind. Very likely nothing you can say will effect how they feel because your voice can’t overcome the horror in their head.* (Exception: if a specific trigger set off the mental illness than addressing the trigger can help—won’t fix everything, but will help.) If you ask what you can do to help, unless they have a shit ton of experience managing their mental illness, the likely response is “Nothing,” or “I don’t know.” If there is something you can do it will usually be simple “Sit with me” “Hold me” “Get my comfort snack out of the fridge” “Make sure the kids are quiet for a while.”
A mentally ill abuser who says the same thing will be looking for and needing a reaction. They want you to comfort them, to reassure them, to tell them that you love them and will always be there for them. And at some point they will probably slip in something you can do to prove that you love them. If you ask what you can do to help, they will ask for some change in your behavior, “Don’t call her for a few days” “Promise you’ll do X from now on” etc.
Their illness becomes about the things you do or don’t do. Their mental health crisis, their panic attacks, their bad days are your responsibility to fix (and often, according to them, your fault).
Now, these aren’t constant. Someone who is mentally ill but not an abuser will sometimes do things that an abuser does. Someone who is mentally ill and an abuser will sometimes not do these things. Look for patterns. Someone who is not an abuser will usually ask for nothing more than “get me some water and sit with me a bit,” but once in a while might ask “Please don’t go out tonight, I need you with me.” Someone who is an abuser will frequently ask for you to change how your behave (using their illness to control you), but might sometimes ask you to just hold them until they feel better.
Look for those patterns.
*That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say anything. Your presence, your support, and your love mean a great deal and can help a mentally ill person through some horrible times. But just like hugging someone with a broken leg doesn’t make the pain go away, reassuring someone in the depths of mental illness doesn’t make everything (or even anything) better.