Last week my Dad diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. Maybe this could have explained a few things, and no doubt he would like to think it does, except for one uncomfortable fact. I do not have bipolar disorder. I still see a counselor and I previously saw another one for two years and I’m pretty sure that if I had bipolar disorder, one of them would have told me.
So today I’d like to say a little bit about this sort accusation of mental illness and it’s connection to abusive behavior. First off, mental illness is still pretty stigmatized and mentally ill people are often seen as scary and dirty, loose cannons, but that is largely an inaccurate perception, fueled by witnessing mentally ill persons who have been grossly neglected, and by conflating abusive behavior with mentally ill behavior. In fact, if you want to look at your odds, the CDC reports that “about 25% of all U.S. adults have a mental illness and that nearly 50% of U.S. adults will develop at least one mental illness during their lifetime.” So about half of Americans will struggle with mental illness at some point in their lives, most of it your average run-of-the-mill mental illness where it reduces your quality of life for a time but you can still get by and nobody will find you twitching and talking to yourself in a subway station, holding a bag of rotting garbage and a cup asking for spare change. It makes sense when you think about it. Mental disorders result from injury and predisposition to disease, same as cancer, (although the CDC says it is a bigger problem prevalence-wise and a bigger cause of lost earnings than cancer and heart disease combined) and although nobody wants it, and everybody would love to find a cure, mental illness still occurs to varying degrees and at varying acuity levels and sometimes shit happens to people who least expect it.
If you’d have ever asked me if I’d be diagnosed with a mental illness when I was younger, or even just five years ago, I’d have said probably not. I felt strong and mentally strong. But then in the middle of grad school I started getting flashbacks and nightmares and insomnia and well, you know the rest. Delayed-onset PTSD, due to years of child abuse and neglect growing up, was something I had. Even with insurance and access to good counseling (a thing many do not have), it felt a bit like living in the flooded out city of New Orleans post-Katrina and trying to turn it into the city of Venice. It took time and I often didn’t think I could do it and there was a frustrating opportunity cost to all that work I had to do to get better when I’d have obviously much rathered be doing other things. There were considerable losses and lots of small daily inabilities and it was often a miserable slog along the way, too many days where I felt that this problem had pulverized me into little more than a tenderized piece of quivering flesh. But today I most definitely do believe in post-traumatic resilience. Why? Well, because despite what PTSD conveys to you while you’re in it (that you have a foreshortened sense of future, no light at the end of the tunnel, and will never have a good life) there is light at the end of the tunnel if you make an effort to heal and get healthy, confront the issues rather than relying on increasingly ineffectual coping mechanisms. It took time (about three years, really) but I bounced back. Today I can say that I have a life that’s better than the one I had before my PTSD breakthrough crisis. I’m less perfect-seeming, sure, a little more of a mess on the surface sometimes, but more authentic, more me. And that’s better. I found a sense of purpose in it, it helped me focus on my priorities a bit differently (including engaging in advocacy work on the important but largely-ignored issue of substandard homeschooling laws) and it reminded me of some things that are not my job. For example, I am not here to be perfect-seeming for other people, or make their lives easier by not having any visible issues myself. Fact is, I’m entitled to my issues and I’m allowed to share my experiences and what’s more, I live inside me and I’m here every day, and being true to that is important. I can use all that energy I was using to second-guess myself and keep up facades and internal walls and a seeming overachiever perfection to actually live my life fuller, happier, truer, and more honestly. And that’s awesome. What isn’t awesome is how some people, mainly abusers or people who believe the abusers and unwittingly serve as their errand-boys, don’t understand or care about this at all and can and do use the stigma of mental illness (trauma-induced or otherwise) to discredit abuse survivors.
This using mental illness as an excuse to not listen as well as to instill fear and revulsion about what “crazed” survivors might do is a big problem in the homeschool survivors movement. So many “leaders” and parents who wish we’d just shut up and go away have diagnosed us with demonic possession, or schizophrenia, or narcissism, or pathological lying compulsions, or anger management issues, or just plain old fashioned “delusion.” They go “who you gonna believe, me…or this crazy person in front of you?” And then they usually concern-troll, saying “I really hope this obviously disturbed person gets help.” In fact, I had it happen to me last week, from my own Dad.
Since I reported my Dad to Child Protective Services, he’s taken to providing cheery little “updates” on my half-brother’s educational progress, mass texting all of his children with them. And I have responded in the only way I know how – by taking a word-machete to his bullshit. The first time he said nothing in response. This last update he did. He called me mentally ill, to my siblings and probably anyone else he discussed it with.
I have included the conversation here, as I think it doesn’t just show what I’m personally dealing with in this situation (which sucks, especially right before the holidays), but because it is a pretty textbook example of what this “listen to me, not this crazy person” phenomenon can look like:
Wed, Oct 22, 3:52pm
Dad: All of you kids have done well in school, and [youngest son] is following in your footsteps. He scored high (Exceeded Standards) on all five of his CRCT tests last year and Scanton tests this year, so he was moved into the gifted program today. WooHoo!! He needed at least a score of 835 in Language Arts and/or Math, yet his lowest score with regard to all five CRCT tests was 850. The downside of the change is that he has some great teachers this year, and he is going to miss them since he will have all gifted-certified teachers. His new classes start tomorrow. Anyway, I just wanted to share the good news with you all. I’m very proud of him and all of you as well.
Me: Dad, Grammy would be rolling over in her grave if she knew you pulled [youngest son] out of public school and have him at home, with you, sitting at some computer all day. A holistic education and an environment free from abuse (verbal and physical) and time to be with children his age is what [youngest son] needs. The amount of time and money and energy all four grandparents put into correcting the neglect for us older kids speaks volumes. You and Mom failed. The fact that you’d think you can try again with “homeschooling” shows a massive amount of hubris on your part. You can give all the metrics in the world that you want, be a good salesman about it, but I know without a doubt that any child being home with you all day is not getting their needs met. Because if you were interested in and knowledgeable about meeting a child’s needs, you’d have shown a very different side of yourself for the first 30+ years and over half a dozen kids for whom you were a parent. Shame on you. Shame on you. Shame on you. Poor little [youngest son], I am glad he tested well, but I feel for him. He deserves a much better steward for his education than a mean and selfish blowhard who can’t even hold a job teaching GED classes to prisoners. And you are too selfish to give him that.
Thursday Dec, 12:31
Dad: Hey guys! Well [youngest son] has done it again. He now has been enrolled in an accelerated math class and will be taking 7th-grade math. His math teacher also invited him to co-moderate her regular math class as a student-peer teacher. All of his mid-year grades in all subject are above 96.5%. At the rate he is going, he may be skipping a grade before it is all over this year. Anyway, I wanted to share the good news. Hope everyone has a great Christmas! 🎩❄️⛄️
Me: Why don’t you just admit that he’s at home with you all day in isolation and you’re probably ignoring him most of the time and calling him stupid and telling him to shut up and threatening to give him spankings, Dad? We’re all your children, know how you are and what you really do. I wish [youngest son] the best and I wish you’d go get a paying job to support your remaining minor children and let [youngest son] have a normal life in school with his peers.
Dad: If you cannot say something nice, don’t say anything at all. [Youngest son] is excelling, thriving, and happy. Of course you wouldn’t know since you have neither called him nor sent him a card even once in his entire life. For someone who tries to project to others that she cares, you don’t. It’s all about YOU. Actions speak louder than words, and your inaction speaks volumes. Go hate on someone else. We’re all doing quite well here without your delusional interference. Merry Christmas.
Me: If you can’t be nice, don’t expect me to pretend like you are. You have never properly supported your family or met your children’s needs. You have told a lot of lies over the years and done a lot of cruel and bullying things in private and pretended to be something that you aren’t. And if you text me any more of this garbage I will continue to respond as I see fit, so if you don’t want to hear it, select your text message recipients more carefully in the future.
Dad: Bi-polar disorder runs on both sides of our family, and unfortunately, you seem to have a severe case of it. It’s not just your relationship with me that is toxic; you have a toxic relationship with many people including most of your siblings, your mother, your ex-husband, and probably your current boyfriend as well. The good news is that with proper diagnosis and treatment, your hate, anger, and chronic lying can be managed, but you have to want the help. For the new-coming year I hope you receive the professional help that you need.
Me: If I did the things you did to your family, I’d probably want to call my child mentally ill, hoping no one would believe I was capable of such ugly behavior either. Don’t text me as part of your group texts again Dad.
Dad: I’m not the only one who has suggested that you seek professional help. Most members of your family want nothing to do with you because you are contentious and self-centered. Also, I read some of your delusional blog posts, and your lies will catch up with you one day. I can cite example after example. You really do need professional help. Get it! Hurry!
Me: I’ve blocked Dad’s number, so won’t be seeing any more messages from him. I’m sorry for this drama y’all. I’d like to be part of a sibling update chat, but not one hijacked by Dad for his purposes.
Yeah. Quite a doozy of a conversation there, right? I find it upsetting and hurtful in an invasive, draining way, a way that is familiar to me and that I won’t tolerate in my life anymore. He called my mother mentally ill when I was growing up, tried to discredit her too, and at the time I believed him, even though I now think the symptoms she showed mostly resulted from massive amounts of psychological abuse that she, as a simple trusting person, had not recognized or been prepared to handle when she married him four months after meeting him at age 19.
If you don’t know the pattern, I think it’s often easier to see the facts in written correspondence involving a stranger, but if you see it happen in person with someone familiar to you (and who you think you know well) it’s actually quite hard not to side with the abuser in these cases,. He often seems like a nice, reasonable, and informed ordinary guy, someone you would have described as likable and wanted to get a beer with (or maybe have had fun hanging out with many times over the years) and this unexpected accusation makes you doubt your own ability to judge character (something you pride yourself on being good at, even though you, like everyone else, can only know the sides of people that they show you), and so you decide it is an error, that probably the accuser (who may be crying or drinking too much or looking like they want to run or punch somebody in the face) is in fact crazy or hateful and made it up.
So I’d like to shift your framework, say a word about that, a pro tip gleaned from old-fashioned experience, if you will: If someone confidently claims an accuser is mentally ill and delusional after that person has called them out for abusive and neglectful or manipulative behavior, that’s gaslighting and character assassination, also a form of abuse. And witnessing this sort of behavior lets you know you are in fact dealing with an abuser, a person who feels entitled to abuse, not just someone who made a one-off bad decision or accidentally did the wrong thing or was misinterpreted or someone who doesn’t realize what they did. And people like that are best not kept around in your life or given the benefit of the doubt.
So next time you see this sort of thing (whether it’s celebrities, neighbors, family members, or your Facebook friend-of-a-friend), please recognize that instead of witnessing an explanation for why the accuser would make such shocking accusations, like you might think is what’s happening, you are in fact witnessing an in-your-face example of the exact sort of abuse they perpetrated . Sure, they aren’t punching anyone or ripping their clothes or dragging them downstairs by their hair. They aren’t displaying any signs of aggression at all, actually, but they are doing the thing that comes first, before violent abusive stuff can become a pattern rather than a one-off. And that thing is gaslighting, a false redefining of reality. And I speak from experience when I say that recovering from absorbing parts of that false reality – going from thinking on some level that you’re at fault for provoking them or you’re crazy to think that really happened or you somehow brought this on yourself or there is a nagging chance you are just deeply and utterly wrong about everything ever, to recognizing that they didn’t just hurt you but also made you believe things – is unquestionably the most deeply painful part of it all, a toxic weed whose rooting out causes your heart to feel like it’s got all these little bleeding holes stinging raw where something solid used to be.
And the thing that most easily deepens that hurt, reopens those wounds, is when you see this gaslighting that you used to believe yourself now working on other people. People who believe their lies and listen to them, or are quiet because they aren’t sure but think this person might be onto something and you watch them become concerned about your ability to tell fact from fiction or accurately relay it because they don’t know any better and on a certain level don’t want to. And your credibility gets diminished and the abuser gets what they wanted – the benefit of the doubt and they stick their fingers in that hole and widen it until it’s to the size they desire, and suddenly you have an army of people pulled through to their side, denying and victim-blaming right along with them. And the thing about this sort of behavior and the whole “mental illness” character assassination tactic is that it is incredibly prevalent and incredibly damaging and re-injures people who are trying to heal.
This also explains why many survivors are quiet, carrying on to the outside world like nothing happened until maybe years or decades have passed and others speak out and suddenly they add their voice, their story, the risk of being alone and labeled crazy now diminished. It makes sense. You get more of this gaslighting and character assassination stuff when you are one person or a small group openly speaking truth to power, suddenly not letting the abuser completely write the narrative about themselves that they’re used to being able to. It’s scary to stand alone. And you already know they will do what they can to punish you. It is a risk, and one to take seriously.
I knew the risks to myself and my reputation when I spoke out. I weighed them. I did it anyway. But the idea that my Dad would respond to my homeschooling reform activism and openly speaking about the neglect and abuse I experienced in my parents “pseudo-homeschool” growing up by pulling my little half-brother, a sweet strawberry blond kid who is 11 years old, loves video games and wears glasses, out of public school and enrolling him in “online school” where he’s at home alone at a computer with my Dad all day makes me sick to my stomach and I’ve gotta say…I did not expect that. I do feel like maybe if I was quiet, hadn’t done media interviews or co-founded an advocacy organization, it wouldn’t have happened. But even though it hurts to think that, makes me cycle through a bunch of “what-ifs” I don’t like, I understand that all I can do in the here and now is try to shed sunlight on it, expose the situation for what it is. Because sunlight is not only a cure for abuse-induced shame, it’s a cure for lies. With enough of it, they shrivel up like dried worms on the pavement. Which is why people like my Dad fight so hard to have their real behavior continue to go sight unseen, including the radical step of saying that their own children are severely mentally ill from some supposed genetic defect or as the result of a profound moral failing.
Is it my Dad and these other guys like him that have a mental illness? Is this a case of projection? Possibly. I don’t know. There’s been times that I’ve armchair diagnosed other people with things. I do think it’s a bit insane to treat your child the way he has treated me my whole life, when all I wanted was a Dad to love and look up to and have meals and go fishing with. I also think it’s a bit insane for someone to think they can adequately homeschool their youngest child when they almost derailed social, educational, and economic prospects for their eldest three and if it hadn’t been for a grandparents’ intervention, would have delivered them into adulthood in a condition quite unfit for passage into fulfilling lives or independence. But more than thinking it’s insane, I think it’s selfish. I think it’s uncaring. I think it’s abusive and neglectful. And like I said before, you don’t have to be clinically mentally ill to abuse or be uncaring or selfish. You just have to feel entitled to treat other people in a way that may or may not be disrespectful and damaging to them (that part doesn’t really matter), but that suits your immediate need to control and dominate and get and do what you want, and feel important and stick it to people that happen to cross you.
In fact, I think most mentally ill people are better people than my Dad and better people than people like my Dad describe them. First, most aren’t abusers. I mean, sure, they can be, just like anyone else, including physically disabled people can be, but it isn’t mental illness that makes them abusive or hateful, if they are. Most people with mental illness keep it a secret and you never know, because of the stigma. And most severely mentally ill people, the ones who can’t hide it even if they want to, just struggle with pain and feeling overwhelmed and unsure of themselves and their own sense of perception as they try to get their basic needs met, and many lose connections with friends and family because their symptoms are hard to deal with and they often come to depend on substances or bad habits to self-medicate and self-soothe because they are grasping for relief. And mentally ill people do not deserve our fear or condemnation anymore than someone on crutches does, and they could definitely use our support and compassion and patience. And if someone is mentally ill and abusive, they have even more of a need for trained professionals to deal with them, because it is a doozy of a problem on top of a problem.
I hope that people who would be prone to listen to people like my Dad (after all, fathers are still pretty respected in our society) will take a lesson from those of us on the receiving end who are speaking out. And the thing you need to know is that as a Dad my Dad is important and he can do and say all those things if he wants. And I can’t stop him. All I can do is tell my truth, share my story. Yes, there are children people like him can still hurt. Yes, there are people who will still believe people like him when they call the children they hurt crazy. Yes, there are laws that are currently on the side of people like him, protecting their continuing bad behavior. But them calling us mentally ill is a PR effort on their part, damage control they try once what they’ve done has already been put into words and is being exposed. All they need for their current recipe to keep working is to have you on their side and then have the people who trust your judgement to join you and them and to have others who aren’t sure say nothing. So don’t give them you. Don’t say nothing.
I’m coming to realize more and more that mental illness or not, what kind of person you are is largely under your control. It is not based on what skills or interests or struggles you have, or how smart or experienced you are or how pleasing you are to the eye or the ear by modern attractiveness standards, but on what you do with your power and your time and your lessons learned, who you defend and who you ignore and what narratives you further in pursuit of your goals. And when it comes to a throwdown between believing people like my Dad and people who have experienced trauma and/or have a diagnosed or suspected mental illness, I’ve made my decision. I’ll be over here, on the side of the crazy people and the children. I hope you will be too.