Writers seem to consistently pass over the importance of forgiveness in mental health literature. Nevertheless, a big part of the therapeutic process is learning to forgive ourselves for our mistakes, erred ways, and people who either let us down or don’t live up to our expectations in relationships.
When I was in grade school, long before any mental health condition, I was interested in King George III and introduced him in the book, Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George?. In my archives, a picture of me going to school dressed as the king. Later, as my mental health subsistence grew more complex, I was re-introduced to the king’s narrative with King George’s madness. Here is a king humiliated by his subjects struggling to maintain control of himself and his governance.
I sat in a lecture centered around forgiveness during my illness and most tormented days, angry and bitter over lost personal battles. The class surveyed NVC literature (Non-Violent Communication) and used rhetoric and language. In this class, students paired off into groups of two students. The pairs of twos were known as empathy buddies. After class, each pair would meet for a given time and practice giving and receiving empathy. I was growing more and more psychotic. The distance between myself and reality increased, and my thoughts were less clear and increasingly more bizarre.
Most of my relationships were tanking by this point. Relationships with long-standing friends seemed to continue disarray and unraveling by the interaction. It appeared each conversation with my friends was misunderstood and drove the wrench further into my relationships. Whenever I set out to reverse the damage, even more damage seemed to erode at the interactions’ quality. These were relationships built on years of solid, healthy foundations. That is, except for the relationship between myself and my empathy buddy. My relationship with her was getting a second wind. It seemed when everyone was persecuting me and setting out hurt me.
During all of this, my empathy buddy provided ongoing support and an ear to help me process and gain whatever insight I could given my extreme impairment. My empathy buddy went as far as writing a paper to forgive my behavior and call into question the behavior of the people I believed were setting out to hurt me. The article was so passionate and well written it was published in a newspaper in the local community a few weeks before my hospitalization.
After my ‘break’ from the first episode of psychosis, I found comfort in the idea of forgiveness again. In years of psychotherapy, I ultimately learned to forgive my abuser from college. Perceived or ‘real,’ a big part of healing was forgiving my abuser of wrongdoing. With the help of weekly therapy and medication, I could forgive. I also ignored the other culprits from my college years, my friends.
For the longest time, I was angry, hurt, and distraught over their ongoing misunderstanding of my illness and my needs when we were students. I felt as if my friends could have been more helpful in getting me medical and psychiatric attention either through intervention, support, or simply holding some space. I forgave them for letting me down and my illness being too complex and severe for the helping hands that never helped. After all, if we ever were to get along again in the future, resentment sure wasn’t the answer. As far as I know, the road to reconciliation isn’t pathed with harboring baggage from the past.
Are people with a mental health disorder responsible for their misbehavior? With the rise of prison reform, and the crisis facing our corrections system, I will pose this question. Some of my friends from college believe I am responsible. Others excuse my behavior because I was sick and was suffering from a diagnosable psychiatric disorder.
Why do some friends pardon my behavior while others hold me accountable? I believe a few factors contribute to my friend’s differing feelings and thoughts on my accountability while experiencing the symptoms of my mental health disorder.
My intent for acting out
My friends, at the time, misunderstood my every behaviour. Partly because I was delusional and because my language was off, I was hard to figure out during my illness. My empathy buddy connected with me on a different level. My empathy buddy joined with me at a deeper cognition on the level of raw emotion and compassion. People can intellectually understand people who act out and commit crimes. However, feeling for them is much harder, especially when the person is mentally ill and cannot rationalise their behaviour when they are sick.
Level of damage to the relationship
When people are hurt badly, they are more likely to disengage and pull back. When people suffer from abuse, victims fear their abuser. On a more significant, less micro level, friends and the community band around the victims in relationship abuse to form networks. With this type of insulating, fear, and damage, victims are not likely to forgive their abusers. Still, there are stories of horrible abuse, domestic violence, and violence where victims forgive their abusers. Upon forgiving their abusers, victims often enter into a cycle of abuse without end until either intervention, death, or some other tragic circumstance.
Emotional labour is required to forgive
Generally, the more emotional labour needed to heal, the less likely a person is to forgive someone. Typically, family or good friends are seen as worth a little more work to repair the damage done and forgive, but not always if there was significant damage to the relationship or harm done.
I’ve also had the experience of being by people with mental health disorders acting out. As a peer, I can say that not every person in recovery is recovered or recovered enough to be prosocial. Like my situation when I was sick, I often hear peers using their illness as a license to pardon or excuse their behavior when they aren’t feeling well. My usual approach to this is practicing forgiveness, holding space, and being empathetic. However, I’ve noticed there are times when this does not serve me well.
I am referring to the times when people are mean-spirited and hateful and then say they were symptomatic when, in fact, they are just spiteful people. Sometimes, I’ve been the brunt of mean-spirited anger from a person experiencing a mental health episode. In this case, the offense was even more intense, inappropriate, and unforgivable. The worst-case example is when a person acts out and then, when confronted, absolves themselves of hearing how their behavior impacted their victim. The rationale being their illness makes them too fragile to consider anyone else’s feelings.
The three-pronged approach to finding forgiveness remains even more applicable in each progressive antisocial and prosocial transgression. The bigger picture here is that we cannot hate everyone for every heinous behavior. We certainly cannot walk around forgiving every crime either. So, in terms of the prison reform I talked about before and the peace of mind I got from forgiveness earlier on, consider the three factors I outlined. In the end, if we are to reform anything, we will need to start examining where the mental illness stops and where the jackass begins. Then, and only then, will we be okay holding on to our anger and walking away from people pretending unfit to be our friends?
Max E. Guttman, LCSW is a psychotherapist and owner of Recovery Now, a mental health private practice in New York City.