The Karma of an Asshole: Bad Attitude toward Mental Illness

Wallace Stegner
Wallace Stegner

Mental illness is often treated like some kind of character defect or moral failure. How do I know this? Because I’ve been the asshole doing that.

I’ve stood up in front of a classroom of students deriding meds for depression as manifestations of a society that couldn’t handle sadness. My first response when a close friend committed suicide was to be pissed off at him, not understanding why he would do such a thing. And a friend of mine recently responded to someone’s suicide with, “How dare you!” Maybe it’s easier to be angry than to dip into the darkness that some people live in for too long.

Realizing that I had developed a dependency on the prescription drug klonipin was humbling. After all my disparaging remarks about people on drugs to treat anxiety and depression, I was one of them? Shit.

Then the shit did indeed hit the fan; I withdrew from klonipin and was face to face with all the stuff I’d been numbing for years, and it was not a happy face.

I fell into an anxious depression that I felt would kill me. I completely, viscerally understood how someone could really believe that the world would be a better place without them and how dying was better than feeling so awful. I understood how while external life could seem wonderful, misery persisted. I kept asking, “What the fuck is wrong with me?” And the last thing I needed to hear was “Get over it.”

Several people have gleefully shown me the viral clip of Bob Newhart telling a troubled, phobic girl to “Stop it.” The message is that someone suffering from a mental illness is annoying. She just needs to stop it. She is wallowing in some irritating angst that a decent or smart person would just stop. I think that clip is a way for nice people to say what they really feel: “I think you’re an annoying loser. Just get the fuck over it.”

There’s a grain of truth here. Talking endlessly about one’s troubles doesn’t help anyone. But pretending to be happy so that others won’t be bothered is deadly.

In the book Darkness Visible William Styron describes how he got help for his near fatal depression when he went to a mental hospital where he could finally stop pretending that he was feeling fine. He could finally be truthful to himself and those around him; he was ill. And it was a big relief and a point from which he could start to deal.

I’ve heard good folks call depressed people “Debbie Downers,” describe someone as “mentally ill” with disdain. And I probably did that, too.

Being angry, disdainful toward someone who is struggling mentally bleeds into how many old people are treated. Their dementia often angers their loved ones who respond to lapses as though the person needs to focus more, try harder, stop it. I’m sure a lot of that is fear – fear of our own mortality and frailty and of losing someone we love to a mental disease.

I would love to learn compassion without having to experience the thing I’m not compassionate about, without racking up some nasty karma for my own callous stupidity.

Some people will never get suicidal or addicted or mentally ill, just like some people will never get pneumonia or MS. Would we shame someone for getting pneumonia? Would we tell someone with MS to just get over it?

On the other hand, would it be good or helpful to talk on and on about symptoms of pneumonia or MS with friends and family? No. Nor would it be good to feel ashamed of having those symptoms.

Shame is the worst kind of suffering when put on top of an illness – any illness. I wish those who are so shocked when someone commits suicide would consider that they didn’t know how bad off the person was because he or she was ashamed to admit it.

One of the most important things for people suffering from depression and anxiety to do is to find some confidence in themselves and their ability to get better, some way to love themselves with their illness. If nothing else, we can get out of the way of such people – most importantly by not shaming them or deriding them; they’re doing enough of that stuff to themselves. We can drop the attitude that they’re just trying to get attention or that they’re weak.

Some of the strongest people I know have been through searing mental illness. I admire them, even when they have lapses.