Joshua sat on the couch opposite me, the tension in the room growing by the moment. “I don’t owe her an apology; I was in the midst of a manic episode at the time. They told me when I was in impatient treatment that I have a chemical imbalance; so it’s not my fault I slapped her, and now she’s exaggerating the injury.”
Joshua by this time was angry, plenty angry. He couldn’t see the point I was making that while a chemical imbalance may have influenced his actions, his actions were regrettable, and he should acknowledge this. He finally agreed in a statement to me that his actions were, indeed, regrettable, and a reflex reaction to his ex-spouse’s provocative statement still carried the sting of unresolved anger. The trust between them, already strained, had grown worse.
In treating bipolar disorder, this situation is not rare. Often, when volatile, those with a major mental illness diagnosis are confused and troubled by mild messages they receive from others. If a lack of knowing right from wrong at the time of a mental breakdown has been established, there is diminished capacity according to the law. What is lost in this logic is the damage done to the victims of angry outbursts. That is not to say a victim may not have fanned the flames of anger and has some responsibility for the eruption of verbal or physical attack. We do not live in such a pristine world of black and white, or all or none thinking. In the case of my client, his ex-spouse was not the perfect victim. But, in the aftermath of harsh words and/or physical assault, is clinging to the notion that a chemical imbalance is the culprit a fair release from culpability?
There is much work in healing the breakdown of civility which goes on with those in stressful situations. Even though you may be delusional, your actions may result in pain to another. Aren’t you then responsible for their pain? Too often one is loath to apologize, feeling it will only supply ammunition to an opponent and will weaken a claim to be the righteous one, the one wronged. This does not lead to understanding. It only increases the gulf already formed.
Setting the record straight implies acknowledging the damage done and can result in the beginning of a dialogue. “I’m sorry you were injured by my actions, or, what occurred between us is regrettable; let’s strive for a better understanding.”
But, the argument that a chemical imbalance is at the heart of a divide is an over-simplification and an easy way out. If you make a mess, then you have to clean it up. Sometimes it’s just what is needed.
Ten Ways to Take Responsibility
- Be honest with yourself; admit your limitations.
- Acknowledge your contribution to the misunderstanding.
- Mentally exchange places with those you’ve harmed and
- see the situation from their view.
- See an outsider to mediate a dialogue.
- Cool down before reacting.
- Take time before trying to resolve an issue.
- Recognize the futility of all or none thinking.
- Seek understanding with goodwill.
- Educate yourself on the difference between being reactive in the face of an altercation and looking at the aftermath for your opportunity to set things right.
- Remain open.