In my never-ending quest to understand how I arrived where I am – as a single parent, estranged from but still bothered by the once love-of-my-life – and in my never-ending quest to see how many questions I can ask myself without complete answers, I find myself wondering, “How responsible am I for landing here?” Am I responsible for choosing an abuser? Was the problem primarily mine? Is my ex-abuser to blame for his actions or is it a mental health problem? Addiction issues? To which degree are humans responsible for their their actions if they suffer from mental health crises? How much understanding, empathy, and which degree of closeness should we all indulge in depending on responsibility? Are family members, especially spouses, responsible for standing by their mentally ill loved ones? How clearly should I have, was I, am I, or will I be at seeing mental health or jerk-ish, potentially abusive red flags? How responsible is Queer culture for embracing so, so many versions of wild, non-normative, atypical, uncouth ideals?
I make an ideal target, consciously or otherwise, for potential abusers. Let’s say that by pure chance a potential abuser and I are attracted to each other; I have several factors that make me an easy long-term acquisition. Because I pride myself on being a nerd, I, historically, do not detract points for strange conversational topics or cadence. Because I am a caregiver, I extend warmth and extra chances to damn near everyone. Because I am proud to be a confident, slutty, feminist, I didn’t previously deduct personal points for a party opposite me having similar flare for borderline aggressive, sexual, physical initiative. Because I am the daughter of a special ed teacher and a bleeding heart liberal, even if someone had disclosed that they seriously struggle with any of the diagnoses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, I would probably have just high-fived them instead of pondering how such an intense struggle could impact me (ok, I have actually done this). And, because I am most definitely a sparkly, faggy, fiesty, Queer, I was and am captivated by non-traditional, spunky, alternative, rogue-ish, drunken debauchery, and I was extremely driven to prove myself as a Queer boy by throwing my cocky, handle-anything swagger against anyone else’s.
I assumed that all Queer humans within our beautiful tornado of theory could and would also be healthy, empathetic adults capable of balance and stability when the time came. I did not realize that my Queer, feminist, progressive, special education ideals also overlap hugely with red flags for potential abusers. I didn’t pause long enough to consider that a mental illness, disability covered by the DSM, or undiagnosable instability also shares a lot of Venn diagram space with both Queer ideals and potential abuse warning signs, with “jerks” that we commonly consider personality flaws.
I extended so much faith in human beings’ abilities to be non-normative-but-whole that I walked directly into a significant mental illness/DSM disability/atypical brain that was dressed as a fun, frisky, quirky Queer. Woah, hey, isn’t that a bit presumptive of me? How do I know that my ex-partner had a DSM disorder? Well, as it turns out, the Queer to whom I partnered myself later discussed that he suffered from intense Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder as a child, intense enough that his teachers and doctors asked his parents to consider medication, but his parents declined treatment, and eventually transitioned him to a private school because he had so much trouble in the public system.
Even if I had known this when we met, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. I would have (and did) simply extend boundless empathy for a troubled past youth. Diagnoses like this previously rang no warning bells for me. I am completely opposed to stigmatizing those in life who have DSM diagnoses and are actively engaged with their diagnoses, tendencies, and treatments. As it turns out, though, I do want to at least have a radar system for those who do not have an awareness of or interest in how to manage their own manifestations of diagnoses.
Later, after doing a lot of reading and research about ADHD in adults, I now respect it (along with many other diagnoses) as a serious and super valid neurobiology variance that can be extremely disruptive to average adult life. Like so many others listed in the DSM it is not just the tiny tidbits implied by its name. Its difficulty is not only with the ability to direct one’s own focus (which can be intense, in contrast with its name) but also with executive functions (prioritizing and organizing information and series of events), perspective-taking, resisting impulses, and such simple adult acts, which many of us take for granted, as perceiving the passage of time. These can all manifest during a night out spent drunk, late, and cheating by breaking open relationship rules. Or in every day life wreaking havoc on the millions of stable actions and patterns on which we all depend for stability and connection.
When a diagnosis like this is ignored, it can begin to manifest as chronic job loss, lack of listening, constant reasons for not noticing or crossing boundaries, misunderstanding social situations, losing friend after friend, handling money poorly to the point of disaster, and not being able to focus on anything but fetishized lesbian culture and porn. When not successfully treated, it can become the exact kind of problem we try to ignore when insisting that we shouldn’t be giving stigma to mental illness or DSM disabilities and disorders. But it wasn’t just the neurobiology and the implicated tendencies themselves; it was also the lack of interest in addressing, discussing, or trouble-shooting the massive behaviors with anything other than powerful, captivating amphetamines and stimulants.
When serious behaviors that could just spell out that a potentially abusive human who might have some jerk-like personality qualities overlaps with a medical diagnosis that has known strategies and known coping mechanisms that often lead to success that are not being used, or are not working, sometimes one must look deeper and get a bit speculative. What if the disorder or symptoms cannot be addressed because they surpass even the confines of an original diagnosis? Many around me and my partner had casually joked and lovingly speculated that my partner was stunningly similar to the others in our lives who carry a diagnosis somewhere within Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) or what used to be referred to as Asperger’s. So, perhaps these behaviors and tendencies were just a part of an even more serious, amplified, missed diagnosis.
Many humans with ASD or Asperger’s super, super successfully embrace, acknowledge and engage with their own tendencies, quirks, and, most notably, their strengths … if they’ve had support to do so. But when my partner’s parents had declined treatment and special education for ADHD, they may have also missed opportunities for successful adaptation not just for ADHD, but for what may have been ASD. Now, this is heavily speculative, but if his ASD went unexamined and un-facilitated in WASPy ways that prioritized privilege, ego, and over-emphasized talents over practicing connection, empathy, and responsibility, as with affluenza, perhaps the intense behaviors that later became abusive really weren’t his fault. Perhaps ASD and affluenza are responsible. Perhaps his parents and I are to blame for not noticing sooner. Perhaps we all should really have stronger warning bells and stigma against DSM diagnoses that are completely un-addressed due to snobbery, lack of appreciating deeply empathetic special education teams, and/or actual stigma against wanting to be involved, especially as parents, with a DSM diagnosis.
Perhaps the real warning sign should actually be an adult who cannot thoroughly discuss and take responsibility for their flaws as well as their strengths. Which, incidentally, brings up another diagnosis that is difficult to make, and which, unlike almost every other DSM diagnosis, is almost synonymous with abuse of power (almost all of the rest are correlated more with being victims and survivors of abuse, rather than perpetrators).
Narcissistic Personality Disorder, like all other DSM diagnoses is somewhat problematic in and of itself. For example, should such insistent jerkery be something contained by the Western medical model? Are we just searching for justification and excuses for the occasional shitheads among us? Or maybe we should consider all jerks by definition to be “crazy,” “ill,” or “abnormal.” Should all abuse automatically be treated not punitively but in terms of recovery and learning how to more studiously connect with the rest of society? Are abusers, like narcissists, victims of their own beliefs, wiring, and ill brains?
And who am I to even touch on the tip of the iceberg of DSM diagnoses that my ex doesn’t officially hold? How could I, as a survivor of tyrannical, super sketchy behavior use a tool commonly leveled by abusers at their victims? My abuser did, in fact, level at me, in response to my questioning of his mental health, accusations that I possess not just my actual, recorded, professionally diagnosed “mild” Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He insisted, late in the story, that I have Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder instead, which is much more severe that plain ol’ OCD.
So is my searching for potential logic and causation among problematic behaviors – along with genuine concern (at the time) for his well-being and (now) for my children’s well being during his parenting time – just as much gaslighting as when he deflected and trumped up my mental health diagnosis? How do I know whether or not I am gaslighting or being gaslit?
I sought out my OCD diagnosis in college. I was miserable and wanted a way to stop being afraid of knives, germs, and invisible, panicky doom coming out of nowhere. I used and digested and applied years of therapy, especially Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, to get a really solid handle on my thought processes and on the baseline anxiety that caused my misguided, compulsive problem solving.
I learned what obsessions and compulsions are and how they operate. After I grew sick of applying so much of my energy to my own anxiety and thought processes, I decided to try out a super effective medication for OCD, and I loved it in conjunction with my learned toolbox. I haven’t had anything more than a gratuitous hand washing after taking out the trash, riding the bus, or touching a doorknob in over a decade. So when he accused me of having a personality disorder and of being controlling and obsessive and forcing him to participate in my compulsions, how did I not know for certain that it was gaslighting? When he accused me of abuse for sometimes responding angrily to his behaviors or occasionally calling him a “douche bag?” How do I know that I’m not just gaslighting him now with my accusations of un-adressed mental illness, disabilities, and abuse?
I should have been able to trust that I am an empathetic, born caregiver, and explorer. I should have been able to trust that I am an ex-Lutheran Midwesterner who takes responsibility for everything, even when I shouldn’t. I should have been able to trust how much I had learned about my mental health diagnosis over more than a decade of study and practice. I should have been able to trust my contribution to spousal discussions was enough when I acknowledged many of my own flaws but heard none in return. But that’s the funny thing about abuse. You don’t trust yourself anymore. I chose this person who turned out to be so, so horrible. I chose to ignore maltreatment. How can I trust my own judgment ever again? Well, slowly, and with much external confirmation.
I can look around my surroundings and find, receive, or ask for truly rigorous feedback that frequently matches with the accomplishments and qualities that I hope that I generally possess. My family, my longterm friends, my coworkers and supervisors, and my health professionals, when seriously questioned for feedback, resoundingly, with minor qualifications, can give me example after example of when I have overwhelmingly, repeatedly, in the vast majority of situations acted not just as a responsible adult, but as a kind, warm, and thoughtful human being who looks out for others often more than I do for myself, which is how I got stuck in this recovery from trauma situation in the first place. It is also the reason that I got stuck in this perpetual reason-finding and self-examining loop. It is a test that an actual narcissist could not pass and also would probably not engage in at all.
If unexamined, untreated, un-engaged mentally ill or otherwise diagnosed humans are the ones who end up being capable of forbidding their partners from visiting their families, opening windows, and using the thermostat, perhaps it is not only not gaslighting to be wary of them, but is something we should actively engage in. Perhaps it is only jerks and abusers who do not comb through their tendencies to find their flaws and feedback and tend to them tenderly, diligently, repeatedly. It’s not their diagnosis that should be stigmatized, but their continued lack of perspective, awareness, and course-correcting. Maybe their primary jerky quality is not checking themselves before they wreck themselves.
Maybe there’s a problem with our medical model if we’re trying to use it to excuse terrible behavior, but it doesn’t seem fair to call people “jerks” if their neurobiology means that they really truly can’t help it. I can’t help having OCD, and I’m supremely lucky to have an atypical brain that so mildly gets in my own way. Many with diagnoses more severe than mine (that come with gifts far better than mine), have far less control over their processing, their preferences, their ways of being the world (which are often awesome). In general, those who are mentally ill shouldn’t lose rights to their children, should get accommodations from their employers, and should expect understanding from their loved ones. So what about the narcissists? What if they can’t help their lack of perspective? What about their families, spouses and children?
Are spouses responsible for standing by their partners through thick and through thin? Through health afflictions? Through the disintegration of themselves as functional adults? If he’s not responsible for his condition, and if I’m not responsible for the abuse by virtue of loving him, then perhaps I have simply forsaken my vows. I definitely meant to defend him to the death, to appreciate his sparkles and dorkery, and to transform our lust and love of sci fi into a balanced, life-long adventure. I wouldn’t have backed out of this commitment if he had been diagnosed with cancer, so why am I backing out because he might be a narcissist or have ASD, or, at the very least, if we as a society don’t realize how significant ADHD can be? Why can’t I get easier support? Easier diagnoses of his either medical conditions or abuse? So that there would be either resources for recovery or a more complete escape?
I suppose if cancer went completely unacknowledged, or if cancer forced a potentially great human being to turn into a mean, angry, depressed, unstable, impulsive, controlling, manipulative, lying, puddle of their former selves with behaviors that were scary and unreasonable, we’d all feel differently. If a partner did carry on like an asshole, raging around within complete and utter denial of cancer as it devoured them whole, very few of us would object to a spouse leaving. And when that spouse tried to leave we wouldn’t blame the cancer. We’d blame the asshole, who happened to have cancer, for not dealing with it. And then we’d not stigmatize the cancer that happened to drive their denial.
So perhaps we just need to stigmatize and warn each other about narcissists, or any other person who can’t work on their own shizzle. We shouldn’t hate on anyone with anything along the lines of ADHD, ASD, OCD, etc., but only on those humans who aren’t handling or inspecting any of their own most unpleasant traits, whether they fit within the DSM or not. Perhaps we, as a society, can embrace community members with any unpleasant mental illness traits – such as impulse control, perspective-taking, attention direction, or executive function troubles – as peers at school, work, our neighborhoods, and health facilities geared towards coping and thriving, while also not feeling compelled to excuse all of their behaviors and tether ourselves to them as spouses.
Maybe it is ok if we are wary of some Queer traits, some nerdy tendencies, some diagnostic criteria, some requests for immediate and constant understanding, and of some individuals’ lack of willingness to conform to some important social norms … until those individuals assure us that they are enough on top of their own bullshit to not traipse all over our personal bubbles and vulnerable hearts, with detailed descriptions of times that they were assholes and how they learned from those instances.
Or maybe we should so intensely prioritize empathy, kindness, follow-through, thoughtfulness, stableness, community, and devotion over wildness, lust, arrogance, and pride that we can’t be convinced to attach ourselves as partners to the latter. If we so deeply valued the traits that abusers are not capable of, even temporary indulgences in too much fabulous glitter, ecstasy, orgies, booze, and costumes of every variety would not often put us in the hands of potential abusers for any longer than it takes for them to show their first reluctances to be kind, thoughtful, generous, compassionate, and engaged. And even then we could support them in their efforts to find their ways to value and enact the same positive qualities themselves. Or, if they declined interest in those values, take effective space from them to protect our delicate, butterfly, Queer selves.
I can’t completely abandon the DSM as an important puzzle piece here. I know that it has many flaws. I know that I am not qualified to wield it. But if the DSM and advocating for all of us who find ourselves within its pages to engage in the process of working towards health and connection helps me alleviate even a little bit of guilt for ditching a potentially ill person who was treating me terribly, … or if it helps us strategize how to work with certain clusters of traits and neurobiologies who do not engage with the rest of us easily, so be it.
If it ever helps even one abuser find even the partial roots of their behavior and disconnection, brilliant. If we can improve it to better reflect our angels and not just our devils, super. If it can somehow, someday help us distinguish between jerks and narcisssists and beautiful Aspies and self-examining unicorns and thoughtful PTSDers and Borderline survivors – between those who should just be our valued neighbors versus who we should permanently shack up with based on their engagement level – all the better.
Until then, let’s not confuse Queer ideals, feminist values, progressive optimism, or our own abilities to handle mentally ill neighbors or clients with people that we should marry. Let’s notice warning signs, give wacky neighbors high-fives, and only sign official paperwork with those whose empathy and stability checks out with many other thoughtful, warm, reasonable adults on their and your longterm support team. If all else fails, value and trust your on feelings more than demonstrating how much crap you can handle. The responsibility for not discriminating personally against rampant selfishness, arrogance, and narcissism is broad, and so are the consequences.