Mental Illness Made Me Do It?

recovery Nov 08, 2018

12-step recovery programs have long understood that making amends to those we have harmed, even when intoxicated, is a vital part of the recovery process. But what about those of us who are recovering after a diagnosis of mental illness? Should we consider making amends to those we may have harmed during times when we were not well? 

For instance, if during a period of psychosis we took money from family members that was meant to pay our rent, and instead bought a bus ticket and left our families distraught about our disappearance, should we make amends to them? 

What if we made a suicide attempt and a neighbor or loved one found us? Should we make amends for frightening them?

What if we were neglectful of our children during an episode of depression? Would it help our recovery to make amends to our kids?

Some might argue that when we have a psychotic, depressive or dissociative episode, we are not responsible for our actions. Some would say we are sick, we are not responsible and the illness drove our hurtful behaviors. What do you think? Are you responsible for making amends, even if you were unwell at the time? Our community of peers has been strangely silent on this important issue.

For me, These questions hit in a powerful way a few years ago. My youngest sister came to visit. She brought up the subject of my first psychotic episode. She asked me what it was like and I told her. But then it occurred to me to ask her what it was like for her.  

She was only 11 years old at the time. She said it was really frightening for her to see me barricading myself in a bedroom and yelling. She said I threatened her and the rest of the family with physical harm. She said our parents warned all the siblings to be careful because I was not myself. Mostly she felt really confused and did not understand what had happened to me. She felt relieved and not as scared when I was out of the house and in the hospital. 

I wept quietly as she shared her experience. And then she looked at me and said, “But I know you were sick. It wasn’t you. It wasn’t your fault. It was your schizophrenia.”  

I felt taken aback and said, “I am so sorry for having threatened you and frightened you. It was not my illness. It was me. I am capable of violence. I am capable of hurting people. Today I am working hard on living a non-violent life. I can’t change the fact that I scared you. My amend is continuing to work on myself so that I never do that again. Please forgive me.”

My sister did forgive me.Then I had to work on forgiving myself.

So as I see it, I am responsible for any harm I may do, even if I am unwell. Saying “I’m sorry” is not enough.To make an amend is to attempt to right the wrong I have done. To make an amend is to attempt to restore justice and true mutuality in a relationship. 12-step programs say that if I stole $20 dollars, returning the $20 dollars is a direct amend. However, sometimes a direct amend is not possible. In the situation with my sister, I had to make an indirect amend. I listened to her experience without questioning or correcting her. I understood my transgression and was truly sorry for the harm I had caused. I apologized. And finally, I re-committed myself to changing the way I live and to my efforts to lead a non-violent life. That is my amend.

In closing, it’s my experience that making amends to those we have harmed is a difficult but healing step we can take to further our recovery. I am really interested in your thoughts on this topic.