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Why Accusing People of Having a 'Victim Complex' Can Be Ableist

Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

I will start by saying I am a proud intersectional feminist. I advocate for disability rights from the perspective of a disabled woman. Many people in my position are accused of being attention seeking. I’ve had my share of accusations that I am playing the victim when asserting my needs as an autistic person and sharing my story, when they do not know what the victim complex is. Little do people know I also have schizoaffective disorder (SCAD) bipolar type and borderline personality disorder (BPD), and that the “victim complex” can be a symptom of both. It is defined as an acquired mentality that one is the victim of the negative actions of others when there is no such evidence.

Both BPD and SCAD include paranoia. I have delusions that people can look me in the eye, read my thoughts and pass them on. They talk about me and laugh with each other. I have delusions of reference, thinking I can get messages and signs from the way objects are arranged and what people are wearing. I see random people and try to communicate with them telepathically. In mania, I can feel very special and get messages from my past self telling me I am beautiful and am destined for greatness. My neurotic paranoia from BPD makes me think that people hate me, and are plotting to make my life miserable. They won’t take my achievements as seriously.

Because of BPD, I tend to jump around between different identities. I like to think I’m a coconut floating from island to island. This most likely stems from always being on one group or another’s edge due to social difficulties. I never learned how to integrate myself into a community, so I searched for one of my own. I never felt smart of pretty, but I knew that I could write. I also knew that I was mentally ill with anxiety and depression. I learned to associate suffering with being creative due to the stereotypes that “all mentally ill people are talented.” Thank you Sylvia Plath.

As my health worsened over a period of a couple of years I felt unsafe discussing my diagnoses. So I turned to the internet looking for answers. In some ways, it was helpful, as it allowed me to learn about my BPD and discover my depression is actually bipolar. But self-diagnosis, while useful in certain situations, can be iffy when one has other options. Out of desperation for something to anchor myself to, I began identifying with every mental disorder I came across when there was no evidence they described my experiences. I learned how to exaggerate my pain to the point where I couldn’t tell which of my experiences were really and which weren’t due to SCAD. I’m still sorting through that. Now that my diagnoses are confirmed, I feel like I have to live up to them. It hurts.

I had another incident of identifying with the victim complex in a different way with my bipolar. When I became more clearly manic, I experienced mood congruent psychotic features. I thought that I was the next Joan of Arc and I thought I had to hurt, or sacrifice myself to save the world and get to a higher realm. When that didn’t work, I swallowed some pills to see what would happen. Upon realizing what I’d done, I felt guilty for scaring my family and having to be admitted to a hospital.

Now that my bipolar and SCAD symptoms are under control, we have been doing family therapy to learn dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills. We had a particularly difficult session in which my brother told me it was difficult for him to see me embody my diagnoses, and that trying to succeed at being mentally ill is an oxymoron. All I was really doing was tearing myself apart. My dad pointed out that I got into a competition with a couple of my friends for who could be the sickest. By then, I had started crying, but I tried to explain I have felt so empty inside I am desperate to feel something.

I am trying really hard to unpack everything I have done the myself and those around me. My pain is real, and I felt entitled to hurt others because of it. I do not have the right to hurt myself or others, and must take responsibility for it. I have also suffered intensely from my victim complex. Equating standing up for yourself with having a mental illness delegitimizes the symptoms. When we make people feel guilty for fighting oppression, we make people with true victim complexes feel guilty. Making fun of the victim complex perpetuates the idea that there are right and wrong ways to be mentally ill. It creates a binary between more common mental illness and more severe, or less common mental illnesses. Anxiety and depression are seen as “cute” and not taken seriously, while BPD and SCAD are demonized. This cannot go on.

Meanwhile, I am finding ways to move forward. I tried to be something no one is supposed to be. But I don’t have to be anything for anyone. I need to focus on just being Olivia, and find the part deep within myself that is still her. The compassionate and curious person I am at the core is enough. The prospect of going away to college in the fall is motivating me to get healthy and take treatment seriously. I want to study anthropology to gain a better understanding of myself in the context of American culture. My academic motivations are finally taking precedent. But I still need to be careful that my plans do not overtake me. I need to work at having a more flexible mind, but DBT is helping me now that I’m invested. It’s a relief to be confronting the truth.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure

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