Dan may have not played the entire call and I’m personally biased, so it’s possible that I’m misinterpreting the details.
Dan has a truly terrible response to his final caller in episode 610. A woman asks about her boyfriend: he can fly off the handle at himself for days because of simple mistakes. While she describes him as genuinely kind to others, he also has significant self-hatred1: thinking that he is a worthless person and being uncomfortable when he is happy because he doesn’t believe he deserves it. Dan’s verdict is the boyfriend is a manipulative asshole who just needs to grow the fuck up.
It’s far more likely that this man suffers from severe mental illness and desperately needs treatment. For one, it sounds like the behavior precedes the relationship, that he’s tortured himself while single as well. The caller never mentions him getting angry at her or that his explosions have anything to do with her behavior (or reality in general). He doesn’t blow up when she goes out with friends, when she picks up the wrong food, when she’s not paying attention to him. Rather, he’s triggered by his own silly mistakes. While his behavior clearly affects her, it hardly seems like his motivation is to manipulate her. After all, what behavior is he trying to change?2
And I’ve been that guy. I can get extremely angry with myself for completely irrational reasons. When it gets really bad, I torment myself with the conviction that all I’ve ever done is hurt people, up to and including a friend that I helped avoid deportation. On some level, I even know the thoughts are disconnected from reality, but my mind only doubles down, insisting any evidence that I’ve helped people is a lie. These days, I mostly hide that behavior, going to my bedroom and convulsing until my body is exhausted, but in the past, I have sought comfort from partners.3 Not because I wanted to control their behavior, but because I was in psychological and physical pain.4 It certainly wasn’t fun for them and many eventually broke up with me, but that’s because I wasn’t in good working order, not because I was a total asshole.5
Even his kind behavior may be a sign that he is ill: if he’s such a terrible person, he must go above and beyond in helping others to make up for his sins. In past relationships, I even used my love of my partner as a distraction from my depressive thoughts. While this did have negative effects on the relationships6, it also meant my partner was always on my mind and I would pick up things they liked, plan activities, etc. Not because I wanted to gaslight them, but because I really did love them and wanted to do nice things for them.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, unlike Dan, I think the caller should definitely break up with her boyfriend. He needs serious treatment and needs to choose it for himself, not to save the relationship. At the moment, he is resistant to both therapy and medication. If anything, losing the relationship may be the motivation for him to start doing something.
If she does stay with him and he does go into treatment for himself, she will have to accept it will be a long process and that there will be times where she will have to take the role of caretaker.7 It could be something as simple as dealing with dinner because his self-torture has exhausted him or even just sitting with him. Which may sound easy, but watching someone you love experience pain and not being able to help really, really sucks. As with any serious illness, the symptoms persist even as the underlying disease is treated. In a sense, it is not very different than dating someone with a serious disability, perhaps someone who finds it physically difficult to feed themselves. They are not manipulating their partner into being a caretaker at times: they have a physical limitation.
That said, it would be a big commitment at six months and she has no responsibility to make it. Her life will be a lot easier if she doesn’t date him. Even in the best case scenario, it will take a while for him to get a handle on his illness and things begin to get easier. Most likely, it won’t be a straight line as well: he could get worse before he starts getting better8 and there will be relapses. Some relapses could be worse too; he may need inpatient treatment at some point. A person who is deeply convinced that they are worthless, has trouble being happy, can’t control self-anger, and might be expecting suicide9 has a lot of healing to do.
Describing the boyfriend as someone who just needs to grow up contributes to the stigma around mental illness. Dan might as well be saying that a person with asthma should just learn to run a marathon. In both cases there are real and serious health issues. I’d bet dollars to donuts that if it were “easy” for the boyfriend to stop hating and torturing himself he would have done it years ago.10 By downplaying the boyfriend’s symptoms to basic insecurity and low self-estimate, doubting that those emotions are real, and suggesting the boyfriend is just playing a game to get attention, Dan displays a profound lack of compassion and his bias that severe emotional outbursts are always a sign of control and abuse rather than a sign that the person is ill, hurting, and damaged.11
- She calls it low self-esteem, but, given his behavior, it is clearly a more serious emotional problem.
- While he’s certainly eliciting comfort and attention, anyone in genuine pain does that. A person with epilepsy isn’t manipulating their partner during an attack.
- Actually these days I’m a patient at a residential psychiatric hospital and am getting better at going to nursing for help heading off this pattern off as it starts. Hiding the emotional self-harm to avoid “manipulaton” was a sign that my health was getting worse, not that I was “growing up”.
- Depression and other mental illnesses can cause psychosomatic pain. While it may not have a “real” physical cause, it still hurts like hell.
- I’m basing this “not a total asshole” judgment on most of my partners and our mutual friends not hating me after the breakups.
- I had no space to hold their emotions.
- And she would probably need individual therapy herself to help manage her emotional burden from the relationship.
- During one long-term relationship, I finally started getting help—and the bottom completely fell out. One night I was stuck on the floor, bawling for reasons I couldn’t understand. My then-partner actually left for the evening. That was the right decision for her and I didn’t resent it at the time (or now). After all, all she really could have done was to just sit with me (I literally couldn’t stand up). And I use “literally” in the correct sense: if she had tried to help me up, she would have probably need to deadlift my body.
- While he does suggest he might hurt someone else if he snaps, I doubt it. Given that the caller doesn’t mention him directing his anger at others, he’d probably go after the person he hates most—himself.
- David Foster Wallace describes severe depression thus in Infinite Jest:
It [Psychotic Depression] is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self ’s most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself, so that an almost mystical unity is achieved with a world every constituent of which means painful harm to the self. Its emotional character, the feeling Gompert describes It as, is probably mostly indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any / all of the alternatives we associate with human agency—sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying—are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.
- Though I don’t believe it’s the case here, the experience of the relationship and the prescription of getting the hell out may be the same in both cases. However, there is still an important difference between an abuser and a mentally ill person. In the first, the abuse is a way to control the partner; in the second, the lashing out is a very unhealthy coping mechanism. There’s more hope for change with someone who is ill because they aren’t enjoying the experience either.