Hi. My name is Amber and I struggle with mental illness. Hint: this is where you all say “Hi Amber” back to me. Generalized Anxiety wreaks havoc in my daily life, Social Anxiety makes it nearly impossible to act “normal” before, during, and after certain situations, and episodic Clinical Depression is a source of debilitating feelings of insignificance and unworthiness. Hiding these struggles has led to a life of playing chameleon – trying to become someone I am not so that those around me might feel more comfortable and can in turn accept me for who they want me to be, not who I am.
A therapist reminded me last year that although I might feel completely alone and isolated in my struggle with mental illness, every single person I walk by is also affected by mental illness in one way or another. While many of those people are themselves sufferers of mental illness, the rest know or love someone who is.
This begs the question: Why do those of us who are haunted by the demons of anxiety, depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, or any other number of illnesses feel so extremely alone in our daily struggle? And why do loved ones feel so unable to help or understand?
I realized recently while reading Brene Brown’s 2010 book The Gifts of Imperfection that the answer to this question is simple: SHAME.
Shame (n.d.) can be defined as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.”
With this in mind, I have started piecing together an equation. Those of us who experience any type of mental illness are made to feel that our thoughts/emotions/behaviors are “wrong or foolish,” which results in is a deep sense of shame. I’d love to see a show of hands for how many people would happily talk about something that causes “painful…humiliation or distress.” It just doesn’t happen easily or often. With shame comes an inability to be open and vulnerable. In one of his TED Talks, author Andrew Solomon (2014) states, “When we are ashamed, we can’t tell our stories. And stories are the foundation of identity.”
Here is the basic equation*:
(A + B) – C = D
If A = mental illness, B = shame, C = ability to tell our stories, and D = Social and emotional Isolation
*Disclaimer — math is not my strong suit, so please don’t judge my equation! (<– I almost deleted this statement, by the way, but left it in as a perfect example of social anxiety induced self-doubt…my stomach is in knots right now)
This equation results in a world full of people who are barely surviving each day, even though they are surrounded by individuals who know what they are going through. Mental illness is a collective human struggle, yet we are each held prisoner in socially imposed emotional silos. Even more tragic is the realization that someone ends their own life every 40 seconds because they no longer have the ability to face their uphill battle alone — in fact, the WHO (2018) also suggests that “for each adult who died by suicide there may have been more than 20 others attempting suicide.”
This brings me to the subject of those who do not suffer from mental illness, but know or love someone who does. Because those of us with mental illness have been conditioned to feel shame, and therefore have been stripped of our ability to share our experiences without being stigmatized, there is very little opportunity for loved ones to understand us or our illness. This can be just as difficult for the loved ones as it is for us. While we feel unable to ask for and receive support, our loved ones feel frustration and helplessness. It is a lose-lose situation for everyone involved. Relationships can break down or even end due to misunderstandings and expectations that go unspoken and unmet.
Because of recent life events that have led to these dawning realizations, I have quickly developed a passion for mental health awareness. I am setting out on a journey to reach out to two different populations:
- Those who suffer from mental illness
- To empower
- To accept
- To tell stories
- Those who do not suffer from mental illness but know someone who does
- To educate
- To let them know it’s okay to not understand completely
- To tell stories
This will hopefully be the first post of many more to come. Please keep in mind that the stories I share and the emotions I describe are MY stories and MY emotions. We are all unique individuals, which means we all experience mental illness, support, and treatment differently. What works for you won’t necessarily work for me, but THAT’S OKAY. I want this to be a safe, judgement free environment where people can use my stories and vulnerability as an opening to share their own struggles, concerns, dreams, and fears in the comments. Any hurtful or malicious comments will be removed. If something I say comes across as hurtful or malicious, please let me know.
I share your struggles.
ME TOO can be two of the most life changing words you will ever whisper or shout.
Shame. (n.d.). In New Oxford Living Dictionaries. New Oxford Press. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/shame
Solomon, Andrew. (2014, March). How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are. Retrieved from (https://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_solomon_how_the_worst_moments_in_our_lives_make_us_who_we_are
WHO. (2018). Mental Health: Suicide Data. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/suicideprevent/en/