The Shame of Mental Illness 

I have been pondering quite a bit lately when exactly it is that I first started feeling shame about my mental illness and from where this feeling was internalized.  I am still quite hesitant to open up about my issues with depression and anxiety, and often each day when I take my medication there is a part of me, that nagging voice inside, that ridicules the idea that I have to take these drugs to make myself feel ‘”okay” or “normal” (whatever the hell that means).  So where exactly did that start and why does it continue?

For me personally much of my shame around mental illness is born out of my history with fundamentalist Christianity.  I was told from a young age that if you were unhappy it is because there was something wrong with your relationship with God.  God has boundless love and joy for you if you will just accept Jesus into your heart and play by the rules… or so the story goes.  If you are not happy and joy-filled, guess what?  You are doing something wrong… you are in sin.  This is quite a toxic doctrine for many reasons, especially when directed at children who do not have the reasoning capability to see where this line of argument might be extremely flawed.  My first memories are those offear… that God was punishing me for my “sins”… this was at age 5.  What exactly could a 5 year old do that would incur the wrath of God?  Great fucking question.  Any reasonable person would say nothing.  But when my father died when I was 3 and my mother contracted cancer when I was 6, it played right into the narrative that i had constructed that there was something fundamentally wrong with me and that was why all of these bad things were happening to me.  Of course the outgrowth of all of this was that I eventually discarded the idea of God altogether amid the profound pain of my recurring depression and later addictions but that is a topic for another day.  I am just now – through years of pain, hard work, therapies of all kinds, etc. – beginning to unravel this very deep seated belief that there is something inherently wrong with me and that is the reason I am depressed.  To be sure, it is not just fundamentalist Christianity that propagates these sorts of ideas – even more mainstream religions and even new age doctrine often do the same albeit cloaked in different language.  When you believe that some deity is behind your suffering, this is especially difficult to overcome, but all too often even those who espouse a belief in an “all loving” “Creator” or “Source” subscribe to this very idea.

In addition to religions of all kinds our very society and culture has ingrained in us, especially in the West, and most particularly in America, that if you suffer hardship, whether it be economic, mental, emotional, or otherwise, it is of your own doing and you simply need to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” to get out of it.  It is so fascinating to observe people’s responses when you tell them you are severely depressed… so many times even the best intentioned and truly decent individuals will come back with something like “well what are you doing about it?”  Now I don’t mean to insinuate here that those of us with mental illness don’t have to take action to help ouselves get better… medications alone will not solve all of our problems.  But when people speak like this in the context of mental illness it is often with the subtle (or not sosubtle) implication that if we just tried harder or changed our perspective/thoughts that things would get better.  Again, not to say that those things don’t play a part in wellness, but telling them to severely mentally ill people will only further reinforce the idea that it is totally their fault that they feel that way and that they simply need to make a choice to feel better.  How many times have we heard the phrase “happiness is a choice?”  If it was really that simple how many would choose to feel miserable? Who really wants to be depressed?  Would we treat someone who had cancer this way?  Imagine walking up to someone with cancer and telling them if they could just get out of bed and change their thoughts they would get better.  No one would take that seriously… and yet with mental illness it happens all the time.

So this brings me back to the original question of why I feel so much shame around my mental illness.  For me it is a combination of several factors, but one thing I know to be true especially in the light of my most recent depressive episode is that just because we have made great strides in “de-stigmatizing” mental illness we have a really, really long way to go as a culture and society in understanding and treating those with these afflictions.  We have to let go of the idea that God/spirituality and science are mutually exclusive when it comes to mental well being… and have compassion for those who aresome of the most vulnerable and suffering among us.  It does take positive choices and action to be happy, but there are times when we can get so in the depths of our suffering that we cannot even fathom getting out of bed in the morning.  We have to stop shaming those in these situations and reach out with loving kindness, just like we do for those who suffer from other forms of illness.

I would love to hear others experiences with these issues if they feel comfortable sharing!  It is a topic that does not get discussed enough and this has to change!

2 thoughts on “The Shame of Mental Illness ”

  1. I admire the courage it took to write this post. I appreciate you sharing your struggle — I think society would be in a better place if more people did so.

    I feel like the idea that more prayer or stronger faith will relieve depression — or illness of any kind — is unfair and nearsighted. I have a mild form of generalized anxiety I’ve kept mostly beneath the surface. While I believe in the power of prayer, I believe its purpose is to empower us to see our hardships from a new angle and to provide us with hope, not necessarily clear answers or immediate healing.

    I mourn the fact that your struggles were partially founded in the idea that God was displeased with you. As I’ve grown, I’ve become more convinced that God looks with deep pleasure upon us, his prized creation made in His image, regardless of what we have done. Throughout the Gospels, every time humans place limits on Jesus’ love He makes a point of destroying those false barriers. Today, so many of us still place limits on that love. Doing so only causes guilt and division. I’m so sorry that happened to you.

  2. Thanks, Wes. It is awesome to reconnect and get your feedback as well as hear more about your growth and your story. I really appreciate your opening up.

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